A L G R O M E R K H A N
performing artist on sitar & surbahar
composer - author - visual artist
WEBSITE under CONSTRUCTION
REVIEW 'AMBIENT RELIGION' by John Shanahan, Hypnagogue Podcast
"I've long enjoyed Al Gromer Khan's signature sound – sensuous sitar lines that curl in the air like snakes of delicate smoke mixed with a blues-tinged, slow-handed rhythmic sense and quietly breathing synth pads. It's all at play in his latest outing,“Ambient Religion,” giving its listener a solid hour to do nothing but chill. From the easy grooves of “Avec Bilaka” to the almost static, carefully controlled structures of “Console” and “A Room for H.G.,” Khan delivers his usual deeply contemplative ride. Deep breath first, then off you go..." -- John Shanahan, Hypnagogue Podcast
Labelcode: LC18871 - Catalogue no.: 844630
All tracks total time: 57:27
1 06:21 Titel: Esprit d’escalier
2 05:20 Titel: Lichtblau
3 05:04 Titel: Avec Bilaka
4 07:31 Titel: Console
5 03:63 Titel: Morgenstern
6 03:42 Titel: Carl-Zeiss-Jena
7 11:13 Titel: Novene
8 05:31 Titel: A Room for H.G.
9 08:31 Titel: Station Break
by Al Gromer Khan
It is true that the term ´Ambient Music´ was coined by Brian Eno. It is also true that Eno is often not all that original. The idea of music representing an interior, for instance, goes back to the French composer Eric Satie. And John Cage – a strong influence on Eno´s work, and one who is often quoted by him – frequently worked with ideas concerning the environment as ´music´. However, Eno did more or less represent the Ambient-Underground in the mid-nineteen seventies. His purpose-designed record label Ambient-Records and the classic releases Music For Airports, On Land, Plateau Of Mirrors, etc. stem from the social core of painters, authors and musicians that surrounded him at that time. Home-made music cassettes with self-created sonic spaces were sent out to friends and colleagues, everyone trying to outdo one another in terms of eccentricity. And when Eno released his first Ambient album in 1978, the English music press were having a field day in ridiculing him: ´impressionist´ and ´bore´ were the more generous terms used here. On the other hand no one could deny Eno´s capability of creating sounds that had never been heard before – his ´musical instrument´ being the recording studio - his brain? The fact that his compositions corresponded with highly specific archetypal human states of mind was never mentioned by him. Either he did not look at it that way at all, or the discretion of the English gentleman and his good taste forbade using religious vocabulary. On this we can only guess. At the same time there is a religious feeling, a contemplative and sublime mood in many of his works. This new type of contemplation stands in contrast to conventional methods of worshipping a ´personal God´, and to a large degree appears to unmask the hypocrisy of the institutions. Could it be that modern art is about to replace religion in this new age we are, apparently, about to enter? In that case, a high standard of thinking and responsibility would need to be required from its participants.
I understand an ambience to be a defined space containing a specific atmosphere. In which kind of ambiences was I happiest? What were the important components? Perhaps when the apartment lingered in an improvised, unfinished state, with a feeling of nonchalance about it? Let us include one or two beautiful objects, antique perhaps, and patinated. An old chair, a drinking glass for less than a dollar from the flea-market or a piece of Ming porcelain – no matter. They want space to breathe. And despite its hermetic condition, a high ambience also needs a view, even if it´s only a tree and a bit of open sky.
My work has always been about an interior. And I have arrived at the concept independently from Eno. Whatever places I have inhabited, even short term or in hotels, I would immediately re-arrange things intuitively for the soul to be able to breathe. Silence was a factor, a precious one. Here I differ from Eno, my work, at the cutting edge of song and mere sound, should be more than just sonic tapestry.
There are traps lurking in Ambient Music. One observes with bemusement musicians falling victim to them, while busy making commercial use of the genre, content with merely using the outer form. A disco style named ´Ambient´ came and went in the 1990s. The industry enthusiastically supplied the hardware and software. Obvious criteria of judgment are not available. Joseph Beuys and Andy Warhol and their idea that in this new age we should all be artists, and everyone can be famous for fifteen minutes, come to mind. Like I said: this is at first sight. Upon careful examination we find that Ambient contains hard to define elements of feng shui, of ´creating space´ – a gift not everyone has. Even though ´spiritual´ terms are pretty much tabooed in Ambient, it is a spiritual effect that is sought, one that is not very different from the old-fashioned silent prayer. This gift, wonderfully present in most of Eno´s work, can neither be obtained nor copied – it has to be inherent in the artist from birth. It is at the artist´s discretion whether he/she can raise not only interest in the listener, but also gratitude.
How do you create this magnetic pull with minimalist means? What is the secret involved? Could it be the balance between female and male components, as in electricity? In terms of attitude it seems important that a conscious choice is made about what kind of sonic environment one surrounds oneself with, and that it makes a lot of difference in one´s wellbeing. While this may be said about any type of music, I would point out that Ambient is a lot more subtle and like homeopathy for instance, its influence is more far-reaching.
Ambient´s other distinction is on the structural level. Where ´classical music´, pop, jazz, folk etc. seek entertainment, more and obvious harmonic changes, drama and wit, Ambient uses minimalist continuity with few ambiguous and subtle highlights in order to avoid the former. This continuity, ideally, should not, in the course of repetition, wear off, but rather gain an energetic charge. How this is achieved is up to the artist´s discretion, and his intuition. And I would like to take the opportunity to point out that 95 per cent of our brain are of the intuitive kind. Ambient looks for sublime and abstract forms. For me this point of evolution in art corresponds with the painter Wassily Kandinsky´s step into abstract painting around 1910.
Since Ambient is about interiors one should appreciate the feeling of relief at the removal of cluttering from rooms. Accordingly you don´t make Ambient-music, you merely remove the uncongenial components while organizing the rest in an inspiring way. A person enters a room and feels comfort in terms of feng shui, in terms of less is more - the Bauhaus principle. Virtues of neglect come to bear. The brain finds pleasure in completing intimations and fragments, small musical quotations open up rooms for the soul to dwell in. What is there is not blanketed but made conscious: the wind in the trees, the cooing of the pigeons under the roof, the big city hum in the distance. Where other types of music try to please, Ambient doesn´t, it simply is what it is – settled within itself, concerned only with making the small amount of its melodic components enjoyable in a specific environment.
A further distinction in Ambient is made in its relationship with New Age and Wellness Music. Why? Mc Donalds Muzak etc. often comes seductively close to Ambient, albeit only at the outside and in terms of category. Aspiration and emotional content in Ambient are diametrically opposed to Muzak which tries to manipulate the listener with a sentimental postcard. Ambient is something in itself, however primitive or humble a composition may present itself. Purpose-bound types of music work with simple projections, produced for commercial goals by people who could as well be selling margarine. The customer usually accepts the described purpose – after all, it seems to be produced by an expert – and remains on an artificial level of feeling, a simple projection. No harm done, you may say. But I would come back with: without fasting no true pleasure - and above all no healing. There is no sentimental expectation in Ambient – it is a simple and simply a soundtrack for your life, a painting by Rothko, rather than Renoir. Eno´s apparent purpose-bound title Music For Airports is an artistic ambiguity rather than an actual purpose.
Then why listen to music at all, in this noise-weary time? Wouldn´t the enjoyment of silence be the adequate answer? Ambient-music does offer the possibility of addressing and activating certain emotional frequencies - some of exquisite charm – just slightly off your normal everyday ones, while creating a continuing, distant, futuristic, a ´cool´ atmosphere. Without Ambient-music such emotional frequencies, while being available in most people – might be easily undervalued or even outright overlooked.
In my own work there is often a sitar phrase that serves as a bait in order for the subconscious to open up and become active. Feelings are focused and subsequently lead into a neutral field. Usually I work with a structural fragment that lends itself to an ostinato or a cyclic movement. Very often this work process starts long before a new piece of music actually comes into existence; I observe the seed to find out whether or not something will sprout from it or not. In this phase I merely observe while at the same time it needs my exclusive attention. As I regularly and keenly observe – even worship – nature, my work probably contains more feminine than masculine components. But this could also be a kind of protest against the overwhelming masculinity in most aspects of society in this day and age.
During the work process I am on a constant lookout for the miraculous, and that this new piece may want something from me, something new, something unusual. In that case I follow the inspiration and discard the previously anticipated route. I then observe with interest what happens to me and the music. As Vilayat Khan says: after a little time of playing I myself become the listener. In a kind of music that makes sense while watching clouds, birds, trees in the wind. Sensible tasks for human beings.
Al Gromer Khan © 2014
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I am the silence that is incomprehensible and the idea whose remembrance is frequent.
I am the voice whose sound is manifold
and the word whose appearance is multiple.
I am the utterance of my name.
(from an ancient script, 2nd century AD)
by Al Gromer Khan ©
When I first became aware of the happiness that occurs when listening to music, my search started. Blindly at first, consciously and more systematically later, yet always looking for the trance-state. It has taken me thirty or more years to get behind it, this hermetic trance music. Through this process I found what was known in India for many thousand years: the Bhava state – and that God is a woman. And that She has been around since time immemorial, and that signifiers of Her magnificence can be found in music.
The Paisley figure is shaped like a womb, and like a tear. Vilayat Khan showed me the power of the feminine aspect in music, and how it can take you inward, to secret places. His melodic and refined sitar alaapas were shaped like a tear. And how could it be otherwise: after a few minutes of him having started his music, tears would to come to my eyes. The pattern is a textile design that originates in Kashmir, India. Well, it didn´t really originate there – actually it´s from Persia and was called Boteh, for the Mughals were ardent worshippers of Persian culture. It was them that brought it to India.
Even though I have practiced Indian music for decades now, my interest in Indian culture is not of the general type. There are many aspects of Indian culture that are irrelevant to me. Like I said, it was Vilayat Khan who touched the nerve – an acupuncture spot as it were, when I was twenty. He reared within me the idea that one should create something of beauty in whatever situation one finds oneself in. I found this to be of significance. Whichever situation Vilayat found himself in during his improvisations, he would find an aspect of heart-aching beauty there – The Venus Principle.
Why is Paisley Music ambient music, a hermetic trance music? As teenagers we wanted to save the world. We wore Paisley shirts and scarves. And we soon found that for changing the world you´ve got to start at home. Design your astrological Fourth House, your habitat congenial to your ideals; society may follow. (You can change circumstances if you want to, start a revolution if you´re so inclined – and if you don´t mind if things turn into their opposites, or that they are ten times worse afterwards.) And even though Ute and myself consider ourselves to be of a future tribe, we connect with hippie period and certain other Paisley periods of the past – a specific type of nostalgia. For instance, when bankers and lawyers still wore silk Paisley bow ties and still did their job well, provided a service and got paid for it.
In fashion, Paisley kept coming and going since the 19th century when Queen Victoria, a fairly simple woman, thought how brilliant it would be to call herself Empress of India. A sense of nostalgia is there in Paisley music; it recalls times when things were slow and refinement and complexity made themselves apparent if you´d contemplated it for a time. For example, it has taken more than forty years to get my sitar to actually talking to me – and now She is talking, in a clear but subtle voice. And the voice is that of a woman or a young girl. It kind of changes, but it is always female.
At this time of change, of transition, from the age of devotion to that of emancipation and rebellion, and systems instead of belief systems, most phenomena in society and art have become male dominated, with all types of competitive self-assertion in the outer world. Go and get it! You can do it! Realize your goals! Coaching, marketing. This is when religion, yet again, has turned into its opposite. Today´s masculine manifestations correspond with the Age of Aquarius: male or/and androgynous and rebellious, in contrast to the Age of Pisces, the one we have left behind. The basic motivation of the latter was devotion: a filigree postcard, a sentimental projection of The Divine. And that, too, is Her will. (By the way, and let it be known, that I am a passionate advocate for equal pay and opportunity for women.) But emancipation too, can quickly turn bad if taken too far.
Even yoga and Buddhism, originally disciplines of keeping still and shutting up, have now become means of self-assertion and jumping about: We got to go forward! (No you don´t). Yes we can! (No you can´t). Even “feminism” has turned out to be a masculine and over-achieving extroverted pursuit, albeit with a female mask. Women aspired freedom, fought and bashed men for that freedom … and became masculine. And those who want to see society divided for their own purposes, looked on in secret satisfaction when families were destroyed. Now men AND women are now paying taxes, instead of only the men.
Her supreme illusion – from Lalita to Nabokov´s Lolita, on to the ancient wise witch with her toothless laugher. Consider this: you can achieve only that which you can imagine, and that which you can imagine will most certainly be Her Divine Will … and Her Divine Illusion. So much for freedom and free will.
In my work I succumb to the Feminine Principle almost completely by letting Her make all decisions. That means a minimum of structure, as not to hinder Her influence. An emotive approach instead of a rational plan. Technically speaking I follow the overtones from layers of sound, and let them – plus certain Deja-vus and subtle reminiscences from bygone lifetimes – decide upon all the rest, such as structure and harmony. And by tracing these overtones, certain things become manifest. Things I could never have thought of, or achieved, by willpower. No way. She puts an extra beat in, or an extra note, one that disturbs the pre-conceived idea of structured harmonic development, rhythm or rhyme, even a mistake may add to the magic; so I keep it, and often enough it turns out to be exactly the spice that was needed in the dish. After all, this is art, and perfection is Her monopoly.
She loves rhythms based on three or six beat cycles, but She is only truly happy when She is united with Her lover who loves rhythms of four and eight beats. The Two become One, four beats get layered with three and the dance becomes blissful and African. And have you noticed how most African music subtly intertwines three and four beats? It makes the rhythm hover and float, charging itself energetically, instead of wearing one down.
Anyone who ventures out, going after a set goal, it is Her who decides the outcome. And only those can worship Her whom She allows to worship Her. And there is only one sin that She doesn´t forgive: trying to rival with Her. And there is nothing worse than Her wrath, once unleashed.
Sometimes I return to melodic places from the past, places where the heart once opened, and then new yogurt is made from leftovers. No matter, I never wanted – or could – control the muse, never actually “made” music, I always found music, never wanted to “study” music at university. It seemed sinful to raise Her veil.
Certain tape worm compositions like “After The Crash”, “The Paisley Handicap”, or “The Ahir Ornaments” came to me about a quarter century ago. I still haven´t the faintest where they came from. I simply took what She had kept available for me. This always turned out better than anything I could dream up or construct. Thus you simply set the stage, you merely try to empty the room, polish the floor, create a minimum of interior design, for Her to find accommodation, bowing to Her wishes, singing paeans to Her praise, one could make manifest Her deceptively and iridescently changing ways.
And now the darkness makes light precious – and often enough down rather than up can be most fulfilling! And keeping a secret. Worshipping the void, not that which surrounds it. From “Cunt” all life comes, and all life returns to it. It stems from Kunda – Kundalini –
the Serpent Power. Cunti, the Oriental Great Goddess. She suggests. She hides and seduces. She hints. But She remains forever behind the veil. Ah, but Mr Testosterone will always end up trying to dominate, worship the flesh, that which surrounds it, instead of The Hole, that is his folly. Her Homeric and toothless laughter resounds in churches and mosques.
The Great Principle means that Her Emptiness is held high esteem. Her Silence. And today I am writing about void, not the flesh! This is about the tea, not the cup. And even though the cup and the tea cohabit the closest proximity, the cup cannot know the tea. Haven´t we seen enough flesh, enough beautiful cups? Unless these hold the life-giving content, how can the soul survive? Haven´t we seen enough perfection and virtuosity, enough artists crafting ornaments, enough technocrats attempting to challenge Her? Ah, but once they stop serving a higher purpose, all is lost.
With the emphasis on melody, and trying to bring refinement to that melody – as Vilayat Khan did – I purposely operate at the cutting edge of ambient and song. Melodic fragments are meant to raise a certain amount of youthful excitement. But my work is about an ambience, a resting space, before and after melody. It is a good thing that by the means of electronic devices one can now mould and shape “dirty” sound samples in order to create a specific set of overtones into which to set Paisley-shaped sitar phrases.
Even though I have studied and practiced Indian classical music for five decades now, given concerts of classical music, deep down it was always aimed at a way out of the hermetic universe of Indian classical music. How to lead Indian classical music into an abstraction, into a universal field? I always wanted a subtle contemporary style, away from the “tour de force” display (as Stephen Hill once called it) of the Indian circus act of virtuosity that much sitar music has become today. (“He is the best sitar player now; he can play this Jhalla three times faster and most perfect!”)
I always wanted to tell a story on that instrument, wanted to tell *my* story, not that of an Indian master musician from the 19th century. Mine was a story of church bells in the distance, about honest upright folk tunes that contain the secret formula, the subtle refinement. I wanted to tell about telegraph wires singing in deep winter. In this respect Paisley music became a type of distilled world music, one where tonal spectral colours linger in corners of rooms. But let there be no mistake: this is contemplative music, music for going in, and not outward entertainment. Entertainment is for the young, sound is for the mature soul.
As for “Music for Meditation”, I never meant that listeners should meditate while listening. Meditation is exercise, practice, work, not leisure. And Yoga is yoke, and until you bear the yoke for a time, only then you may, perhaps, enjoy the union. And music is music is music, and music with a feminine motivation at the core seduces and lures one in to a place of euphoria. If it doesn´t, well, then you´ll just have to come back another time, or perhaps it may not be for you. The Soul isn´t dead, it just ran and hid from the noise, the cold and technical world – imagined and ruled by all the eight to twelve-year old boys that are now closing in on us.
The task was to preserve remnants from the age of devotion. No, not to keep them in a museum, but to make them available for those who are born with a notch up in terms of sensitivity, to provide solace for them. I always wanted to design rooms, the inside, not grand buildings. Spaces you could enter, to feel calm and reflect in – and from there go inward.