Saturday, March 2, 2013

Hearing Voices (Revisited)


In the fall of 2001, under a harvest moon on the last weekend of September, three weeks after the bombing of the World Trade Center, a group of musicians and artists of various sorts gathered in Rangely, Colorado for an extraordinary event. I drove up from Santa Fe, New Mexico, on the invitation of my friend Michael Stanwood to be initiated into what was then called “The Order of the Tank” The Tank was a large water tank built on a hillside just above the town, where a railroad had been planned but never completed. Never used for what was intended It had been abandoned for years, a destination for teenagers and their dates or a target for graffiti, until one of the teenagers introduced a visiting musician from Denver to the unique soundscape contained within. 

The nation was still in a state of shock and it was the dawn of a new state of paranoia. On my approach to the site I stopped to take a photo and was interrogated by the local sheriff because of some public buildings that happened to be in the foreground of what I was shooting. On the way home I was stopped once more near the border of New Mexico for a reason so obscure I can’t even remember what it was, other than it had to do with “suspicious” driving conduct of some sort. 

After talking my way past the sheriff and reaching the site I entered an entirely different dimension, where the burdens of the world, the fear and paranoia and the drumbeats for war had no reality or relevance. What follows in an account of that weekend. This was the first recording session in a project that became teh album Portal, produced by Michael Stanwood. Here is a slightly revised version of a piece that appeared originally in Volume 16 of Fish Drum Magazine.

Hearing Voices (Revisited)

I.

The approach to this small corner of western Colorado from the south, once you've accomplished the steep escarpment called Book Cliffs, is through Canyon Pintado, a long winding flat bottomed valley full of cows, ranchers and Indian petroglyphs. I needed to reach town by dark and didn't really have time to stop for anything between dodging wandering herds of cattle and following the weaving dust of pickup trucks. But something caught me as I drove by a series of national park pull-offs; it was a sign reading “Kokopelli” and a pointer up toward some rock paintings just beneath a steep cliff face that overlooked the road. I resisted at first, driving on about a quarter mile. Something tugged me back, and I stopped and turned back. The hump backed flute player was too close to the theme of the journey for me not to stop and pay homage. 

Pulling off to the side I let another pickup truck pass and got out to climb the stone pathway up to an overhang. I could actually glimpse from the road a figure in red beneath the leaning stones, bent beneath the hump carried on his back, gazing back along the valley, the flute or didgeridoo he’s holding pointing along his gaze. I'd never seen this figure drawn so large or colored in such a deep red ochres. Below his feet was the inevitable spiral that traces a path from origin through migration and back to the center of the world. 

I’d traveled that day more than 400 miles, leaving a country of burning forests around Los Alamos, then up one of the most beautiful roads in north America, Route 84 through the Chama Valley. The evening before I stood with my ten year old son across from a gambling casino where we could watch the long dragon tail of the Cerro Grande fire as it wound it's way through the canyons and over the slopes above the town of White Rock. The next morning I left behind the vanilla smell of burning yellow pine and the dangerous ghosts that emerged to haunt the birthplace of the atom bomb. I came up through Ghost Ranch country, past the red cliffs and standing rocks and natural amphitheaters by Canjilon Creek, turning west at Chama. Turning west, I entered Indian country, winding through the woods and canyons guarded by the Jicarilla Apache, passing the town of Dulce and then into the vast northern reaches of Navajo land. Across the Navajo Dam, it's reservoir stretching off between the mesas, I crossed the border of Colorado, continuing through Durango and Creede following the white waters pouring through gorges. Leaving old mining towns transformed into tourist destinations I climbed out of the Navajo desert and onto the Colorado plateau and into the high northern country.

I gazed at this Kokopelli, placed here before the first Spaniard came looking for gold, looking back along the trails of natives and explorers, miners and gamblers, fluting his remembrance that once we emerged from a world destroyed by darkness. I remember thinking that we could easily lose our world to deadly darkness once again.  

At the end of that long canyon where the southern road joins the northern route that follows the White River is the town of Rangely. I had been told to look for a water tank, and the whole dry valley was full of water tanks. Here in a parched corner of Colorado I found myself in another high desert, more desolate than the desert from which I’d come. Rangely is an oasis among the gray mesas, a town filled with trees and trailer courts built all along the river and the encroaching bluffs. Once through the town another expanse of desolate hills begins and marches off to the horizons to the north and west. 

I was told that the tank was on the far edge of town and that it couldn’t be missed. After being the town's main street, Route 64 turns to the north and just to the right one looks up and sees what appears like an enormous silver painted art deco spaceship overlooking the bottom land that lines a creek and a winding dirt road that slithers its way back between the hills. A rakish Rio Grande Railroad logo is painted in black letters up near the top and around the bottom up to a tall man’s height is a multi-colored ring of graffiti 

At the base of the bluff just across the dirt road sits a couple of dwellings built around a converted house trailer. I pulled up and parked, walking up to the porch door of the main house where my knocking stirred the interest of a couple of enthusiastic dogs, more interested in wrestling with each other than with bothering a stranger. An energetic woman in her 60's appeared at the screen door, grabbed the dogs firmly by their collars and welcomed me loudly over their frantic yipping, “You must be Ralph from Santa Fe...your friends are already here. Come on in and have some food...you wanna beer?” 

The enormous front room was filled with knickknacks, a bar, a full size store dummy dressed like a rather effeminate looking cowboy, and the biggest television screen I'd ever seen. A game show is on and the image is so impressively huge that I’m temporarily transfixed in the glare of the faces, voices larger than life, diving for dollars across the virtual wall of phosphors. Rescue came with the sound of familiar voices and the smells of a feast issuing from the kitchen.   

Over the next hour or so I listened to country gossip: Chevron, the town's biggest employer was set to move on and a good chunk of the male population would be out of work, the vacation business was growing, the black folk up at the Community College had started to wander into town. I heard an extended commentary on the vices and virtues of the nearest big towns of Craig and Vernal, where there was a new Walmart and a shopping center. We urban types got plenty of good-natured ribbing from the hostess and her husband, but it all came as a piece with their amazing generosity. 

After a while it was time for the four of us who’d arrived from the cities to climb up the hill to the tank and embark on the ceremony to which we'd been invited. 

Denver musicians had been coming up here for 14 years, ever since, on a Chataqua concert tour, one of them was turned on to the sounds of the Tank by a local teenager. Visits became increasingly regular over the years, attracting a growing circle of inspired sound explorers. In the early nineties recordings made inside the Tank became an album called Leaving Eden. It featured a host of instruments and voices, including hand drums, whirl tubes, autoharps, a viola, Synclavier and a child's chorus.  

For a short time in the mid eighties the graffiti on the Tank took a turn toward rage and racism felt by teenagers who were being displaced, perhaps fueled by the climate of Reagan’s America. Eventually a heavy-duty lock was affixed to the outside hatch and most of the verbal ugliness got painted over. The Mormon businessman who'd assembled the Tank as part of an anticipated business venture turned ownership over to a musician who was willing to take on the property taxes. In this way a vessel that was moved here in the fifties from another state to hold water became instead a wonderfully unique temple to sound.  

As dusk approached Michael removed the padlock, and one by one we crawled in through the round bolted hatch about two and a half feet across, where a large pipe would have entered to conduct the flow of water in and out of the container. Now a long electrical cord climbed the hill from the house below and climbed into the opening. Grasping the bolted edge of the hatch we slid in feet first to find ourselves at first in total darkness. As our eyes gradually adjusted we first noticed a dim blue-green glow emanating from what appeared to be a mixing board set in a square metal case occupying the center of the floor. The space inside the Tank is about 45 feet across and 75 feet high. A faint circle of daylight leaks in around the circumference of the conical roof high above. A ladder goes up one side to a hatchway opening to the outside. A slim pipe near the ground bridges the middle of the floor from wall to wall, providing a place for sitting down. Several fat candles burned at either end and in the center. The walls of the Tank are black except for about 10 feet of white around the bottom and up along the sides of the ladder where there was once graffiti.

Immediately upon entering one realizes that this place is in love with sound. The smallest scuffle of footsteps or the sound of a dropped whisper are taken up and whirled around inside the container to be transformed into awesome and numinous voices. A single note launched by voice or instrument is sustained for up to 35 seconds. The Tank is a place of perfectly circular echoes, every sound transformed into pure ambient presence, unveiling its inner dynamics like the unfolding of a flower. This is a soundspace that can't really be duplicated by electronic means. Like the world's great cathedrals it attracts those who hunger to be in the middle of the sound, exploring it like the landscape of another planet. Entering the space one finds oneself immediately in a state of trance. 

For an interval our company drifted around the circle, making sounds, stopping to listen, adding overtones, shaping new notes, replying to our own voices vibrating in the air. A couple of wide PVC tubes were propped against the pipes with bundles of cloth stuffing one end and an extra large kitchen sponge resting near the other. I learned that these make an instrument of deep ethereal rhythm dubbed the “whirl tube”. When one claps the sponge against the open end of the tube a deep ethereal harmonic booming is created.  A row of didgeridoo are propped next to the entry hatch. Almost the entire floor is covered with blankets and the blankets are covered with musical instruments and noisemakers of every kind. Turning back toward the entrance, one glimpses the outside world through the circle of bolts that line the open hatchway. Another world out there that has been utterly left behind. 



II.


At the beginning of the evening a neighbor from down below brought her teenage daughter and we invited her to crawl inside and have a look. She was very young and quite shy among these strange older men, but she was fascinated and curious. The array of instrumentation spread over the blanketed floor was like nothing she's ever seen. Jeremiah showed her how to get a sound from blowing into a conch shell and this inspired her to ask that her mother fetch from the van outside the French horn she played in her high school band. Tentatively she lifted it to her lips and blew a couple of clear brass notes that filled the space like the sound of trumpets in an angelic choir. We were all a bit overwhelmed at power and beauty of the sound. The girl, overcome by shyness and weirdness, retreated outside to her mother and they left. The memory of that excellent sound stays behind and is in some way resurrected in the sound of Michael blowing into conch and pipes, calling the proceeding into formal commencing. As the full moon rose above the tank no one doubted that spirits would be pulled out of the air and come down into this place to play and echo and improvise through the persons of all of us. 

As the evening proceeded each of us was merged with a collective voice, made up of every sound seamlessly woven into one in the magnificent chamber of air. As the sound was woven and blended and as it rose and fell I found myself joined in the chorus with a loud clear voice, a vocalization brought out of me as an improvised language made of pure sound, responding to every nuance in the ever evolving breath of the evening. I felt my whole body moving with the changing character of the sound, becoming part of a whirling dance gracefully moving  and swirling around the circumference; Jeremiah and Mark and I circling Michael with shakers and strings, pipes and drums.  

Occasionally Jeremiah would crouch over the digital console, face dimly lit by the green LEDs, concentrating on capturing whatever sonic messages he found circling in the air. Both images and abstractions became consigned to the nether darkness. We were like denizens of the ancient Lescaux caverns, finding refuge and ceremony to enter a world beyond dream. There were no words or images inside, for the sound in the Tank is more primordial than language itself. All sound blends and swirls and transforms like the waves and ripples washing over sand patterns at the bottom of a tide pool. Underneath the far off canopy of moonlight the candle flames flickered. Shadows were dimly discerned against the black walls. The sounds of voice, rhythm and breath beckoned the spirit toward ecstasy. Four clear male voices rose in chant and song. The deep booming of the Whirl Tubes echoed in unearthly rhythm while in counterpoint Michael strummed the delicate silver strings of an autoharp. Mark played runs on a guitar while chanting in tongues and Jeremiah marched around the circle to the beat of an African djambala. The dancing and singing and playing wove and pulsed in and out of the hours with an occasional silence as a cycle discovered its natural conclusion. Then another song began, and a new ceremony with another theme, another rhythm and a new harmonic. 

Once, as we sang and danced and played we heard the sound of a great booming descending upon us like the ghost of a passing train, or an earthquake. We are struck silent and then realize its the sound of a great evening desert wind, striking the sides of the Tank and rising against them like the herald of another angel of the air. The immense sound played on the sides of this tall metal ark as if in response to the exuberant voices rising from within.

After several hours we were exhausted, and the sounds of wind and voices declined with the descent of the moon. We crawled outside beneath an incredible star canopy and stood together wrapped in a blanket of absolute silence. Then the musicians scattered to their bunks and trailers and Jeremiah kept vigil in the tank until morning.  

*    *    *    *


III.

The next day I stood over the gray hills that sweep northward under the hot dusty breezes of the desert. The rising and plunging of oilrigs dotted the landscape like huge insects drawing sustenance out of the rocky soil. Farther north are dinosaur bones near the source of the Green River that soon merges with the Colorado in an impossible landscape just south of the Four Corners. There are the Canyonlands known by migrants, Navajos and Mormons. Golden angels trumpet from the tops of white churches and ancient carvings appear in the rocks. Still farther south is Monument Valley and a landscape that turns brick red and the twisted shapes of enormous gods that parade over the desert. At the end of a long spiral around this Indian Country are the Hopi villages where the dramas and contradictions of human life on earth are played out in the timeless costumes of a yearly round. In square stone structures built into the earth the ceremonies unfold, passed on through generations, going back to the emergence of the People out of the destruction of the fourth world 

As the morning grew late we began packing up the instruments and moving them outside. In one last sing before we emptied the place Michael vibrated a long droning breath through the didgeridoo. Again the sound builds and climbs and is sustained. I'm inspired to climb the 75-foot steel ladder hugging the side of the miraculous cylinder, to where the air grows hot in the presence of a sun climbing into another day. Hugging the rungs with one arm I turned around to gaze straight down on our magic circle. Michael set down his instrument and his strong clear voice poured over the rhythm of someone's drum. On the other side of the circle Jeremiah once again attended the green glowing meters of the mixing board. Michael's voice chanted through the intense vibrating tones of air while Mark was captured and taken by the rhythm of the tribal drum and I found myself calling out into the air suspended from above. The powers we summoned had been waiting through the night for our spirits to totally surrender and now, miraculously, they've caught us by surprise in the dark of the day.  

Finally our voices allowed themselves to fade into silence and in the middle of the silence Michael softly wept, overcome by the feeling his own clear singing called up in him. Then, each of us in turn laid our hands upon him, letting him know that we had all ridden the sound, and although we will never know, we all somehow understand.  

IV.

“There is sanity and madness, but the key to creativity and life lies precisely on the boundary between.” - R.D. Laing 

…and Orpheus falls...and the children dance...and no one can doubt that there are angels in the symmetry of these sounds...the grail that we seek is direct, unmediated experience.  

In the beginning we hear voices. After a time the voices shape themselves into words. The words then shape themselves into stories and the stories become our reality. These narratives help us form the web of wonders we call human society. By the tone and the colors of the words we discover an identity amidst the undifferentiated weave of what we see and hear and allow ourselves to perceive. 

We learn to make symbols for these sounds. We learn to scratch letters in the sand and find ourselves cast out of the garden and into our own heads. Comprehension becomes a matter of interpretation and we are well on our way to the burning times; a long adolescence that stretches from the 13th through the 19th centuries. From the invention of the printing press to the total segmentation of mind and god, logic and morals, science and religion, through seven centuries of war and struggle, suppression, revolution and atrocity, the adolescent makes war upon the world in order to differentiate from it. Culture tears itself from culture while philosophy battles with desire 

Then comes the photograph and humanity is transfixed in its own shadow like a beast on the highway frozen in the headlights. Blink...Blink...Click ...the Civil War...Blink...Click...World War One...Blink...Click...the Second...Click...Flash...the photographic age transfigured into the nuclear age...the colonial age replaced by the digital age...the age of pirates is swept aside by the age of programmers... 
         
We are lost in images...hopelessly confused by them. We live in urban containers where all reference to anything other than ourselves has been excised. We can no longer tell what is spirit and what is mirrored shadow. We no longer particularly care. Unlike previous empires that fell to conquest, our own culture dissolves into the sea of its own chaotic artifice. 

There is a moment in the Caribbean religion of Santeria when the presence of the god comes down to the worshipper to ‘ride’ them like a horse, displacing personality and taking over form, moving voice and body like a divine puppeteer. Santeria is a religion descended from Africa, made of sound and rhythms and dancing. When we dig down through the layers of representation and meaning that fill our lives and we contact the body of the earth there is something we discover that’s beneath our personalities and that unites us with everything. This is what I came to the Tank to discover. This is the secret within the sound.  
Relevant texts:




Odland, Bruce. 
Leaving Eden. Arcadian Recordings, 1991

Stanwood, Michael. 
         Arc of a Buzz. Babyjane Records, 1999

Stanwood, Michael
Portal, Pansy Productions, 2001


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