Andrew Joron
The Theremin in My Life                  (page 2)

The shimmering resonances produced by the strings of the tambura in Indian classical music also seem to give voice to this Earth-hum, or ground-tone of Being. However, the tambura traditionally has been used only to accompany the singing or playing of a musical virtuoso, its drone providing the context but not the primary content of the performance. In the late twentieth century, the minimalist composer LaMonte Young transformed the tambura into a dreamweapon by using it as a primary solo instrument in its own right. As Young wrote in the liner notes of his CD The Tamburas of Pandit Pran Nath (Just Dreams JD 001), “For me, the tambura evokes the sensation of primordial time: OM, the creation of the universe . . . a reaffirmation of the sustained sounds from my childhood, the hum of high-tension lines, the wind blowing tones . . . these sounds eventually became the basis of a new genre of music of long sustained tones.”

To wield a dreamweapon must be empowering, even liberating; yet accession to the ground-tone of Being must also be overwhelming to the finite mind, and therefore equally disempowering. The build-up of vibrations can shatter a gong. A dreamweapon can also be turned against oneself. Here lies the difference between Eastern and Western mysticism: in the East, the encounter with the Absolute is supposed to bring about a sense of serenity; in the West, this encounter more often rends the human spirit with a violent admixture of joy and fear. What is the primordial sound if not the roar of the abyss?

Such a sound must surpass the language of music. Even more, it must threaten to burst apart the human frame: this seems to be the argument of the Pre-Raphaelite poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s sonnet LXXIX, “The Monochord.” (The sonnet may refer to a device engineered or imagined centuries earlier by the Renaissance magus Robert Fludd: consisting of a single string on a fretboard, the monochord was not a musical instrument but a philosophical tool intended, not only to illustrate the Pythagorean theory of harmony, but to mimic the vibratory orders of cosmic creation itself.) For Rossetti, the audition of the monochord must provoke a kind of spiritual emergency:

Is it this sky's vast vault or ocean's sound
    That is Life's self and draws my life from me
    And by instinct ineffable decree
Holds my breath quailing on the bitter bound?
Nay, is it Life or Death, thus thunder-crown'd
    That 'mid the tide of all emergency
    Now notes my separate wave, and to what sea
Its difficult eddies labour in the ground?

Oh! what is this that knows the road I came,
The flame turned cloud, the cloud returned to flame,
    The lifted shifted steeps and all the way? —
That draws round me at last this wind-warm space,
And in regenerate rapture turns my face
    Upon the devious coverts of dismay?

As a poet, I have heard the susurrus, the reverb of the verbal Monochord. Its meaninglessness comes across as its most frightening and, at the same time, its most meaningful aspect. It is sound organized as sound, complicating itself beyond intent, as a crystal or a storm cell. It is the hum of the Earth—or, as Mallarmé put it, the Orphic explanation of the Earth. At moments of transport, the primordial radiation, the background sound of language suddenly becomes foreground—a poem alone allows for the soloing of this sound. What is an apparatus made of words, but designed to transmit the susurrus of a Word beyond words—if not a poem?

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