Glancing out my back door I glimpse a black and white cat on my deck, beckoned perhaps by my drum-play. One of my teenage dreams involved touring with a band, improvising with instruments night after night, town after town. I was never much of a traveler, lacking wealth, talent, and initiative. Yet still I got around. Made it here and there. Hence the “literary turn,” the turn to books and careers based on them. Books allowed me to spin off in any number of directions, across many dimensions, albeit mediated by language. Where to tonight? I slip on Joe Henderson and Alice Coltrane’s The Elements and read about obstacles to black homeownership as documented with painstaking detail in Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s new book Race for Profit.
For the first time in many years, I’ve made drum practice a regular part of my day, learning along the way a new bearing, a new coordination, a new integration of body and mind. I sense there’s a whole magical metaphysics to be learned, an articulation of parts into a world party, spontaneously assembling, dancing to a plurality of beats. Align the rhythms of the microcosm with the rhythms of the planet, limb coordination an allegory for coming together to address climate change. In all cases, it’s a matter of reprogramming, creating new branches, new head-spaces, new patterns of play. Each of us becoming solar-powered, enlightened, worshipful of sun and moon. Afterwards, I go back and re-read my entry from September 20th of last year, with its description of a consciousness expanded beyond Reason’s bounds. Then, as now, I had Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell on my mind, a text I teach each fall.
With daily practice I develop greater strength and control in my left hand. Exercised with concentration, the hand’s ability to drum shows noticeable improvement. In between these exercises I think about indigenous drum ceremonies like Powwows, and instruments like rattles. How might we account for the Christian West’s antipathy to drums and percussive noise throughout most of its history? Horns, bells, and strings have their charms, but they evoke entities different in kind from those conjured with sticks and skins. With Dustin Laurenzi’s Snaketime providing productive accompaniment, I descend back into Gerald Heard’s essay on his close friend Aldous Huxley, a piece called “The Poignant Prophet,” published in 1965, two years after Huxley’s death. Right away, I’m troubled by Heard’s Darwinian emphasis on Huxley’s heredity (the “ancestral pressures” placed upon the latter due to “the intellectual nobility of his forefathers,” etc). Yet there are also moments when Heard offers glimpses of Huxley as the latter struggled to grow beyond his early reputation as a satirist. The two kept up a tradition of “afternoon walks-and-talks.” We learn of their joint investigations of groups like Moral Rearmament and teachers like Ouspensky. The most interesting part of the account, of course, deals with the transformation in Huxley effected through the latter’s encounters with psychedelics like mescaline. “Was there any effect that was permanent, that manifestly altered his everyday character in relation to others,” asks Heard, “giving his actions a new strength of conviction and initiative of encouragement? Could he thereafter persistently see the common day in the full light of this masterly comprehension, and so go forward as a guide? I think there was evidence” (66).
I’ve been trying to teach myself to drum on and off since childhood, occasionally acquiring some rudimentary skill during times of frequent practice, only to lose it afterwards, muscle memory jettisoned after long dry spells, years of disuse. I imagine interior landscapes: frazzled, frayed, cobwebbed ruins, like backgrounds from frames of Scooby-Doo.
Drums arrive and sidestep my daily dalliance with Logos. Afternoon gives way to evening as Sarah and I assemble a crib.
Returned from work, I change out of my work clothes, settle in, listen to Intentions by Sunburned Hand of the Man.
The album’s soundscape is dreamy and cosmic, as on “Experiments,” instruments stretching into other dimensions. Afterwards, I find myself wanting to drum, sound erecting around me a kind of cosmic cottage. A voice pipes up recommending Laurence Veysey’s The Communal Experience: Anarchist and Mystical Counter-Cultures in America. History is ours to reclaim through anamnesis. It’s time to dive in and retrieve what was lost.
Drums played aloud outdoors in a land officiated by bells and chimes becomes for the allegorical imagination shorthand for assertion of religious difference, assertion of an alternative path to ekstasis or peak-experience. Language is already present in nature’s abstraction of itself through song. Rhythm and bass evoke embodiment, as melody and tone evoke transcendence. Neon flashes hover as after-images against the backs of my eyelids. Overhead I spy a woodpecker — a Northern Flicker, perhaps. Moments later, a plane with red wings. The Deep Listening Band adds to, overlays atop the experience a work recorded in Oregon’s Fort Warden Cistern called “The Ready Made Boomerang.”
The sound’s vastness inevitably suggests mystery. Remind others of this. Echo it. Alter aural perspective. Induce awe through cavernous resonance.