Just after listening to his new album “Rituals” on renowned label Room40, we had a chat with famous song writer David Shea. Known especially for his connection with John Zorn and the New York City downtown scene, as well as for plenty of releases with interesting links to other cultural fields, David composed the Seven Rituals album over the last five years. During this time, he deepened his knowledge of “cymatics”, through the work of Giacinto Scelsi and Luc Ferrari, as well as his connection to ritual music, particularly the ones belonging to the Buddhist and Taoist traditions. We talked about the many interesting aspects of this release, which I warmly recommend. Enjoy!
Chain D.L.K.: Hi David! How are you?
David Shea: Happy to be writing this and thanks for these sharp questions…
Chain D.L.K.: I honestly think you don’t need any introduction for our well-informed readers, but imagine you have to introduce yourself to beings from some other world…
David Shea: Well since we all live in many different worlds at the same time, I’m glad to. I m a composer working on the connections between classical traditions, music concrete, ritual traditions of both the east and west and the connections between the oldest and newest technologies. Originally from New York, I’ve moved several times since 2000 and am now living in Melbourne Australia. I grew up in the improvisations scenes of downtown NY and worked for many years in the ensembles of John Zorn a great friend, influence and mentor. in the late 80s and early 90s I began touring with my own ensembles in the mid 90s and producing cds. I worked in many areas of concert music, video, sound installation, film, dance, and hybrid forms. For many years my work was centered around turntable and sampler works which now are usually a part of larger ensembles and my solo works with singing bowls, piano, analog and digital electronics. These days I am touring more in Asia and spending time giving lectures at Melbourne University.
Chain D.L.K.: I’m almost ashamed of the fact I only discovered you at a live exhibition of your Satyricon, that you held in Italy many years ago. At the time, I had already read the novel by Petronus you took inspiration from… please satisfy one of my curiosities related to that great record… have you ever put yourself in the shoes of some of the characters that you described in that novel, in order to intensify your inspiration?
David Shea: I always put myself in the role of the characters but also the role of the writer. I was amazed by Petronius and his insight about the Roman empire and his brutal and twisted parodies of a society which he clearly loved but saw its inevitable collapse coming. The main characters are also travellers and explorers trapped in this maze of the fragmented Roman world and move through the layers of knotted logic. The work is also written in several dialects of latin and combines literary language with pornographic street slang and moves through multiple histories, some imagined some real. Added to this, the book was once reported to have over a thousand pages of which only a few hundred still remain, so its fragmented and surreal nature was also an inspiration. I could write a great deal more about my love of that novel but musically it was my role to look at and make satirical pieces that related to the time I live in, both real and imagined. It was made in 98 so there are pieces of techno and drum and bass, metal, classical, cinema and Italian folk music at a time when I was working with the great Tullio Angellini on Nuestra Signora a Cd of Experimental and Italian folk music combinations. So the Cd is a type of travelog through those years based on trying to put myself in the place of Petronius but making an independent work that existed both inside and outside the Satyricon text.
Chain D.L.K.: The ritual aspect surfaced in many of your works in the past. Would you say there are some moments in your career that preceded, let’s say so, “Rituals”?
David Shea: All of the works are related to each other and there have, as you said, been many influences of ritual music and ritual practice in past recordings and performances. For Rituals the Cd the meaning was much broader. It involved both myself and the listener being involved in a ritual based on rituals and in the form of ritual music. So there are field recording where I am just a listener. There are pieces based on Taoist and Buddhist rituals. There are influences of rituals that I do not understand the meaning of and re interpret, like listening to a language I don’t know and find meaning in the sound and shape. And there is the ritual of listening to music which is personal and unique to each person and the technology that changes the music. The form of the piece was influenced by a range of possession, healing, dancing, meditation rituals from many traditions and the sense of time and stillness in the works was directly inspired by these traditions.
Chain D.L.K.: Before going deeper inside the analysis of your new album and setting aside the merely religious rituals, I’d like to ask you if there are ordinary or unaware of rituals you ever tried to turn into music… .
David Shea: Yes, as I was saying these everyday rituals were an important part of the extended definition of my sense of ritual and the ritual of listening and making and sharing sound.
Chain D.L.K.: Have you taken part in any of the rituals you recorded for your album? If yes, did you think it was an advantage for the final result?
David Shea: Yes I have and each piece involves things I have experienced. Meditation is an important part of life for me so all of these experiences were another reason I felt it was time to explore and focus on this type of music.
Chain D.L.K.: Have you added binaural sounds to enhance the listening experience?
David Shea: Yes and I am curious to see who responds and how people respond to them. The cover was created by the sound of the Cd being played through a speaker with a bowl of water on it and the patterns are the result of the vibration of the recording (Dandenongs). So Cymatics, tunings, binaural effects play a part but as they are experienced very individually and based on the way we listen and our beliefs about listening as well as our language and culture and bodies and minds, I usually leave those experiences to the listener and in this case one who is willing to experience the ritual.
Chain D.L.K.: As there are many references to almost forgotten or disappeared (on mass media mainstream) cultures, as well as to the “mystical” aspects of existence, would you label your music as “exotic” or “new age” or do you refuse such a labeling?
David Shea: No and labeling is fine and I believe we often do this subconsciously. The problem is when we hold on to the labels and believe them to hold solid unchanging truth then we create conflict and a need to escape from labels. The so-called new age to me involves important traditions but its erasure of difference, of casually mixing the sciences and spiritual and synthesing them into easy answers has more to do with marketing and a rational, reductionist approach. It’s the differences in the traditions and their unique character that needs to be immersive and often is entirely outside of the realm of thoughts and requires experience of the source. As in any movement there are sincere and serious people, but it’s important to focus on primary texts and investigate carefully any one claiming to teach.
Exotic on the other hand is interesting to me. The way in which one culture mis-interprets another. When the palace in Burma was given a piano in the 20s by an Italian ambassador no one knew how to use it and were given no guidance. So they created a totally unique piano music that is totally unwestern. Exotica music in the 50s imagined a fake orient and created incredible mis-matches of music and images. Primitivism in visual art, Japanese Butoh dance and its influence of expressionist theatre and many other “exotic” expressions are a sense of trading ideas and coming up with something unique and often unrelated to the original source. I used to enjoy going to theatre in languages I didn’t know, or listening to conversations in Cantonese and listening to the shifting pitches as one of many example and have always loved sound poetry and soundtext works. I don’t pretend to make “eastern ” Cds any more than Cage pretended to make Zen music but I am influenced by the teachings of both buddhism and taoism have been cebtral parts of my life since I was very young. The mis-understaning of cultural traditions is a type of experience which can lead us to a new direction and to the deeper understanding of the original source. Authentic, and terms like it, are ones we need to question in any situation. The exotic can also be very dangerous if it substitutes for the truth. It can and has led to centuries of violent conflict and gives no respect to the truth of dialog with traditions that may have many layers of meaning that need to be kept private and protected. I respect Boulez when he questioned people who adopt other cultural influences they do not understand or have experienced but I also think that this is a continual process of understanding and mis-understabding and that it is a major issue in producing music in a global and a world with so much information and so little integration.
Chain D.L.K.: Besides the one who explicitly collaborated for this record, did you receive any support or contribution of any kind from academics or musicians for “Rituals”?
David Shea: I did record some of the work at the Victorian College of the Arts and Oren Armbachi, Joe Talia, Girish Makwana and the Sufi poem read by Shahin Shaiaef. Other than that I recorded this over the five year period of living in Australia. Which followed finishing The Art of Memory and Una Nota- Solo in that period of transition from Brussels to Melbourne. So it was many field recordings and solo layering of the material and solo recording that formed the core of my own ritual approach.
Chain D.L.K.: Any bizarre happening occur while taking sonic stuff?? from rituals?
David Shea: Wandering in the Dandenongs was taken from a series of field recordings in the rainforests in the Dandenong hills which are near Melbourne. The first time I explored them I was completely unprepared and started at sunrise and got caught an intense rainstorm, the most intense I have ever experienced that lasted for 10 hours. I got lost within the first hour, had no idea how large the forest was and at points really thought I would die (in those moments of panic). I found a trail just before dark and it was one of the strangest otherworldly experiences I’ve ever had. It inspired the piece as I go back there over and over to record and have explored all over the area since then.
Chain D.L.K.: It seems that increasing alienation that is somehow caused by the spreading of communication technologies brought many people close to spiritual “research”… do you agree with such an analysis?
David Shea: We have focused for the last two hundred year on an “industrial” and “technological” revolution, and placed our energy in understanding and controlling the external world. Now there is a need and an intensity for many to look internally, and begin to focus on an internal and personal revolution. This is not a consequence only of technology, if we feel and act with alienation we create technology to feed that alienation. We change literally our body and mind when we create new technology and the relationship of internal life to the mechanical is a central issue of our time. The shift to understanding this internal life, psychologically, how we conform and imitate, how we create suffering, how and what we are as a physical body, our relationship with our senses and how our beliefs create realities, is at the heart of something that is changing all over the world and is something that the arts will be central to. I see this in all disciplines, architecture, commerce, the sciences, global communication, education, cultural exchanges and many others looking to find balance in their work with creative and internal life and this focus on the external and internal is where things are heading and where music is a central life blood.
Chain D.L.K.: What’s the role of music for spirituality from your view?
David Shea: This is a very large issue which I would like to write much more on and I ve been writing a text for a book called “The Spiritual Significance of Music” which is a compilation of composers writing about this subject. Mine is titled “Music has no Spiritual Significance”. I am not imitating Stravinsky here by saying music expresses nothing but I am moving from the idea that music “signifies” spiritual-ness and that music itself is the experience of spirit. Cage was once asked if his music was an example of anarchy and he said ” No it is actual anarchy”. Not pointing to anarchy but the living expression of it. Music is this living expression, both in listening, playing and the relationship of the vibrational bodies. From the vibrations of light, sound, materials, pattern formation and the harmonies these all create. Many ancient traditions explored these connected patterns and our place in them as do many of the modern sciences. So the music for me is the actual experience and practice of ‘spiritual’ energy which I give practical form to by composing and making work.
Chain D.L.K.: You got acquainted with sounds from many different cultures… did you discover any bizarre story or belief about the importance of music?
David Shea: Recently I was talking with a researcher who had spent time with a tribe in Papua New Guiney and told me about their songs which have silences in them to allow for the sound of the river and the birds to become part of the song. Honestly almost everyday I come across new ideas about the brain, the body, music, history, films, new traditions, books, and I have many students and guest speakers in my courses I lecture, who send me incredible things. What music is, is constantly being redefined and each work I make is a way of trying to understand my relationship to it, with it and in it.
Chain D.L.K.: Are you going to bring “Rituals” on live stage?
David Shea: I have performed some pieces at the launch in Melbourne and I’m planing to tour in Hong Kong, Singapore and Mainland China in late 2015 and in Europe in mid 2015 . It’s a work that is best on a concert stage so I’m hoping to present at festivals and combine these with works I am making now. The organizing is just beginning so suggestions are welcome from anyone as to what would be an interesting venue.
Chain D.L.K.: Is there any “ritual” that particularly left an impression on your soul or senses?
David Shea: It’s something I think Pauline Oliveras made clear to us all… Deep Listening she calls it. It is the ritual of being completely involved in listening. That can be while you are making or playing or walking through the city. That ritual of being aware of what sounds are being made, what sounds are not, how they combine how we change them. This perhaps was the core of why I made this work.
Chain D.L.K.: Any forthcoming project or work in progress?
David Shea: Yes two. Room 40 will release a Cd of my Piano Works next year and they are pieces which I am the pianist this time. I’m no concert virtuoso so it’s forced me to re think my writing for piano and re-think what the piano is in this century. I will make two sets of theses works the first focussing on the traditional approach to the piano (particularly influenced by Scelsi and Feldman) and the second of technology and the piano, so piano and sampler, piano and electromagnets, four piano tuned half a quartertone apart and hybrid electric and acoustic machines to create a mixture of player piano and physical piano playing. The second work is based on a book called “The Shape of the Ancient World” which is a historical text about trading routes between India, Greece, China, and Persia among others. It questions the idea of there ever being an east or west and claims this is a later construction by the modern era. These influences of exchanges of material and ideas seems very relevant in an age of so much information exchange. So I’m searching out the old trading route stories, from the SIlk Road, from traditions which layered cultural ideas among many others. The ensemble matches the instrument from the modern west and ancient east as well as old acoustic instruments, analog synths and new software and electronic physical instruments which play sound and images. The work will involve a four screen installation version which I am writing for the great Speak Percussion ensemble and a full ensemble version that will become a Cd and live ensemble with string orchestra work which is being composed now. My turntable work on Elegy by John Zorn is a large influence on this work as well. As with all my pieces there is a modular element where one piece can be collaged with another and many of the traces for this piece are in Hsi Yu Chi, The Tower of Mirrors, Satryicon (the references to ancient Greek, Roman music) and Rituals.