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Enlightened Aesthetics: LOUISE LANDES LEVI with Raymond Foye. The Brooklyn Rail, February 2020

This interview took place in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan on November 4 & 5, 2019.

Louise Landes Levi. Courtesy Blank Forms. Photo: Lena Shkoda.

Poet, musician, and translator, Louise Landes Levi was an original member of Daniel Moore’s fusion orchestra and experimental theater troupe the Floating Lotus Magic Opera Company in Berkeley, in the late 1960s, where she played alongside Angus MacLise and Terry Riley in outdoor productions that included Balinese gamelan, Tibetan ceremonial instruments, actors, puppets, and chant. Four decades later, Levi continues to practice this tradition in her own way. New recordings and reissues of her music have recently appeared on labels such as Oaken Palace, Sloow Wax, and Soundohm. Levi was visiting New York at the invitation of Lawrence Kumpf and Blank Forms to perform her music at Josiah McElheny’s solo show, Observations at Night, at the James Cohan Gallery. 

Louise Landes Levi: Before I begin, one thing I want to say: it’s amazing to think that I met you here in the Chelsea Hotel, over 30 years ago—when was it, 1988? I had my sārangī with me—

Raymond Foye (Rail): Yes you did—

Levi: It was wrapped up with yellow cloth and flowers and you thought it was a tent—so beautiful, to think that.

Rail: Well, it is a form of shelter, isn’t it?

Levi: It is, definitely.

Rail: For many years you played on the street, what was it like being a street musician?

Levi: What was it like? Very magical. Things that took place on the street, and while hitchhiking also, clearly had a dimension that belonged not just to the outsider but to the exiled divinity. All kinds of very synchronistic and strange things would happen. For example I would always make exactly the amount I needed. I’d go there and I’d think, “I need $25 tonight,” and that’s exactly what I’d get. Or I’d make much more, and suddenly someone would pass and they needed some money, or I had a debt to repay. I came to understand that outside of the rational systems in which people believe themselves to exist, there are many other systems. And playing on the street was a kind of vehicle to the understanding of these other systems—systems that would work on my behalf if I appealed to them. If I did not have conventional protection, they would protect me. I mean “they”—these energies.

Rail: How did you make the decision to play on the street?

Levi: Well, it didn’t happen all at once. When I tired of my bookstore job my best friend said, “why don’t you just play in the street?” because I was a flute player. She said, “just give up the bookstores and try to play in the street.” So I started to do that, it was very ceremonial, I liked it very much. I had a bike, and I put some flowers and my flute in the back of my bicycle. I was playing Bach, I was playing really good music. One day I was at a weekly antiques market in Amsterdam, the Nieuwmarkt, opposite the Café Bern where I went anyway, my kind of space. There was a small sārangī in the shop, a folk instrument. I picked it up and started to play, and I knew absolutely I had to play sārangī on the street, I must never play flute anymore, only sārangī.

Rail: Had you studied sārangī before?

Avenue A & 9th Street. Journals 1999-2000, Shivastan Publishing, Woodstock, NY, 2004

Levi: Oh, yes, by then I’d studied in India with Ustad Abdul Majid Khan, a disciple of Ustad Alladiya Khan, and the great sārangī master Bundt Khansahib. From 1969 to 1972 I was living in and around Bombay, studying with great figures like Annapurna Devi, and meeting the junior Dagar Brothers, who I later lived with as their servant and student, in London.

Rail: The reason I’m fascinated by the street-musicianship is I’ve always had this picture of you wandering through the world, just floating, the wandering Jew, the exile; you’re always in these liminal states. 

Levi: Absolutely. But another thing about the street, that is where the great meeting took place with the person who really transformed my musical understanding. One day I was playing on the street in Amsterdam, and I saw this noble figure on the other side of the bridge, and I had to absolutely attract that person. So I played my favorite melody, which was a melody I learned from Annapurna Devi. He just started walking toward me, I was terrified. I had this feeling that we were—pardon me for saying—part of some ancient circle, around the Bharata Nāṭya Śāstra. I recognized that he had a connection to a very ancient aesthetic formula. But we just spoke like hippies, you know, “Where are you hanging out in Amsterdam? Oh, this is a good cafe? Are you making enough money?” This was Klaus Wiese, who at the time was playing with Popol Vuh, and doing his own music. He was a very particular person, what we would call now a drone artist: a very deep meditative sound artist. Then I saw him by chance again, and again, and I ended up studying with him in Munich. It wasn’t conventional study, but I somehow arrived there after about a year. Klaus Wiese was the person who gave me the understanding that you could take a whole aesthetic system and transform it, like Ezra Pound’s Make It New. You could transform a tradition without losing it.

Rail: In other words you are adapting a system from one discipline to another?

Levi: Not really adapting, no, you’re not adapting anything. You’re using your own experience of the beauty of the music and the power it has conveyed to you, and perhaps even your understanding that this particular music was in its origin a transmission, it was a vehicle for grace, for liberation—a kind of Bhakti yoga. Of course all music is the vehicle for grace. But somehow because the mantras still exist in our time frame, we can track it more easily, I think. But it was not adapting anything because that would be conscious, it’s allowing the experience of the music to transform itself within you. You’re not controlling, you’re not looking for a new formula, rather you are giving the experiences of the bhavas or rasas a new dimension with which to modify both your consciousness and—if you’re a good artist—the consciousness of others. In the Indian classic system there are two veins so to speak, one for the virtuoso musicians, and one for the “poets.” The poetic compositions provided the basis for the improvisation. I somehow tapped into a way in which poetic consciousness could enter into and directly modify and be modified by the evolution of notes.

Rail: You mention the Bharata Nāṭya Śāstra, and the rasas, maybe it’s a good moment to explain these things.

Levi: The Bharata Nāṭya Śāstra is considered to be the fifth Veda in the Indian epistemology, written down by a musicologist and theologian named Bharata Muni. It was transmitted to him by the celestial musician Narada, and Bharata transmitted it to his disciples, the actors and musicians in his theater. The classic four Vedas were closed to those who were not male Brahmins, therefore most of society had no access to the sacred word. This was considered by the celestials to be a terrible deficit, as the Vedas contained the instructions on liberation. They gave the Bharata Nāṭya Śāstra to society so they would have an enlightened system of aesthetics, applicable to music, theater, dance, et. al., we could call it multi-disciplinary or “total” theater. René Daumal was the first to realize that this text had a living message, a living energy for contemporary artists. The rasas are the aspects or varieties of aesthetic experience in the arts: the word is sometimes translated as “flavors” or “taste.”

Performance poster, Futuro Cafe, Osaka. March 8, 2020

Rail: What is the function of the drone in music for you, and its relationship to silence?

Levi: For me, silence per se is not really the ground—luminosity is the ground. I suppose silence and luminosity are the same for certain people, but for me the ground is luminosity. But even the Tibetans assert that sound produces light, or is its vehicle. They understand sound as the absolute ground and describe its modifications: sound, light, wave, color, form. In the Indian system the tambura provides the drone, those are the fundamental notes from which the others can or will emerge. The higher manifestation of the drone in our modern world would be the alap in Indian classical music. It develops directly from the drone: a very slow elaboration of a melodic principle.

Rail: Why is the drone so popular in western music today?

Levi: That’s easy to explain: because we have lost the fundamental tone. If you study harmonics, it’s like studying the Fibonacci numeral system—it’s a system of perfection. Mathematics is the ground and encompasses every kind of natural modification or progression. The Indian system perfected this. The return to just intonation in our time has meant a return to nature, to natural pure harmonics, over- and undertones, with the intent of opening the mind. This begins to manifest in the postwar period in the music of Giacinto Scelsi in Italy, and of course Terry Riley and La Monte Young, maybe Harry Partch, certainly in Harry Smith’s Anthology [of American Folk Music], and probably in other music that we don’t know about or hear about—people who understood that to transform the mind you had to transform the musical system, or open it up to a new horizon.

Rail: So you found a corresponding relationship between Indian music and just intonation?

Levi: Oh yes. Just intonation in its very first progressions is the same as the strings of a tambura, it would be easy for me to show you this on a keyboard. Just the other day, it was the Day of the Dead, and I listened to Doc Watson’s “Am I Born to Die?” with his father-in-law Gaither Carlton on violin. When I heard that violin I got chills all over my body. Now he’s not going to say “Yeah, I’m studying just intonation”—but the harmonics are so perfected, so beautiful. When I was studying with Ali Akbar Khan, he knew that only a small percent of the people in those classes could absorb his knowledge, but he also knew that everyone would have a transformative experience because of the great perfection of the tonalities, that everyone would improve, their ear would improve, so it was like a service he was providing.

Rail: So these are principles that are operative potentially in all genres of music?

Levi: Of course. It’s not an exaggeration to carry this understanding to bebop. Think of Kerouac or Bob Kaufman, in the 1950s, the breakdown of classical structure, the breakthrough of new intonations. Even La Monte was first a jazz musician. What Indian music offered us was the path, the samaya, but jazz too, tracking backwards to African roots, had the same prerogative. But getting back to the drone question, we are now faced with a calamitous situation, our very planet being destroyed—you can build a little garden, you can put a little flower box out there, etc., and it looks nice—but we’re not able to save the Earth, or the divinities which are part of the natural order. It occurs to me to say that people who hear these just intonations can re-experience the natural divinity in which we are actually living—it is the transmission of divine perfection—as far as we’re able to understand. Those are big words. But I mean to say that nature operates according to numeric expressions that are very precise and can be apprehended as such, directly through the music.

Louise Landes Levi and Francesco Clemente at his Greenpoint Studio, Brooklyn, 2012. Photo by Raymond Foye

Rail: Do you think this was the point Harry Smith was getting at when he put the Robert Fludd illustration of the celestial monochord on the cover of his Anthology?

Levi: Absolutely I do. You can hear it in the music. 

Rail: Did the Anthology mean a lot to you as a musician?

Levi: Right from the very beginning. It was the first awakening. For years afterwards that was the ground-music for me. Even today I still study folk music. I sing with it, I listen to it. I never start one single practice session without singing.

Rail: Has music for you always been transmission?

Levi: It’s been transmission, but it’s also been community. That’s also why I enjoy ensemble music so much: it allows you to experience the psyche of other people without the slightest invasion, and only with the intent to make something harmonious for those who are listening. It’s a very high form of communication, and more beautiful when it’s improvised. May I take a step back?

Rail: Of course. 

Levi: I think when you’re using “drone” you’re not referring to the Indian musical system, but rather this contemporary desire for a certain kind of underlying tone or even principle. But it’s not, as is generally considered, pacifying—it’s really about awakening. The drone is not repressing, it’s an active power. If it was just pacifying you could take a pill. That is what was so interesting about Klaus Wiese’s work: it wasn’t New Age music, but something different that worked with memory, and luminosity.

Recording session, Brooklyn, October 31, 2019. Photo by Lawrence Kumpf

Rail: How is it that there is a whole group of people that includes Tony Conrad and La Monte, and Terry Riley who are all tied in to this one type of music? Is there a root teacher, is it in the air?

Levi: Yes, the root teacher is Pandit Pran Nath, via La Monte Young. La Monte recognized that behind all of our experiments lay a vast knowledge codified and contained in the esoterica of the raga. Fundamentally we were all searching for a spiritual order that would serve as direct introduction to the transcendent or the unspoken, bypassing religious doctrine. The very fact that the Indian music masters were so kind and generous with us indicates that they understood the fluidity of the doctrine they were maintaining.

Rail: What can you tell me about your Mirabai translations, what did that work mean to you, what role did it play in your creative life?

Levi: In my life things happen through signs and symbols, rather than through a more rational blueprint. So there were signs related to Mirabai—I visited all her points of her hagiography in India without knowing that’s what they were. I’ve always loved her poetry, and Kabir also. As soon as I got to India, despite a totally weird situation, the first thing I did was translate Mirabai. In the crumbling home of some Parsi elders I worked with an old pandit who knew all the esoterica, things you don’t get from textbooks. Someone who has walked the walk, lived the essence of those kinds of traditions. I felt I had to translate Mirabai to have a point of personal application for René Daumal’s theories, because I was translating his book Rasa [or Knowledge of the Self: Essays on Indian Aesthetics and Selected Sanskrit Studies] (1982) for New Directions and it was difficult for me. I needed a criteria to concentrate for my own devotional maturation. 

Rene Daumal, Rasa, or Knowledge of the Self. Translated by Louise Landes Levi. New Directions, 1982

Rail: You wanted to test the rasas in actuality?

Levi: Yes, definitely. I didn’t want to write like Mirabai but I wanted to understand how a system of poetics functioned that approached mantra, that conveyed the sacred word. I wanted to understand how someone did that, how they created a system of enlightened aesthetics, as it were.

Rail: In the late ’60s and early ’70s there was a fascinating group of American expatriates in the East: yourself, Ira Cohen and Petra Vogt, Angus and Hettie MacLise, Peter Lamborn Wilson. Historically it was a unique moment.

Levi: I have to say we were fearless. We traveled through Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India. Even my somewhat conservative aunt in Paris (my Romanian relatives, very well established doctors, all) thought it was a wonderful idea for me to travel alone to India, and even bought me a ticket on the Orient Express, to Istanbul. In that brief period, peace reigned. 

Rail: I was traveling in Greece when you performed in New York last month, but I heard about it. So many of my friends were very taken with that performance.

Levi: What a gift, thanks to Blank Forms and Lawrence Kumpf. The experience was fantastic, the gallery was completely full, the audience was so sophisticated—they really, really listened. It was also my first time performing solo in my home city, to people who spoke my mother tongue—I also read poetry. I’m an obscure figure, I was amazed when Blank Forms invited me, but Lawrence was the former director of ISSUE Project in Brooklyn where I was artist in residence and accompanied Catherine Christer Hennix for a concert there, so he knew my “secret” work. 

Rail: I feel that a lot of these things that you are enjoying now have come to you unexpectedly, they’re not anything that you consciously strove for.

Levi: I know, it’s so bizarre. Looking back, it seems my earliest work with the Floating Lotus Magic Opera Company was the blueprint for everything that followed. These past few months in Japan, improvising with Kawabata Makoto, have been so remarkable, he’s a virtuoso on guitar, with his band Acid Mothers Temple, but also a serious soloist and composer. We are all working to discover a new potential. The duet we played was telepathic and very powerful, sustained by the rock “powers” and his truly beautiful  bowing of the electric guitar. I went directly to another realm, I think he did too, sustained by the drone, by the perfected harmonic capacity of the sārangī. Talking about it now, it’s very hard to relate. I would rather not even try….

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