Applying dense mathematical theorems to alternative tuning systems has led Swedish jazz drummer turned dharma warrior Catherine Christer Hennix to a cosmic appreciation of sound. Here she tells Marcus Boon about encounters with Albert Ayler, La Monte Young and Henry Flynt, and the background to her masterpiece “The Electric Harpsichord”, which will be performed at MaerzMusik – Festival for Time Issues 2017.

Catherine Christer Hennix © Laura Gianetti

“The whole universe is vibrating,” says Catherine Christer Hennix, speaking on the phone from Berlin. We’re talking about the release on “Die Schachtel” of her masterpiece, “The Electric Harpsichord”, a 25 minute keyboard composition originally performed at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm in March 1976. Although unreleased until now, it has attained the status of legend. Her friend and collaborator Henry Flynt has described it as “a life changing revelation”. But from Flynt’s and Hennix’s point of view, the recording is important not only as a piece of music, but because it’s proof of a method, a way of making something happen, that points beyond the framing of music as a product, or even as art, to an entirely new way of philosophically understanding and inhabiting the universe. As for what that method is, Hennix, a sometime maths professor, philosopher, visual artist with works in major European collections, and disciple of Pandit Pran Nath and La Monte Young , weaves a dizzying range of disciplines and histories into a highly original argument about the power of sound.

“The whole universe can be understood as just one single vibration,” Hennix continues. “All atoms are continuously vibrating, the vacuum is vibrating, the whole cosmos is vibrating. When things vibrate, they generate these harmonics. Each harmonic is a state of nature. ln physics, harmonics correspond to different states of matter. lt’s empirical. As humans, we are reconfigurations of cosmic matter – all the atoms come from outer space. We are simply reconfiguring them via the DNA molecule or whatever. When we hear these vibrations our system of molecules vibrates with them. You can think of sound as a medicinal tonic. You are exposed to sound as you are exposed to a liquid, and it may change your ground state, and you go from one state to another because you are exposed to this radiation of sound.”

This is actually a pretty good description of what listening to “The Electric Harpsichord” is like: hypnotic waves of keyboard chords and melismas that at certain moments produce the experience that the ground is melting underneath you, transforming it and the listener into a pulsating field (without the aid of LSD). You might argue that any theory of sound working at such a fundamental level would have to apply equally to Lady Gaga or Beethoven, but as Hennix explains her ideas – in a precise but engaging way, the references to advanced mathematics peppered with a post-jazz lingo of ‘cats’ she’s played with and enthusiastic recollections of people who have blown her away – the possibility remains that she really is on to something.

Hennix was born in 1948 in Stockholm. Her mother, Margit Sundin-Hennix, was a jazz composer, and Hennix grew up in a household saturated with the sounds of modern jazz. Sweden was a haven for American musicians in the early 1960s, and houseguests included trumpeter ldrees Souleyman (who lived with the Hennixes from 1961–69), Eric Dolphy and Dexter Gordon. She began playing drums aged five, and started taking lessons from Souleyman at 13, the same year (1961) that she first heard John Coltrane play live. Hennix played around town, sitting in with Albert Ayler on occasion. lt was Souleyman and friends that taught her “how serious it was to play jazz”.

But Hennix is dubious about the Swedish jazz scene. “We thought we were extremely hip playing modern jazz but it didn’t have the punch that jazz played by black people had. lt was sort of a hallucination.” At the same time, she was exposed to the sounds of John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen and David Tudor, all of whom visited Stockholm repeatedly during the 1960s. Hennix began making experimental compositions, working with the computers at the Electronic Music Studio (EMS) in Stockholm. A track from 1969 – six minutes of voice synthesis – can be found on “Text-Sound Compositions 5”, part of a series of compilations of concrete poetry and computer based compositions put out by the Swedish Iabel Fylkingen, and recently reissued as a CD box set. Working with the computer led to a fascination with numbers and mathematical logic, which Hennix pursued in graduate level studies in Sweden and the US, and later a period of teaching maths at university Ievel. She became fascinated with Fourier’s theorem, which, among other things, provides the mathematical basis for analogue-to-digital conversion, through describing complex phenomena, such as a sound, as a collection of sinewaves.

ln 1969, Hennix made a trip to New York and visited La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s I oft, where she heard a drone playing. “lt’s the sinewave composition that he has on all the time in his loft,” she recalls. “lt took me about 60 seconds to decide that this was the sound. lt was completely related to Fourier’s theorem, and here I found someone who knew how to deal with this, deal with sinewaves. His was the first successful application in terms of sound experience. I didn’t leave his place for three or four days. l was just listening, and from time to time he and Marian would sing with the drone, which was even more fantastic.”

Young visited Stockholm the following year and Hennix worked with him at the EMS, realising his “Drift Study 15 X 70 2:00–3:00 PM Stockholm”, which she considers one of his most spectacular works. Young had already been working with sinewave generators for a number of years. He was the first composer to produce works in Just Intonation using the pure and sustainable electronic tones that such devices generate. These include his “Drift Studies” series (1967 – present), which consists of unadorned, very slowly shifting tones, and “Map Of 49’s Dream” (1966 – present), which also features Young and Zazeela’s voices. “That was the revolution,” affirms Hennix, “that he went from acoustic to electronic instruments in terms of producing Just Intonation works.”

Just Intonation is a vast and controversial topic, opening the door on an alternative history of harmonics and scales that has run in parallel with the modern Western tradition. Essentially the term refers to tuning systems based not on the equal tempered scale familiar from Western music, but on the natural harmonics of sound, which the physicist Hermann von Helmholtz described in the 1860s. Such tunings also exist in many older musical forms, including various European folk musics, the blues, Balinese gamelan and Indian raga. The French musicologist Alain Daniélou compiled data in the 1950s showing that many of the scales used in traditional societies can be expressed according to mathematical ratios. There is a kind of political history of music contained in these observations. After the emergence of the piano in the 18th century, the dominance of the equal tempered tuning scale, which fixes notes mathematically as a series of absolute pitches, put an end to Just Intonation in Europe. “With equal temperament,” notes Hennix, “all of these intricate relationships were thrown out. Everything was tuned to the piano. And so they ruined the entire concept of sound.” Consequently, the culture of European modernity is literally out of tune. The likes of Young, Tony Conrad and, later, Hennix herself wanted to put things right.

Of all the various figures associated with Young over the years, from Terry Riley, Jon Hassell and Rhys Chatham to Tony Conrad and Yoshi Wada, Hennix’s music and ideas are perhaps the closest to his own. For example, when her trio “The Deontic Miracle” – a Japanese gagaku-style unit (also named Chagaku) featuring her late brother Peter Hennix and Hans lsgren on two oboes, sarangi and a sheng – performed their “Five Times Repeated Music” at the Moderna Museet in the mid-1970s, it was directly inspired by Young’s duo with Terry Jennings in which they played combination notes together. “ln gagaku,” Hennix explains, “you have the same effect when the hichirikis (a type of oboe) are playing. lt’s quite eerie: when they play, you have sound flying through the air. Like bats. lt’s incredible. The combination notes have this emergent structure that is really indefinable.” A mesmerizing recording of this trio performing in 1976 was recently issued as “Central Palace Music”.

ln 1970, at Young’s urging, Hennix travelled to the south of France to meet the Hindustani raga master Pandit Pran Nath. “I was completely blown away by his sound. What I was focused on was the sound of the tambura. I told him I wanted to study the tambura and its tuning and he told me the only way to do that was to learn to sing ragas. But l’d never sung in my life. I spoke with the tamburas every day – for me that’s very important. I do voice exercises but I prefer to listen to the tamburas without my voice. My idea was to use the tambura as a way of making compositions. The tambura is a treasure trove of harmonics and I wanted to make compositions that had parts of those harmonics in them and work them out as much as possible.”

Hennix became a disciple of Pran Nath at a ceremony in Terry Riley’s studio in San Francisco in 1973, and assisted along with Riley when Pran Nath taught a course at Mills College the same year. At the same time, Hennix continued her mathematical studies. Through a chance meeting with Maryanne Amacher in 1973, she met Russian mathematician and dissident Alexander Esenin-Volpin, with whom she has collaborated over the years. Volpin, founder of the school of ultra-intuitionism, stands in about the same relationship to mainstream mathematics as Just Intonation does to mainstream classical music. Somehow Pran Nath recognized that there was no contradiction between Hennix’s various interests. “He realised I was not keen to be a performer, that I was just doing this for my spiritual development,” she says. “My contribution to Indian music might be more as a mathematician than as a performing artist. And he may be correct in this. I have a complete mathematical theory of the sound of the tambura. l’d like to simulate the sound of the tambura by means of computer, I have the equations for it. lf I succeed with this, I can do new electronic music that no one has ever heard before.”

“The Electric Harpsichord” emerged out of this heady brew of Hindustani classical music, mathematical logic and multimedia art practice. According to Hennix, the piece is an improvisation on the scale of Raga Multani (one of the basic teaching ragas that Pran Nath would have used with students) made on a Just lntonation-tuned Yamaha keyboard fed through a tape recorder based time-lag system that introduces a variable delay, over a sinewave oscillator drone. The piece was performed at the Moderna Museet in 1976 during a festival of Hennix’s visual and musical works, with a sound system capable of 100 dB, allowing the full range of harmonics to be heard. While the audience was enthusiastic, there was no funding for the piece, and the performance was never repeated.

Hennix moved to New York in 1978 to teach in the maths department at SUNY New Paltz. She also resumed an ongoing connection with philosopher/fiddler Henry Flynt that had begun in 1969. “I met Henry at La Monte’s loft – he was doing this fantastic violin solo, he blew me away. I asked him about concept art and that was how our friendship began.” Flynt was stunned when he heard “The Electric Harpsichord” and the two began collaborating on electronic pieces. lndeed, Flynt produced some of his most remarkable works, including “Purified By The Fire, You Are My Everlovin’” and “C Tune”, over Hennix’s tambura recordings. In a press release for an event held at The Kitchen on 7 February 1979, Flynt and Hennix proclaimed “a new kind of interdisiciplinary genre, the hallucinatory/ecstatic sound environment (HESE)”. Recordings of “The Electric Harpsichord”, and two of Flynt’s tape pieces, “Glissando #1” and “Celestial Power”, were played. “The ‘natural highs’ experienced by the listener call for a new logico-mathematical structure,” the press release continues. In other words, the recordings were not to be understood as music or art, but as a new kind of creative activity that, in accordance with Flynt’s philosophy, would usher in a new kind of society. The press release notes that the two had differences on this point: “Hennix’s approach originates in a study of the relationship between modal music and states of consciousness. Flynt conceives of the HESE as a counter-attack on everyday life and consensus reality.” Both approaches appear to have failed: ironically, a “New York Times” review praised Flynt’s work, while noting that Hennix’s piece “concluded an otherwise fascinating evening on a shrill, buzzing note that rang unpleasantly in this reviewer’s ears”.

lnspired by Flynt’s proposal for a Geniuses’ Liberation Project, they briefly attempted to start a salon/commune devoted to Flynt’s radical ideas for a new society. But there were few takers. The two also played together (with Hennix on drums) as Dharma Warriors, a recording of which was recently released by Locust. According to Flynt, there are also unreleased recordings from 1978 of a jazz rock trio featuring Arthur Russell on keyboards. Flynt and Hennix played their final show at Phill Niblock’s Experimental intermedia space in 1984, with Marc Johnson on bass, whereupon Flynt, disenchanted with the lack of audience response, packed up his violin for good. Hennix continued to play drums through the 1980s, notably with free jazz legend Arthur Rhames until his AIDS-related death in 1989.

Hennix moved back to Europe in the early 1990s, settling in Amsterdam, where she worked at the Logic Institute, while continuing her mathematical collaborations with Esenin-Volpin. These appear to have been difficult years, and boxes of archival material were lost in transit. At the same time, Hennix was energized by developments in quantum physics and computing that have interesting implications for the production of sound works. She sets out some of these implications in two recent unpublished treatises, “The Hilbert Space Shruti Box” and “Nadam Brahman”, which attempt to understand the power of raga and other sustained Just Intonation musics in the light of these developments. Hennix speaks enthusiastically about the “second quantum revolution”, citing MIT physicist Xiao-Gang Wen’s 2004 book “Quantum Field Theory of Many-Body Systems”, which proposes a new version of quantum theory in which the universe and all the matter in it emerges out of vibration. Such theories are not unfamiliar to students of Asian religions, or, for that matter, the free jazz Fire Music generation of the 1960s.

“Scientists don’t understand the idea of psychological states and sound, and musicians don’t understand the physics of it.”

“This is virgin territory,” says Hennix. “People have not looked at this from the point of view of mode science. Now we have the instruments to measure these things which were not available 100 years ago. lt’s very difficult to get scientists interested in this, because they don’t understand the idea of psychological states and sound, and musicians don’t understand the physics of it, so there’s a clash of cultures and people don’t speak to each other across the borders. But that’s why it’s so important to return music to mathematics and physics – and cosmology, for that matter.”

Having  relocated to Berlin, Hennix is working with a group she calls The Chora(s)san Time Court Mirage, which features her electronics, Hilary Jeffery’s trombone and the voice of great ltalian born dhrupad singer Amelia Cuni (who will also be part of a voice and tambura duo with Hennix performing in Berlin this month). On a piece called “Blues Dhikr Al-Salaam”, Hennix brings together many of the histories that have fascinated her. “I was trying to trace the history of the 49th harmonic because I was singing it with my blues. It was first explicitly noticed in Baghdad 1000 years ago, and then it travelled to East and West Africa. Another branch travelled to Spain. And then it travelled from West Africa to the New World and ended up in Manhattan in the 20th century in La Monte Young’s loft. I decided l’d like to do blues but not in the regular sense, so you could see its origins in raga and maqqam (the Arabic scale system). Maqqam is interesting because you can derive not only raga, blues and Middle Eastern music, but also gagaku. You can even derive Schönberg’s 12 tone system from it!” A 2012 recording of the band released as “Live at the Grimm Museum, Vol. 1” reminds me of some of the late 1960s voice and sinewave pieces produced by Young and Zazeela, but as with “Harpsichord”, there’s an uncanny intensity to the piece, that makes it feel as if the space in which one is listening to the recording is about to dissolve or explode.

An early, 70 minute recording of an excerpt of “Blues” that Hennix sent me reminds me of some of the late 1960s voice and sinewave pieces produced by Young and Zazeela, but as with “Harpsichord”, there’s an uncanny intensity to the piece, that makes it feel as if the space in which one is listening to the recording is about to dissolve or explode.

Subsequently, the band has expanded in size, to include the Iraqi-American trumpet player Amir ElSaffar and the Turkish vocalist Ahmet Muhsin Tüzer (who is both an Imam and a pop star in Turkey). The digital sine wave drone used by the earlier group has been replaced by a treated tambura sample that roars and sparkles with overtones. Their remarkable 2014 performance “Blues Alif Lam Mim In The Mode Of Rag Infinity/Rag Cosmosis” synthesizes raga, blues and maqam in an unprecedented way, stretching to 3 hours of sustained tone dynamics. A recording of the performance was released in 2016 as Live at Issue Project Room. “I call attention to the early history of the blues before coming to the new world,” says Hennix. “That it was pentatonic, that its surrounding culture was Islam and that Bilal, an African slave bought free by the prophet, was the first to recite the call to prayer. People are puzzled about the role of Islam in my music but my first jazz teacher was Idrees Souleyman, and the Kirana Gharana (the school of Indian classical music her teacher Pandit Pran Nath belonged to) is a Muslim tradition of music strongly connected with the Chisti order. Since when have I not been taught the Islamic approach to sound and music?”

Hennix’s story leaves one with a series of questions and puzzles: why did a recording as extraordinary as “Electric Harpsichord” take 35 years to reach the public record? Why is a composer whose work is predicated on amplification and, more recently, the use of computer generated sounds, today living without a microphone or a laptop? More broadly, why are figures such as Hennix and Flynt, who imagined themselves on a mission to transform society by addressing it at the highest level, pointing out its obvious flaws and proposing a set of alternatives, unknown today outside the world of avant garde music? Their relative obscurity is partially explained by the broad retreat of mainstream society from revolutionary transformation and the complex personalities involved. The best answer to these questions that I have, however, comes from poet Charles Stein, who knew Hennix in the 1980s, and who says that the core of her work should be understood as ethical. I take this to mean that she did what she thought to be the right thing, regardless of the consequences. Hennix herself had a very simple response when I asked her these questions: “We never compromised”.


(A version of this article appeared in “The Wire“ magazine, issue 320, October 2010)

During MaerzMusik – Festival for Time Issues Catherine Christer Hennix will create the sound-video-light-installation “Kalam-i-Nur” at silent green Kulturquartier. Opening time: 17–22 March 2017, daily from 16:00 – 00:00, 22 March from 16:00 – 19:00. Free admission.

The installation will be accompanied by two concerts: A new live realization of “The Electric Harpsichord” for Keyboard and Live-Electronics will be presented at the Pre-opening of MaerzMusik at 16 March. And at 22 March Catherine Christer Hennix and the ensemble Chora(s)an Time-Court Mirage will play her work “Raag Surah Shruti”. Hennix will be part of “The Long Now” as well.