Resonant Frequency #54
Shimmer, Then Disappear
This only happened about 10 years ago, but it may as well have been the Stone Age: I was hanging out in a friend's apartment and he had a few friends staying with him who were passing through town. We were drinking beer. One of them had commandeered the CD player-- he had a big Case Logic binder with him was changing discs every couple of tracks. This dude was in a band, so music was important to him, and he seemed to have interesting taste. I can't remember what else he played, but one track that night stood out. It was electronic, very stark, with a palette that reminded me of nothing so much as the lonely electronic blips in an endless game of Pong. These blips were steady and mostly unchanging, except that every so often they'd surge in volume and become huge and distorted. I'd never heard anything like it. What is this? I asked my friend's friend. "Muslimgauze," he answered. MuslimGAUZE? Like a bandage? "Yeah."
Huh. Nothing about this particular song sounded like it came from the Middle East, but OK, I filed the name away so I could investigate later. The next time I was in Amoeba, I went to the electronic section to see if I could find this Muslimgauze CD. I didn't have the album title-- had forgotten to ask-- but that wasn't a big deal. I'd just get whatever was newest, and that would probably be the one with the track I heard, or so I thought. Well, the Amoeba rack in those days, between new and used copies, had something on the order of 30 Muslimgauze CDs. The covers showed Middle Eastern landscapes, photographs of veiled women, pictures of kids with bloody bandages on their faces. Album titles were along the lines of Vampire of Tehran and Izlamaphobia and Hebron Massacre . I was looking for one particular minimalist electronic track, some experimental ditty, probably created with just a crude tone generator and a mixer, and here I was confronting a massive catalog dedicated to documenting the horror of violence in the Middle East. Who were these guys?
It was just one guy, actually-- Bryn Jones was his name, I would soon learn. First, I had to decide on a CD, and I wound up choosing Jaal ab Dullah on a whim. There was no identifying information on the cover, no track titles or copyright year; the front photograph showed men lounging beneath a canopy in the desert, a camel in the distance gazing at the horizon. On the back was a sepia-toned shot of an open-air marketplace. All very uninflected, no clue as to what kind of music might be inside. It didn't have the track I was looking for, it turns out, or anything even close-- in fact I still haven't found it-- but Jaal ab Dullah it was. This was my entry into the vast Muslimgauze catalog.
I started thinking about Muslimgauze again in the last month because I picked up a used CD, this one a 2xCD set called Veiled Sisters , a few days before Christmas. Muslimgauze is an artist where I buy a CD pretty much every time I see one for less than $8 used (I live far from Amoeba now, and Jones died in early 1999 of a rare blood disorder, so I don't see as many as I once did), but this was the first one I'd acquired in a couple of years. And while Veiled Sisters is actually one of the duller Muslimgauze records I've heard-- it's earlier work, and consists mostly of extremely long and repetitive techno-influenced grooves, with little in the way of dynamics-- it brought me back into Jones' strange orbit.
I've wanted to write about Muslimgauze for a while, but as with Merzbow or Jandek, I've hesitated because I never felt qualified. The equation works like this: I have roughly a dozen Muslimgauze records + there have been at least 200 released = I know jack about Muslimgauze. And it's true. I can't tell you about how the discs I know fit into his career or the years where his sound underwent transformation. (Fortunately, all of this is pretty well documented on The Messenger , the Muslimgauze version of the GBV database, which is overflowing with minutiae. Everything you'd ever want to know about what he was about, you can find there.)
Still, even though I can't credibly speak to the Muslimgauze oeuvre as a whole, Bryn Jones' project is still so fascinating, and continues to raise so many questions, I've never stopped thinking about it. His catalog is also hugely variable, with ambient releases, extended atmospheric exercise, remixes and collaborations, and beat-oriented discs that reference almost every style of electronic music around in the 1990s at some point. Still, just about everything that draws me into Muslimgauze can be found on Jaal ab Dullah , and since this was my first, it'll probably always be my favorite.
A few quick facts about Bryn Jones are important: He was born in Manchester; he lived his entire life in England; he was not Muslim and he never studied Islam formally; he never once visited the Middle East; he despised the United States and Israeli governments; the bulk of his albums are in one way or another "about" (more on this in a sec) what he saw as the oppression of the Muslim world by the forces of the West. These facts are notable because the conflict breaks down among ethnic and religious lines; for an artist to dedicate his life to expressing himself about the situation, with a focus and energy rightly described as fanatical (he released more than dozen albums a year at times), but without a specific affiliation with either side, well, that's pretty unusual.
Jones was a loner; he felt part of no tribe, lacked the energy of a community to sustain him. But his outrage drove him to create some of the most focused political art in music. Obviously, from the standpoint of a curious listener looking to explore, with Muslimgauze there's an instant hook: it's odd work from an odd guy, and everyone likes an eccentric. But actually engaging with the stuff is complicated. The central tension in Muslimgauze is the relationship between Jones' politics and the Muslimgauze presentation and what happens when you actually put the records on. Things don't quite work as you might expect.
Though politics are best explored with a grasp of nuance, Muslimgauze records are purely visceral. Titles are designed to shock ("Israeli Bullet Passing Through the Body of a Palestinian Child" is a track on No Human Rights for Arabs in Israel ); cover images (a pre-teen girl holding a machine gun, a portrait of the Ayatollah Khomeini) are chosen to feel alien and intimidating to Western eyes. But there's more going on than just provocation. Despite how on the nose Jones could be, a strong element of humor sometimes made its way to the records. One album is called Iranair Inflight Magazine , and the track titles and images are taken from the publication. The track titles sometimes commented on the music ("Find the Missing Chord I Play"). Jaal ab Dullah has one track called "Kabul Is Free Under a Veil" and another called "Kabul Isn't Free Under a Veil".
All this is the wrapping the music comes in; aside from sampled voice, sometimes singing but mostly speaking, the Muslimgauze records I've heard are purely instrumental. Of the dozens of questions implicit in Muslimgauze's music-- Is there content beyond shock value? Does his political stance withstand scrutiny? If he was an anti-Semite, does listening to his music implicate the listener?-- one that's easy to overlook is: What does this music do ? It's possible-- if not entirely responsible-- to meet the music on this level only, to hear it as I did that first night in my friend's apartment, as a new and unique and completely engrossing sound. Ultimately, the sound of Muslimgauze's records is the most visceral aspect of all, but it also has the most tenuous connection to what one might understand as project's "message."
As a listening experience, Jaal ab Dullah is thrilling. For all the welcome talk about poorly conceived mastering these days, this is probably the loudest record I own, which suits the music perfectly. As was Jones' practice, the drums were played live, not looped, and recorded onto analog tape. From there, Jones approached the layered tracks with a dub sensibility, throwing in phasing effects, echo, and sudden shifts in volume. Some of the compression is insane, encircling the percussion hits in a spiky halo of grating distortion. But Jones was also a fan of extreme dynamics. Some tracks begin with seconds of pinging electronics so distant they are barely audible but which then amplify to speaker-blowing levels in an instant. The rhythms come from around the world-- "Bombay Vinyl Junkie" has a hip-hop sensibility, accentuated by the grinding and abrasive needle thrashing that serves a melodic function, while "Ultra Orthodox, And No Cheating" has the feel of North Africa-- and are being continually deconstructed, with dub drop-outs and weird, glitchy splices. The album grooves, hard, but in a way that always feels off-balance. Tracks either go on a bit too long, past the point when they've ceased to develop, or like on "The Zouave Who Turned a Blind Ear", they disappear after a minute, just at the point when they've starting to build some momentum.
But how, exactly, these vicious and exhilarating tracks are to be squared with titles like "Bengal Motorcycle Death Trap" is never clear. Muslimgauze was fuelled by disgust with oppression, but the music has a disturbingly ambiguous relationship to power. The drums are so visceral, so unyielding in their force and the throb of repetition, they can conceivably be heard as fascistic. When you hear voices crying out in Arabic amid the crushing beats, with song titles that rail against the domination of the weak by the strong, you can certainly feel the force of what's being conveyed, but a suitable response-- anger, disgust, sadness-- is nowhere to be found. Instead, the music is so forceful and aggressive it can feel like a celebration of power, an aural violence that borders on the pornographic. Unlike other records with disturbing imagery and brutal sonics, Muslimgauze never feels like a cartoon. So listening to it, knowing everything I know about who Bryn Jones was and what he stood for, can feel wrong, almost to the point where I feel guilty. But that's part of the package, I suppose-- all these forces happening at once are what make this music so singular. At times I've wondered, given Jones' concerns, what kind of records he might have made if he'd lived to see the post-9/11 world, and it's almost too much to contemplate.
by Mark Richardson (February 8, 2008)
on Pitchfork: Resonant Frequency