Kro Gnosis (2022)

Once again, a combination of disparate ingredients organically converged to bring about this new collection of musical explorations, Kro Gnosis.  I began these recordings immediately after completing the Temple album, which marked a return to actual recording (ie using a microphone & playing real instruments again, rather than collaging existing recorded materials, or generating sounds on my laptop). Temple was also the result of my first experiments with a couple of new instruments – namely a kalimba, and a metal tongue drum.

While my use of these instruments on Temple was mostly minimalist and ambient in keeping with the slow, spacious atmospheres on that album, I felt inspired to explore the instruments in a more percussive and melodic setting.  In playing the instruments I had also gained more confidence in using my left hand, which is still slowly regaining its movement after last year’s broken wrist. Returning to actual recording also reminded me of the clarity of sound I could access using my old faithful AKG C3000 condenser mic, which I bought secondhand about 15 years ago and is still going strong.  This one microphone has been central to most of my recorded work.

Another unexpected ingredient in the musical direction of the Kro Gnosis pieces came inadvertently through a patch of financial desperation. When you don’t have an income, let alone a ‘disposable’ one, you tend not to have disposable belongings – that is, everything I own either has no value to anyone else (artefacts of my family & creative life), or is a valuable resource in my creative work (tools and equipment).  This means everything I own matters to me; I look after my few belongings so that they last a long time, because I never know when I’ll be able to afford to replace them, or they are by nature irreplaceable. 

Occasionally though, there is no recourse but to sell something to pay a bill; in this case, I reviewed my beloved collection of musical instruments and went through a process of deciding which ones I could possibly let go.  I am not an excessive collector, every instrument has a particular voice and has played an important role in my musical development; but this process was about revisiting each instrument and thinking deliberately about how much I use it, and how likely I might be to use it again.  Some, like my electric guitar and cello, I knew were indispensible, but among the instruments I finally decided to advertise were a kemenche (Turkish fiddle), a balalaika (3-stringed Russian instrument with a triangular body), a kalangu (Nigerian talking drum) and several other African drums.  After reconnecting with these instruments, in the context of letting them go, I decided to give them a final fling, to record with them all one more time before they moved on.  The kemenche in particular determined an important thread in the Kro Gnosis recordings, namely the North African / Middle Eastern flavours in many of the pieces.

In wanting to record the kalangu and other drums, I remembered that I had previously archived a series of basic rhythm patterns played on my set of dunduns (African bass drums), thinking that at some point they could provide foundations for future projects.  There were seven rhythms, so I made my way through each one, sampling & looping sections, tweaking them electronically in places, to create the underlying patterns for each track.  I then built on these rhythms using djembe, kalangu, tambour and other drums, plus various percussion instruments (shakers, agogo bells etc).  It was great to be working with organic rhythms and polyrhythms again, after so many projects with an arrhythmic focus.

Another inspiration was relistening to an album by Vieo Abiungo, called The Dregs. It is a rich tapestry of sounds, melding organic percussion with viola da gamba and scratchy textural loops to create a musical hybrid, suggestive of African and other ethnic acoustica, yet of its own form.  This blending was a big influence on my choice of instruments and musical pallette for the new recordings.

The piece I Called Your Name, But You Could Not Hear began with a lopsided dundun rhythm.  It was an odd rhythm to add anything to, but I found a 6/8 pattern by way of textural ‘accident’ on the tongue drum. While trying to determine the timing, I was tapping a rhythmic one-note pulse on the tongue drum with my finger, rather than a rubber mallet, which set up certain sympathetic resonances from the ‘tongues’ or notes on either side. With my other hand I played the side of the instrument using a wire drum brush to fill out the rhythm, which added other ambient metallic resonances.  Over this I added some drifting harmony notes played with the mallet, and heavily modified samples of kemenche that float in and out with an almost voice-like quality. The title reflects those moments when people we love are in our thoughts but contact is impossible, and our yearning reaches out for them across the ether.

I knew that I wanted to play cello bass & kemenche on these recordings, but this presented a physical challenge: could my recovering left hand apply enough pressure to the cello strings to sound notes?  Could my fingers, with their limited movement, sustain a recurring bass pattern?  As each piece evolved, I let my hand guide me as to its limits, keeping the bass patterns simple, and allowing regular rests.  Similarly, the bowed cello parts, and the kemenche (bowed & plucked), all required my left hand to be very active, and ultimately I felt that the organic movements were good strengthening exercises for my recovering hand & wrist.  I also found economic solutions – I recorded small samples of a pattern and looped them with some creative editing, rather than playing continuously throughout a piece.

I have no training in playing cello or kemenche, and no bowing technique to speak of, so any time I approach either instrument I am just trying to see what sounds I can approximate by ear and feel, what I can get away with.  After all, music is a language of illusion, and approaching any instrument this way keeps my creative curiosity open. My first attempt here was the track A Perpetual Annihilation Of Self, in which the cello is a bit loose but I like its mournful meandering quality. As the pieces progressed, though, I developed more confidence and precision, especially in bowing the kemenche.  I’m particularly pleased with what I managed to squeeze out of my wretched sawing on The One Who Wears Wool and Ishtar Rising. I think the rawness of my playing, in combination with the kemenche’s hoarse, throaty texture, really suits the earthy aspects of the music, and even winks at hillbilly in places.  Perhaps one day I’ll get around to replacing the broken third string and my scratchings will be carried to new heights…

Several aspects of this album are continuations of things begun on Temple, musically and conceptually.  Musically, the most obvious continuation is the use of the kalimba and tongue drum, and the Tibetan singing bowl to a lesser extent.  On many of the pieces I’ve featured the kalimba as a main melodic element.  One of my first experiments was the opening track, Chaos Magick, in which the tunings of the kalimba and tongue drum lend themselves to a vibes-like jazz leaning which I’ve utilised elsewhere on the album. In fishing for a title for this piece, down several rabbit holes of intrigue, I discovered the history of Chaos Magick. I’m familiar with many different currents of magickal tradition in history, but had somehow missed this one. Chaos Magick refers to a form of esoteric practice that deliberately discards formalised ritual traditions, and instead involves open states of non-structured intuitive process, famously described by William Burroughs’ use of the ‘cut-up’ technique in writing, and used by many as a deliberate focus in creative magick. This resonated with my own open approaches to making music, and self-transformative creativity in general.

In the second half of Ishtar Rising, I recorded an initial melody idea on kalimba, then detuned it with a ring modulator filter, which I think gives it a playful electronic quality. Elsewhere I’ve used techniques I discovered while making the Temple recordings, modifying the kalimba until it sounds more like an electric keyboard.  Also in the same piece I’ve included a section using a beautiful hand-made African balafon I bought in Melbourne back in the 90s, one of three African instruments that have stayed with me ever since.  Ishtar was a central goddess in ancient Mesopotamian culture, thought to be a continuation of the earlier Sumerian goddess Inanna.  Ishtar was a multifaceted Queen of Heaven, giver of all life: in her celestial form she was the planet Venus, the morning and evening star; she was also goddess of love & sexuality, and the goddess of war. For me, this piece has a celebratory quality, a dance in honour of those archetypal forces in life.

I recycled the rasping resonances of the Tibetan singing bowl from Temple to add texture on Chaos Magick and Life Is Fire.  On the latter, the sound has a warmer quality because the recording has been slowed considerably. I surprised myself in creating such an upbeat piece, and found myself uplifted by its feeling of forward motion. The heartbeat is the shuffling brushes rhythm, which I played on the hard cover of a book that was on my desk, and the kalimba and tongue drum float over the pulse adding a dreamy layer. The subtle fx on the dundun rhythm remind me of the bouncy reverb of a thongafone. This piece also uses recordings of people speaking the phrase ‘life is fire’ in a variety of languages, as much for the sound shapes they add to the music as their underlying message of universality.

Conceptually, at least in following the flow of my thoughts as I created this album, Kro Gnosis continues from Temple‘s underlying themes of the sacred and the divine, the search within, the dissolution of self and the transcendent.  Whereas the previous album referenced a spiritual sense in common with Asian philosophies, Kro Gnosis makes its connections through darker shades of mysticism, the shamanic & alchemic traditions, the fiery devotion and divine self-immolation of Sufism.  In creating this album, I found a new sense of optimism, of emergent Light and momentum, a relief after persistent darkness. In fact the album’s name came from the title track, Kro Gnosis, which makes a sly nod in the direction of the Crow’s Knowing – symbol in so many cultures of access to the Otherworld, interdimensional intelligence, a winged messenger from the Void, with a lazy facade and a scrutinous, piercing gaze.  With its lazy ‘Low Rider’ groove, it put me to mind of the kind of crazy Crow Shaman who appears laidback but is always watching.  The pseudo-Tuvan throatsinging was a spontaneous eruption: I was listening through the track and suddenly felt it needed an extra rhythmic layer, and without thinking I started vocalising it in the gutteral tone that appears on the recording.  I immediately liked its texture, its playful humour and the connotation of Central Asian shamanism.  Somewhere in the formation of the title was also a play on the word ‘kronos’ – time, or perhaps in this case, stepping outside of time….the Kro Gnosis.  Musing on ‘crow-ness’, it occurred to me that they are one of the most blatantly un-camouflaged birds – as if cut from the black of night, and yet brazenly daydwelling.  (Synchronistically, I watched the movie Kundun around the time of this recording; it depicts finding the reincarnation of the current Dalai Lama – his presence indicated by three crows outside his family’s home, just as three crows had signalled his previous incarnation.)

The Middle Eastern flavours of the music suggested by the kemenche drew me to read more about Sufism, which in turn fed my ideas in the music.  The ‘Perpetual Annihilation Of Self’ can be found in many mystic and spiritual traditions, including Buddhism and Christianity – the processes of surrendering control, subjugation of the ego, sacrifice of the self, becoming Nothing in the face of the inexpressible Mystery.  In similar territory, though tongue in cheek, the final track The One Who Wears Wool contains a double-entendre: in adding fx to one of the kemenche sounds, I could hear a lamb bleating.  This amused me somewhat, and my thoughts spread out to traditions of animal sacrifice, the Sacrificial Lamb, Lamb of God etc – which circled back to thoughts of the sacrifices one makes in life, and the sacrificing of self.  I read that in Sufism, the passionate sacrifice of the self (ego) was paramount in attaining unity with the divine; I then learnt that the earliest known meaning of the word ‘sufi’ is recorded as ‘one who wears wool’, as these mystics wore only woolen robes, which seemed to weave together all my wandering threads perfectly, hence the title.

The Unravelled Alchemist also contains something of a private joke.  Its offkilter rhythm suggested a certain drunken atmosphere, a woozy dreamwobble, and I imagined an alchemist having succumbed to the vapours of his magickal chemicals – or simply having travelled too far beyond the outer / inner limits of his consciousness, via his magickal methods.  The history of alchemy is fascinating and can be traced back through Arabic roots, to deeper roots in Ancient Greece and beyond to Egypt, all of which are suggested musically in this piece (interesting that alchemic traditions also developed ‘independently’ in both India and China around these times).  I decided to use the balalaika for the melody, and it reminds me of Greek rembetika music.  On listening back over the track, I was also amused by its hints of Ravel’s Bolero (a classical music piece that fascinated me as a boy), and so the threads converged in the title – un-Ravelled. On a more sober note, I was also acknowledging that my life process is a constant unravelling, a falling apart that forces me engage with the alchemic transmutation of paradoxical elements in order to persist.

The burning eye in the cover image is a detail of a photo taken by Heidi a couple of years back. I just love the dark fiery intensity of the crow’s stare and couldn’t resist using it for this collection. The Crow knows…