words ​by jh | article

artificial boundaries,
expanding horizons,
possible musics

‘Chez Sphinx’ by Mati Klarwein
Twenty years later…

The earnest and idealistic tone here reminds me of a simpler time before every sound in the world became available as a “sample.” Not to mention the awkward prose and the “hey guys!” style-tweaking to accommodate the mostly-male content of the magazine in which it appeared. Despite a few judgments that cause me to cringe now, most of the basic points touched on here are still worth thinking about. And I feel particularly compelled to put on record my intuitive feel for the consequences of the “scale effect” (see comments on “majority rule” in section called “Break-Up Points”) before Garret Hardin’s brilliant formulation in his 1985 book, Filters Against Folly.

j o n h a s s e l l

FROM AN OCTOBER 29, 1981 New York Times background story on Chad/Sudan/Libya:

“Geneina lies on the indistinct border between the Sudan and Chad. This region is known as Darfur, and area the size of France which was once a proud, independent sultanate run by a dynasty of rulers that lasted 560 years. From Geneina, caravans of pilgrims overland to Mecca make their way east. Men of the Tuareg stock of desert nomads roam the areas, dressed in long white robes and white turbans. With their camels and mules and trappings they recognize no international boundary lines that appear on maps but not on the shifting sands and dry river beds they traverse…”

Life is increasingly filled with abstraction—things you can’t see or touch or taste but to which we collectively give the power to rule our lives. Lines that exist only on paper and in the mind; tick marks on the face of a watch which arbitrarily segment the steady, unbroken flow of time into separate units (who invented the second?); the technology of language, which by the very naming of an experience separates this act from the seamless landscape of inner life (and allows us to use the word “love” a million times without having to experience it once) are all abstractions which rule our lives.

Note this passage from anthropologist Edmund Carpenter’s book Oh, What a Blow That Phantom Gave Me! (the phantom in this case being invisible electronic media which surround and swallow cultures):

“In preliterate societies the separation of spirit from flesh is thought to occur in the surrealist realm of dream, art, ritual, myth. Daily life, in the field or on the hunt, is intensely sensate, with all the senses alert and the spirit imprisoned in the body. We reverse this. Our electronic workaday would divorce images from physical reality. As counterpoint, we turn physical reality into pastimes: the hippie world of sensate experience serves to balance the nonsensory spirit world of electronic media. Like natives, the young enjoy the best of both worlds though it’s hard to know which one of these worlds to call ‘real.'”

A direct result of these workaday, electronic media technologies taking effect at the same time as the population explosion is the creation of a public climate where reputation looms larger than achievement, image is substituted for character, and the cardinal sin is to be unknown.

Carpenter continues: “News is what is reported; what isn’t reported isn’t news. Unreported events don’t cease to exist, of course; they simply fall into an area devoid of social and moral restraint.” In other words, what you don’t know about, you can’t be expected to respond to.

Let’s look at some unreported musical events (cultures) on this planet before they become surrounded and swallowed by contact with the self-conscious-making magic of recording and broadcasting technologies, and allow them to take their rightful place in the evolution of consciousness.

An important lesson to learn when examining the music of many small tribal cultures is their embracing of music as a sacred gift, a “beyond words” way of expression that is reserved for use at the right time, to be perceived by ears and bodies fresh for the experience.

In Western technoculture, the use of totally abstract music à la Muzak as background for human events inevitably results in trivialization and a loss of the sense of specialness and meaning. Brian Eno’s creation of the genre “ambient music” formalizes this affectless situation as it exists. In effect, the concept of ambient music says, “If there’s such constant sound input that you can’t listen to it all, why not say it’s okay not to listen and here’s some music for listening or not.”
new simplicity

The optimistic view might be that we’re going to reach such an overload level of symbol density that we’ll be forced to arrive at a new simplicity—an ability via artificial intelligence to combine many individual symbols operating in complex relationships into “chunks” of information which then can be treated as a single megaword.

The heading “new simplicity” is itself a simple example of chunking or a higher-level description of the detailed information in these paragraphs. Douglas Hofstadter, in his book Gödel, Escher, Bach, refers to this as “pruning the giant tree of possibilities.”
break-up points

Given the number of people expected on the planet by A.D. 2000, this notion of an overloaded symbol bank breaking up into chunks suggests a similar pattern for a high-density future population breaking up into clusters of New Tribal territories (a persistent visual theme of the fantasy illustrators found in this magazine). This doesn’t seem unlikely considering the present situation of tribes among tribes whose boundaries are no longer defined necessarily by geographical proximity or origin but are delineated by life-style and held together by a principally media-imparted sense of national unity.

Perhaps concepts such as “majority rule”, which came out of small-number experiences, also have break-up points in a mega-populated world. For example, if 101 people of a tribe of 200 vote for a particular course of action, this leaves only 99 disgruntled people. But in a mega-tribe of 200 million, this would translate to 99 million who are forced to live under choices they don’t approve of. The equation changes when multiplied by such enormous factors.

This is a difference in scale which those excessively hypnotized by abstract thinking ignore. Instead they prefer to point out that “the percentage is the same.” To them “average” means that a man with one foot in ice and the other in boiling water can be said to be “comfortable.”

Perhaps, in some unforeseen way, the corporate musical imperialism which irons out regionalisms in its drive toward worldwide musical hits in Western pop style (Coca-Cola everywhere!) will also ultimately exceed public tolerance levels. Perhaps the result will be a return to a multiplicity of musics arising from tribes of like-minded people once again living within boundaries formed by hills and river beds (like the Tuareg nomads mentioned in the opening), linked worldwide by satellites.

This new respect for ancient ways facilitated by selective use of advanced technology must surely be one of the key ideas of our time, and will ultimately affect the way we think in the future.
separating the baby and the bathwater

Just as many natural things may be separated by abstract boundaries, so other things may be joined artificially, by either habit or custom.

In Western culture, religion is naturally associated with sobriety and rigidity. Cultures where spirit life is joyful and sexual, or where leaders are expected to communicate the wisdom of grace and strength by dancing, are seldom taken seriously by Eurocentric minds, who, by media attitudes, are taught to observe this from a safe distance as a bizarre kind of Mondo Cane behavior.

In the same way, classical or formal music in the West takes place in an atmosphere of reverence governed by rules of etiquette. In Euroculture, no form in which improvisation is a major element is considered “classical”, while in most other parts of the world the high musical experiences are always those in which some response to the feeling of the moment is included. Furthermore, Western thought habits dictate that anything that is overtly sensuous, with certain rhythmic inflections, is automatically perceived as belonging on a lower rung of the cultural ladder (jazz, rock, pop, and so on). Obviously what we have here is a kind of cultural racism that reduces non-European-derived art to “curio” status and thus neatly dismisses it from serious consideration in the same rank as our Western masters—all of whom, it may be pointed out, are white, born in the last three hundred years, and from cold climates.

The outlawing of certain attitudes in formal, structural music forces a strict dichotomy between what “high culture” salutes and what “high culture” likes to dance to. A sharp separation such as this couldn’t exist in small, integrated cultures where both young and old members of the tribe participate in common ceremonies and celebrations whose function is directly related to the major events of daily life and existence:

“Each member of the community knows perfectly…which variations he can execute. As great as the improvisation may seem, it is thus restricted to within this framework that is simultaneously metric, rhythmic, and melodic. This technique is the fruit of long apprenticeship…Just as every child learns to speak by hearing speech, so does the Pygmy child learn to sing by hearing singing, the boy with his father, the girl with her mother. Thus, the children progressively acquire the repertory of formulas that later, in their turn, they will use and pass on. This is the sole means, purely organic, of learning polyphony.” (Liner notes from Ocora LP 558526 discussing Central African Empire Pygmy music.)
the four “b”s: beethoven, brown, ba-benzélé

This revised list of “B”s illustrates a desirable balance between formality and vitality: faced with a choice of Brown (James) or Beethoven (Ludwig van) as my only records on a desert island, I’d say J.B. wins hands down. But the balance of structure with on-the-spot fun which is transmitted by the polyphonic after-the-hunt music of the Ba-Benzélé pygmies endures beyond both.
the same yardstick

I have this make-believe idea: imagine a record store with bin dividers labeled “Newspapers” (good for a day or two’s listening), “Magazines” (keep it around for a week or a month), “Novels” (finds a semi-permanent place on your bookshelf), and “Reference” (source works to be consulted for a lifetime)—along with appropriate pricing related to disposability. Perhaps this method of classification would cause music writers and readers alike to think twice before devoting a lot of time to preparing or digesting lots of words about Newspaper-quality music written in serious art-criticism style, as if Elvis and Jackson Pollock were cultural equals.

Given the limited choice in Western music between energetic, trendy ephemera and dead high-culture masterworks, perhaps it’s not so strange that I notice a great many artists (or people in other disciplines) who in their own fields are quick to discern Newspaper-quality (derivative, one-trick) from Novel-quality (original, multi-leveled), yet remain remarkably fixed on the “Newspapers” and “Magazines” of music.

Perhaps this is the inevitable fallout of the Pop movement as summed up by the elevation of the Campbell’s soup can to iconic (worthy-of-serious-consideration) level—an individual’s okay art statement in its time, but hardly the stuff to build a culture on.

“A genuine culture,” wrote anthropologist Edward Sapir, “is the expression of a consistent attitude toward life, an attitude which sees the significance of any one element of civilization in its relation to all others. It is, ideally speaking, a culture in which nothing is spiritually meaningless.”
beyond conditioning

To anyone who takes this seriously, it’s obvious that one must attempt to transcend the fixed game of technoculture, beyond passive consumption of media-ordained “right stuff,” just as one’s emotional growth can build on, or proceed from, the childhood “givens” via a wider knowledge of possible responses.

It’s a matter of degree: too much attention is paid by too many to too narrow an idea of what possible musics (or possible futures) there could be. And that’s because few people really have a comprehensive knowledge of what’s been happening on a global level all these years.

Virtually all the pop music in the West (excepting jazz, the first modern collision of tribal music with Euromusic) fits into the song-with-accompaniment form (chords and melody). When kid-with-guitar says, “I’m a musician now,” or a pop star is called a “composer,” some rudimentary ability in this simplest of forms is all that’s being talked about.

This is somewhat the same situation as having nearly all attention in visual art focused on the collage form, or the Polaroid, and reportage of work in other forms—sculpture, painting, and so on—relegated to the esoteric “specialist” magazines.

Brian Eno deserves the Trojan Horse Award for being the first to slip music of more unusual form (Discreet Music, Music for Airports) in front of a pop audience whose attention his song-with-accompaniment efforts had previously captured.
what’s wrong with this picture?

One has the tendency to imagine both the past and the future in terms of the present.

Just as a vision of the past should not be conjured up as if all events had taken place in the glow of the electric light bulb, a vision of the future, with people zipping around in antigravity devices listening to some hyper-song with hyper-guitar accompaniment is equally unimaginative. Are there going to be Republicans and Democrats forever?
overvaluation of cold-climate thinking

Buckminster Fuller says that evolution is basically a matter of synthesis.

Although it may, at first, seem an oversimplification, try squinting your eyes to see the big picture without the confusion of detail: what’s happened is that cold-climate tribes had to develop technology in order to control a hostile environment, and now that very technology has developed in ways that enable them to impose their attitudes on warm-climate tribes (who have, quite naturally, evolved in other important but undervalued ways).

Now is the time for the technoworld to use its knowledge to go beyond this pattern—to begin to see the unforeseen ways in which the best of their attitudes will become ours, and ours become theirs, resulting in modalities which I refer to as Fourth World—a returning to, and a stepping forward at the same time.

It seems natural to me that a step into the future, will have some relationship to a deeper comprehension of the rich multiplicity of the earth’s tribal musics. like a scientist who must isolate a single element from a compound in order to understand its nature and how it acts within a complex structure, we should make an effort to preserve the remaining “pure” traditions with the same concern shown toward the works of (e.g.) Michelangelo—with an ear towards understanding how these sounds make the day brighter and give courage before the hunt; to understand which music made sorrows bearable and expressed the mystery of creation before the entry date of the first transistor radio into the village. •

This feature first appeared in Heavy Metal

March, 1982 | Mati Klarwein’s ‘Chez Sphinx’ (1973)

appeared as the accompanying illustration.

Also on this page is Mati Klarwein’s ‘Outline’ (1985)



The following is the full of text of a note, directed at the Penn (U. of Pennsylvania) community, that was enclosed in one of the packages of materials that Kathy Change distributed the morning of October 22nd 1996, the day she set fire to herself.

(Note that this was written in the atmosphere surrounding the first Gulf War. -jh)

All that you have and cling to in fear

Is as worthwhile as a poisoned pie.

A universe full of love and wonderful possibilities

Would be yours if only you would reach for it.

You are sitting in timid conformity

On a hayride to hell.

You’re just about there.

Get off that truck now.

Break out of the ranks of evil

Do a dance for freedom.

I am angry, impatient, full of anxiety

And full of hope and love

But after 18 years of trying and being rejected

And being a pariah and a fool

I have finally concluded that my charism

And social magnetism register high on the negative scale.

Now that I’ve put in the first word,

This movement that I’ve tried to start,

Would probably do better without me,

So I will try to make a dramatic exit.

I’ve tried to do this several times before,

And failed.

If this is the right thing to do,

Heaven will help me.

If not,


Nevermind. I’ll be seeing you around.

I look at you and you are so beautiful

It makes me shy.

Your sympathy makes me want to hide

Because I feel unworthy.

For the cause I want to grab you

Drag you to meetings and demonstrations

But I’m afraid of putting you on the spot

Making you uncomfortable, scaring you away

So I am frozen in wanting

to merge my mind and heart with yours

Imprisoned by the invisible barriers

That I know must be broken through

I scream shrilly

I am an ungainly presence

Trying to break through the complacency

with my wild rage.

I have crashed this party

I do not belong here.

But you do. You are the children of the host.

You can talk to each other as peers

And take your rightful places

At academia’s table

with calm and gracious poise.

As crazy as I have been,

You can be cool.

Have confidence in your beliefs

You are a step ahead of everybody else.

Underneath their herd stupidity

Even the demo emulating morons and their sold out mentors

Who appear to be the majority in your milieu,

Are human beings

Who long for the world to be freed and set right

Even though they don’t know it.

Do them the great kindness of forgiving their stupidity

And put them in touch with the real heart

Of humanity.

To reach through the mask

Is your task.

There is so much at stake;

The country, the world, the future.

Don’t be put off by trivialities.

With you as its champion

Good will surely triumph.

How great will be your glory

How multitudinous will be your blessings

The highest happiness will be yours.

For many years I have though that Penn

Would be a good place to start the Transformation.

If this action I am taking succeeds

I hoped it might spark some interest

In what I was trying to say.

I hoped my writings would be printed and made available.

Maybe Transformation Parties could be held.

I am taking this action out of hope

Not despair.

By destroying my material corpus

I want to free my spirit

So that it can jump inside of you

I think that you would enjoy being filled

with conviction and can-do optimism

I think you would feel good

to be cleansed of the blase brain rot that clogs your mind

Yes there is such a thing as true morality, a real

distinction between good and evil, right and wrong.

Decisive moves must be made on behalf of good.

These are the addresses of some Penn people to whom

I have sent my packages.

Maybe you would like to meet and talk.

I have also sent packages to WXPN

and the Daily Pennsylvanian.

October 7, 1996

The multitudinous war crimes and crimes against humanity of the U.S. government have been documented and detailed, and every American is more or less aware of the criminality of his government, and yet we continue to respect its power and authority. We continue trying to work through the electoral process. We plead with our congress people to work for the well being of all the people and the planet instead of catering to the special interests of big money and organized crime. It is as though Gary Heidnik, the man who imprisoned, tortured and murder women in his basement, was the headmaster of a girls’ prep school; and upon discovery of his crimes,he was duly criticized, but allowed to remain in his position of power and responsibilty, presumably to continue his atrocities. The U.S. government is a much bigger and far worse criminal than Gary Heidnik, and it must be relieved of its duties immediately without further bureacratic hemming and hawing. The crimes of this present system are so enormous, an the dangers to which it is exposing us are so deadly and world threatening, that a sincere and forthright call to the American people to depose this evil system and come together now to peacefully replace it with true democracy, would be received with an overwhelmingly positive response from the people. Media workers are in a position to make this call and it is their responsibility to do so.

It is a waste of energy to get angry and gripe at the government. The government must be replaced by a truly democratic selfgovernment of, for and by the people. Those people working in industries essential to maintaining life should democratically take over their work places and organize an emergency economy to supply the needs of the people. The rest of the people should meet in their communities to organize a new directly democratic community based selfgovernment. This should be done immediately, because every day that we continue with business as usual, the problems just get worse. I want to protest the present government and economic system and the cynicism and passivity of the people in general.

I want to protest this entirely shameful state of affairs as emphatically as I can. But primarily, I want to get publicity in order to draw attention to my proposal for immediate social transformation. To do this I plan to end my own life. The attention of the media is only caught by acts of violence. My moral principles prevent me from doing harm to anyone else or their property, so I must perform this act of violence against myself. Around twelve years ago, I don’t remember the exact year, a woman from Boston set herself on fire in Independence Square. For the next five days the Philadelphia Inquirer was filled with reports of investigations into who this woman was and speculation as to why she did this act. Since I have been in Philadelphia for fiften years, all the while making myself very visible demostrating my position opinions, dancing and waving my flags on the streets of this city, I believe I should create at least as much as a sensation in the press. If the news media buries this story it will be proof of the extreme prejudice of the media. I want this statement and my other writings to be printed in the newspapers of this city. I want the people of this city who have been seeing me around for so long to finally hear what I’ve been saying. I want my ideas to be publically discussed. If people talked about my ideas, they would realize that transformation of our society is possible, and they would feel better.

I first planned to take this action a year ago. I wrote up final statements, xeroxed them, and then I backed down. A year ago, economic collapse seemed to be the most imminent danger threatening us. Today the likelihood of the impending war with Iraq rapidly escalating into a nuclear holocaust eclipses the likelihood of economic collapse as being by far the more serious and scary crisis. I am propmted to take this action by the dire urgency of the world’s environmental crisis, and the enormous unnecessary suffering and repression being endured by all the world’s people because of the oppressive geopolitical system. Of all the world’s people, only the American people have the power to change this global system of abuse, and therefore, it is their responsibility to do so. I hope my action will not be viewed as tragic, but rather, in the light in which it is intended. I am performing this ritual sacrifice in hopes that it will increase the efficacy of my prayers to all the people to have faith in the ideals, choose the path of peace and transform this nation and world.

I also want to make a statement about life and death. Death is natural and inevitable. Death is good, because it allows life to make a fresh start. The spirit is everlasting and always returns to life through rebirth. I am not certain exactly how this happens, but I believe that the spirit recycles itself somehow. It’s true that we are each special individuals whose lives are precious, but we are also part of a great spirit body, the universal collective spirit. By dying, we dissolve our individual ego personality and rejoin the spiritual totality, before returning to alife in a new body. It’s a completely wonderful process, and not sad at all, except perhaps for the people we leave behind, who may miss us. But there are so many beautiful people in the world, that they should not miss the departed for too long. There are always plenty of people around to love.

This society places too much emphasis on the unconditional sacredness of life. Anti-abortionists believe that it is more important to save life than to guarantee the quality of the life they save. This belief in survival as the highest priority contributes to the deterioration of the quality of life for everybody. When people do not practice birth control and all the babies are saved, then we overpopulate. We kill wild animal species, strip the earth of its forests and wilderness, and the planet becomes ecologically imbalanced and punishes us with environmental disasters. When there are more people than we can care for, the quality of life diminishes for everyone. A life is worth saving only if it is worth living. It could be argued that to live with physical handicaps and adversity may be good for spiritual growth. But to live in moral degradation is not good in any way. Because our society is so corrupt, unfair, environmentally destructive, and in a state of deterioration, rather than improvement, we are all living in a state of moral degradation. Our society is like a cancer on the planet. The goal is for everybody to improve, not to commit mass suicide.

For eighteen years I have been trying to urge people to throw off the corruption and go for the good, but I don’t see my efforts as being successful in any way, except that it’s given me something to do. I do not want to live off of this evil society any longer. My life is dependent on this society, and so I want to end my life. I demand that life must meet a standard of true morality or else it is not worth living. In Orwellian fashion, this society equates repression with morality. But in truth, repression of people who are only trying to enjoy themselves and not hurting others is utterly immoral. The real struggle is not between races, or classes. It is not people versus the elite.

The real struggle is between good and evil; between intelligent behavior and blind obedient conformity. Good is what promotes health and happiness. Evil is what causes deterioration and disease. If we choose good, it will be a triumph for everybody. Every person from the poorest to the richest, from the humblest to the most powerful, will gain. Everybody will discover real joy and peace of mind. The benefits will be so absolute that I cannot imagine any other outcome.

We are entering an age that will be as different from what came before as day is to night, or as summer is to winter. Throughout this passing age, humanity has had to work very hard at being constantly on the defensive, and prepared for war. Now as we dissolve the enmity, we can all relax and enjoy life.

As a plan my action, I think of all the things that might hinder it. What if the post office fails to deliver my press statements? What if someone stops me from carrying out my intentions? I don’t know if I will succeed, but I will drop this statement in the mail and proceed, trusting in fate to bring about whatever is meant to happen.

Call me a flaming radical burning for attention, but my real intention is to spark a discussion of how we can peacefully transform our world. America, I offer myself to you as an alarm against Armageddon and a torch for liberty.