It all began with Noise New York, a little studio a few floors above La Polpetta (“The Meatball”), a restaurant on West 34th street best known for its beer. You could have a Bud and be at Penn Station in three minutes, less if you were ambulatory.
Noise was started in late 1979 by Frank Eaton, a musician and recording engineer who gathered a tribe of utopian musicians around his studio, making it a sort of laboratory of the possible, the unlikely and the improbable.
Accordionist & future film composer Mader; the charming Arthur Russell; Peter Gordon and his Love of Life Orchestra; musician-philosopher Christian Marclay; members of Konk, Liquid Liquid and The Butthole Surfers; rhythmic magician David Van Tieghem; drummer-raconteur Dougie Bowne; irrepressible guitarist Naux; ever-present bass player Kevin Fullen: they were all regulars at Noise. And it wasn’t unusual to walk in and find Lou Reed/Voidoid guitarist Robert Quine lying on his back in the darkened studio like a distressed turtle, sunglasses on, raincoat still on, throttling his guitar until it screamed, or see Ned Sublette in his cowboy hat walking the room, looking for the right echo.
“If you want music,” he advised me, “get musicians!”
Most of us were in love with the promise of the airwaves. We wanted to live on the radio, and we wanted it to be big enough for us to move in alongside Prince and Madonna and The Cars. We didn’t want to change, we just wanted the radio to let us in.
We’d all been unsettled and shaken by Ornette Coleman’s question, the one he asked both with words and with music: “WHAT IS THE SOUND OF SOUND?” So while we were sometimes still recording pop songs and trying to get our collective baby back, we would also sit up all night in the control room trying to figure out …. if we found the lost chord, what the hell would we do with it? If certain sounds get put together, when do they become music? Does music have a gender? And do genders have their own music? What’s on the other side of silence?
That’s the scene that Sussan Deyhim and Richard Horowitz wandered into sometime in 1981. Sussan first, brought there by Jenifer Smith to add vocals to a song I was recording. Jenifer I already knew, and I knew that her voice could fit between the instruments, sometimes as breath, sometimes as a lovely and harmonic wind through the trees, especially if the songs were on the edge of a forest.
But Sussan was something else entirely.
She was newly in New York from Tehran by way of a stint in Belgium studying with Maurice Bejart’s ballet, and you could tell when she entered the studio that she was studying the space; she would move a chair just a bit to the left or to the right before sitting down, trying to make sense of the physical and sonic architecture of a room before committing to be a part of it.
No. Maybe there.
And then when she’d start to sing, the architecture changed, the lights went on and flickered off and the room became electric. Her voice was a solid, mineral fact, it was the answer to a question no one had thought to ask, and its power and ferocity had nothing to do with volume. It was a shudder and a sigh, and it always contained an element of surprise, as if the night had just seen its shadow.
Richard Horowitz showed up a few minutes or a few days later. He was carrying a beautiful hand-carved ney, a ney being a small wooden flute, popular throughout the Middle East, and played by blowing straight into the end of it while walking into traffic.
The ney has a yearning, aching sound, like a bird caught in someone’s dream, and it’s the sound of breath and the sound of space and …. well, maybe not time, but the absence of time.
Richard had learned to play while living with Berber tribesmen in the Saharan desert, and I had just returned from Morocco, spending time with Paul Bowles in Tangier, so we had those points in common, though that was just a beginning. Our connections went deeper than names and places.
Bowles had given me a cassette of music he’d recorded by holding a small recorder just outside his window on the street near the American Embassy. Two brass bands were marching toward each other at sunset down the very same street, each seemingly oblivious to the other at first, until the sounds collided in a squall of brass and percussion worthy of Edgar Varese at his most cacophonous. The sounds sprawled together into a beautiful mess, and then the bands continued on their way, shaking off the dust of collaboration and chaos and acting as if nothing had happened. But something had happened, and music that was cheerfully predictable and static had been shaken alive by chance and happenstance, something wild and unexpected had been born, a language of uh-oh and whoops-a-daisy had come out of nowhere and literally stopped traffic : you could hear car horns bleating and tires maybe not squealing but grumbling to a halt as the parades converged.
Sussan and Richard and I sat at the console at Noise for hours listening to that tape, finding the moment that the sounds turned into music, that the music devolved into chaos and then back again, and that moment became our North Star, our fixed point, our destination. Maybe we could live there, inside that moment. And maybe if we couldn’t live there, maybe it could live inside us.
Richard had grown up in upstate New York, traveled to Paris early on and glided between classical piano, Eastern philosophy and the experimental jazz of Steve Lacy, Anthony Braxton and Alan Silva, all of whom he performed with. But early on, Richard realized that you couldn’t ask Toscanini “what’s the sound of sound?” and he began imagining a music that was open ended, all encompassing, round as a circle and slow as the moon, thoroughly Western, thoroughly Eastern and thoroughly non-linear, that waved goodbye as it was saying hello.
“I didn’t come here, and I’m not leaving.”
The sound of that.
He and Sussan were imagining a music that had the energy of pop songs, the heartbreak of half heard melodies from far off in the night, and the rigor of a mathematical equation, but based on the sort of math a gifted child might invent : how many monkeys would it take to get from here to the end of the song if it’s not a very long song and if they’re very short monkeys?
This is the music that blossomed and came into flower on DESERT EQUATIONS/AZAX ATRA.
Listening to it now, thirty five years on, it still feels outside of time, like it forgot to show up with its original graduating class and is still wandering off somewhere between a dream of a distant past and a possible future. It’s a future in which Jon Hassell and Laurie Anderson and Lou Harrison are popular music and the radio is as large and as welcoming as the night.
These are twilight and half light recordings; the moon is just about to rise, but not quite yet; someone is about to knock on the door, but not yet, and not quite who you expect. It’s a music of possibility, of chances taken, of strange melodies wafting in through the window but never quite being resolved.
The melodies contain the hints of other songs, songs that are almost heard, but that slip away just as you’re leaning into them, like voices in a playground of children who are no longer there. There is a beauty that is undeniable but just out of reach.
Just out of reach….that’s a recurring motif. The music has one foot in the analog world, one foot in digital, but both feet are caught in a dance of sounds that you can feel but can’t quite hear. It’s a music that lives in an ongoing and continuing present, where time doubles back on itself and the past is still in progress.
Listen to the quiet yearning and indecision of “Desert Equations (for Brian Gysin),” a piece whose power lies in no small part in it always being at a remove from itself, one step ahead of you, one step behind, a long ago promise you forgot to keep, a letter you wrote but put aside for later. The ink has faded, but the postage is still valid. If only you could read the address.
And the music continues to play whether you’re listening or not.
“Follow me,” it says.
“Not now,” it whispers.
“Look,” it tells you. “Over there!”
“Too late,” it sighs.
“Too late, but….maybe soon. Or maybe not.”
And so you look.
And you listen.
And the landscape changes.
Sussan Deyhim & Richard Horowitz : Desert Equations
Sussan Deyhim & Richard Horowitz ::: Ishtar
Sussan Deyhim & Richard Horowitz ::: Desert Equations
Sussan Deyhim & Richard Horowitz ::: Majoun
Sussan Deyhim & Richard Horowitz ::: Whorl On The Mount of Moon
Sussan Deyhim & Richard Horowitz ::: Jum Jum