The saxophonist Paul Dunmall once told me about the time he spent living in a music Ashram of the Divine Light Mission, a spiritual movement led by Guru Maharaj Ji. Paul moved from London to America in 1973 to live and practice music in this Ashram. In this setting music was a daily spiritual discipline, a meditative exercise to be combined with the discipline of regular meditation itself. Time would be allotted for individual practice in the mornings, followed by band rehearsals. Each and every day would be dedicated to music with full concentration. What Paul described sounded quite similar to Sun Ra's residence in Philadelphia where the musicians lived like monks, dedicated to their band leader's musical visions, and where they still live and work with Marshall Allen leading the band. There are also many similarities to musicians who gathered around La Monte Young and his guru Pandit Pran Nath. Through my work with Catherine Christer Hennix I have had first hand experience of this latter scene and its musical domain, where rehearsals and concerts span over several hours, demanding a high level of mental focus as well as physical strength. A key feature of the attempts at forming and maintaining a band which Christer and I experienced, is how difficult it has been to get something like that going, and then to keep it going. The obstacles presented in the circumstances and settings in which we worked were often insurmountable, including lack of space, lack of time to set-up, soundcheck and rehearse, lack of musicians able to commit enough time to really get into the music, and a thousand other distractions, these are the distractions of an unfocused environment which always wants to move on to the next fashion and never has time to really go beyond the fleeting surface.
In my conversations with Paul and Christer, also with the singer Amelia Cuni who studied and practiced Dhrupad for many years in India, the immeasurable value of the time they each found dedicated wholly to music became very clear to me. Each time I've had such an encounter I've been forced to look at my own patchwork experience as a musician, which certainly has featured times of concentrated and disciplined practice, but has honestly featured more times of scattered distraction and interrupted focuslessness. Time wasted on the internet, time worrying about paying the rent, fuzzy hungover post after-party mornings, transitory states waiting for the plane or in airport security, hours spent on funding applications and everything else which seems to go with being a musician's life - misdirected although not unrelated!
Looking back on more than 25 years living and working as a "professional musician", the times which leave the clearest mark are those spent in dedicated practice. Those periods of a more monk-like existence, partly shut out from the outer world, where hours are invested in everything it takes to master an instrument and trying to understand what music really is... These moments were sometimes semi-extended and other times rather fleeting, but each one of them was experienced as a return to the main path, the more lonesome way, the original point of the journey which I started in the Sahara Desert in the summer of 1990. The musicians path, which I continue to follow, always trying to get back into or maintain a daily routine. Reflecting on the fellow travellers I have met along this narrow route, musicians like Paul Dunmall, Christer Hennix and a few others, its clear that we share in common a real love of practice and a disciplined musical routine, but its equally clear that while we are often alone in our individual discipline, we still need one another to carry out our musical work, to learn, to listen and to tune in together. That's where the idea of the Tuning Monastery comes in.
Inspired by Paul's Ashram stories, Christer's recollections of working with La Monte Young and many jazz musicians, Amelia's life dedicated to Dhrupad and also more recent conversations with the tuba player Robin Hayward and the saxophonist Hayden Chisholm, the vision is of a place where one can live and dedicate each and every day to the practise of tuning, which in many ways is the essence of musicianship. In the Tuning Monastery all our time is dedicated to tuning, in the widest sense of the word. The type of tuning envisioned is far removed from the chaotic and imprecise cloud initiated by an oboe at the start of a symphony orchestra concert, not that this is not tuning, but its only one kind of tuning. In the Tuning Monastery one explores every kind of tuning, not just standardised equal temperament which has come to dominate so much music. At the same time equal temperament is far from excluded, its part of our practise, its one thing one needs to know, play and hear. Paul Dunmall has created his own complete theory of music based on equal temperament called "Music in the Big Key", this takes an eagles ear view of the dominant Western tuning system and extends it out in all directions, into infinity, its one of many examples which demonstrate the creative possibilities offered by this system.
Of course a central aspect of work in the monastery has to be Just Intonation. Hours are dedicated to the Ancient Greek method using a mono-chord, building intervals step by step, seeing and hearing their relationships. When the mono-chord reaches its physical limits, we turn to digital tools, such as Robin's "Hayward Tuning Vine" to go further out into the prime limits of harmonic space. We compare notes. We spend days tuning one interval, playing it in various ranges, sometimes solo with a computer drone, at other times as an ensemble. We superimpose intervals. We play melodies over intervallic drones. We construct scales. Subjects like Maqam, Blues and Raga inevitably come to our attention. At the same time we acknowledge that each of these forms require more than one lifetime of dedicated work. In this lifetime we have set ourselves the task of becoming all round musicians in our own new culture.
Our own culture seems stuck in old patterns and a paradigm shift is clearly on the horizon. We are starting again from the beginning, to find a new basis. We take advantage of living in an information age where one can draw on so many different resources from all over the world, from different times and traditions. We try to tune into everything we come across and we also try to dive into what we can tune into. We are not trying to become masters of other or older traditions, instead we are gradually discovering our own authenticity, day by day. Everything is possible, there are no limits, but we also need to impose practical limits on our activities, to find the right focus and to really practise practice!
Time is given in the mornings to a minimum of three hours solo practice. Afternoons are spent in group activities, from duos to small chamber ensembles to larger formations. Evenings are spent listening to music and regular concerts (ideally two or three times a week), to engage with a listening audience, which is an essential part of music making. These concerts are given for each other and some are open for the public. An archive is maintained of recordings but we are careful not to record everything, as this leads to a backlog of archival work and depreciates the real value of live music which can only happen in the moment and in many ways can never be reproduced. We recognise that the advent of recording and storing music electronically has created a vast amount of extra economic and legal distractions which have nothing to do with actual music. We are trying to tune back into the space of music. We can therefore let go of many of the sideshows which are related to music as a profession or form of entertainment, which take away attention from the core. We want to get to the centre and then go beyond all boundaries.
Tuning is not just about playing pitches. There is also rhythmic tuning. We start with the basics of rhythm, trying to keep a beat in unison - 1/1 time. We explore tempo - how slow can we maintain the beat, how fast until it becomes a pitch. We move into subdivisions, poly-rhythms, talas, iso-rhythms… We explore the rhythms of language, everyday speech and poetic utterance, we translate this onto our instruments. We create rhythms: millisecond by second by minute by hour by day by week by year by lifetime. We subdivide our days in a rhythmically harmonic way. We find out what fits naturally but we also push the limits and explore what does not feel natural and ask ourselves why that is. We push the boundaries, shake the foundations. We play call and response. We isolate ourselves. We explore sleep patterns and the rhythms of dreams. We explore tuning ratios and translate them rhythmically. Sometimes we stick to 4/4 time in equal temperament. We set-up a techno beat and try to weave around it. We go for the spaces between the notes and dive between the cracks on the surface.
We cook food which fits the tunings we are working with, we do wine tastings and try to find the tunings to fit the wine. Everything is geared to the art of tuning in the widest sense of the word. Music is always the main focus, and we go back to our instruments each and every day. Some things remain constant others are allowed to be in flux. What remains to be said? How do we survive economically? How do we engage with the “outside world”? What kind of diet is permitted and conducive to tuning? Who sets the rules? Is there a leader or a leading group? Do we invite teachers? How many musicians are needed to make such a monastery functional? Are non-practising musicians needed to keep things going? Is sex permitted? Is there an explicit spiritual element to our practice? Do we go to the monastery for a limited time or do we dedicate the rest of our lives to it? All these questions and more remain open. The monastery does not yet exist in outer reality but the vision of such a musically focused place is clear, and the value of realising something like it, however possible, is even clearer. I only have to continue tuning into it!
This article was written on 28 December 2021 as part of Augustin Maurs’ project: KANÔN, QĀNŪN, CANON (…) Playing Differences