'A Voice in the Wilderness: Seance vs. Vision Music' (1975)
[The following is a classic statement on voice and breath by Charlie Morrow, who for many years has been my collaborator and close companion (at times my mentor) in the elaboration of performative works that touch on both music and verbal language. The occasion for posting it here is the appearance of a retrospective gathering of Morrow’s written work, The Book of Numbers and Spells, set for publication this year by Sean McCann and Recital in Los Angeles. Filled with instructive and often inspired directives, along with a treasury of handwritten scores and notations, the book is a contribution as well to our poetics as it continues to unfold into the new century and millennium. (J.R.)]
The single most striking aspect of music in our culture is its relationship to
death. The ‘highest’ music is performed in a special insulated and vibrant
indoor location where listeners sit motionless and soundless while darkly
dressed, carefully schooled, and carefully moving musicians play the music of a
This seance is magic made possible by the written note. With the written note,
the musician becomes the medium through which ideas and energies of the
long gone spirit live again. Image and sound recording expand this process.
In most of the world, written music and written words are just recently entering
verbal and musical traditions. And learning orally means learning the personal
style of the teacher, not just a melody, words, and a general style.
In this age when death is more abundant and violence more colossal than in the
past, the reality of death is farther and farther from consciousness. Food is never
seen as dead animals and plants. Killing and death are divorced in many minds.
Our old people and old traditions are packed away, named and coded, and
disappear from daily life.
As a performer, one allows the audience to enter his place, his mind, his spirit.
You open up the possibility of behavior not acceptable in other areas of life.
Social dancing is one area where music and musicians let the people act crazy.
As people enter my space, I consider what makes that process possible, not just
in music, but in all performing arts, religious ritual, sports, the performances of
everyday life. And how does this relate to death transcendence?
Death transcendence is the highest magic, and is the extremest form of the
physical, mental and emotional changes that ‘being in someone else’s place’
affords. It is the entering of a person’s place, commonly associated with sexual
activity, that is the highly charged process. And trickiness is necessary to bring
it off: heroic skills, wondrous memory, charismatic personality, inventive and
revelatory ideas, an evocative body, androgynous appearance, etc. These tricks
turn up in mythology as the play of the gods. Zeus as swan, bull; God as the
word, the whirlwind; Coyote as creature upstream from washing women who
sends his penis downstream and gets them all; Schools as seminaries.
In Don Juan, Don Gennaro, the old sorcerer, leaps from stone to stone down a
perilous cataract. And the high artist is the high sorcerer who can do a trick a
culture wants to believe.
But it is magic within all of us that is being tapped in these tricks. And in
finding myself being entered, l want to know what is the magic in everyone and
where do my tricks begin. This common ground is what must be established to
prevent exploitation of people hungry for transformation, but ready to buy the
politics of franchised religion. The stranglehold that organized religion has on
magic and spiritual processes, most of which resides in the individual, is a most
The common ground is our bodies and minds BREATH, VOICE, GESTURE.
Over and above this common matrix are the ‘codes’ of language and customs
of our species, countries, regions, neighborhood, social and professional clans.
Breath is unique as the universal carrier of information. Its range of
colors and rates is enormous. We know emotional and physical states from
each other’s breath. And breathing, to some degree, is the basis of cross-
species understanding. Each species has its own range of clock rates, with
corresponding physical (respiration, heartbeat) states.
Breath chant: a group can follow and duplicate, in unison chorus, the breathing
of one person. The breathing can be any form: emotional and dramatic (stories),
regular and meditative, holding and letting go, etc., as the role of leader is taken by
different persons and the group unison is continued. The group acquires a sense
of each person’s unique state.
This ‘tracking’ procedure seems able to transmit anybody’s state.
If so, we probably can and do know a lot about each other in all the
transactions of life. The power of this breath transaction also suggests that the
reaction we get from much of performance comes from the breath level, and
not all from the verbal and musical languages, which are further illuminations.
The voice is the fundamental illumination of the breath, filling breath of many
colors with sound of many colors. The rhythm of voice in relationship to the
rhythm of breath seems to effect time perception. (Gesture seems to be in an
equal place with voice.)
Voice enters breath as resonances in the body. The bell, with low vibration at
the rim and higher partials up to its dome, is an idealized respiratory column:
low vowels and grumbles in the belly, higher and higher through the chest,
throat, to mouth and nasal space. All can ring in different ways at once.
In many chant systems, the vibrating parts of the body serve particular ends.
The use of bell and gong sound can serve to focus on the body ringing.
Voice, coming from various resonating combinations, tells of states of
self, regions of the world, and stereotypes invoked. The voices of musical
instruments function similarly.
Voice is also what we hear from our sound environment, animate and
inanimate. It is easy to understand the world as filled with various spirits and
voices. Imparting cognition and volition to the wind, etc., is naturally another
issue. Imitation of voices reflects the way images have entered our personal
Imitating voices comes in several ways: I hear something and respond
spontaneously, or I imitate something consciously, or I dream something and
do it, or I study something and present it. The response to the original voice
in each case is delayed differently and colored differently. But all relate to the
Little children play with the sound world, answering reflexively; field frogs and
other signaling creatures play with the reflex, taking turns leading and following.
There is both a compulsion to answer and the desire to evoke and answer. This
game is a fundamental music, a linguistic music. In music where there is only
melody, most of the world’s music, the role shifting in answering and counter-
pointing expands this game. Basic forms are echoing, dialogue, and follow the
Chanting, as a way of traveling between or dwelling on various body resonances
and voice locations, is found in all cultures. By chanting, I mean vocal music
where voice is primary and if there are instruments, they propel and punctuate.
From breathing we know our moods and gross physical states. From chanting
we know ourselves better as ‘bells,’ and collections of voices (places in and out
of ourselves). From playing with our unisons and reflex responses, we join with
each other and our environment as active spirits.
And we know our artists as magicians who trick us in ways we want to be
tricked. The common matrix of breath, voice and gesture can be tapped
by anyone. But an artist, athlete, priest, or any transcendor is expected to
go beyond what everyone can do within that matrix. In social dancing, for
example, anyone keeping the beat can begin something, but a good band gets
So as a living performer confronted with such high things, I know people will
not enter my body without a seductive process.
In stating this overview publicly, there is my hope that when the ritual context is
established for any activity, that activity can then be that much higher.
Poems and poetics