THE VOICE OF ENERGY VOL. 094
Funny story: After a long week of doing some grunt work for a local record label (moving boxes around, counting inventory) and then spending my evenings working on writing work, I was feeling pretty ahead of the game and confident as, on Thursday night, I spent a few hours transcribing a roughly recorded interview with my guest today, Sussan Deyhim, and getting this week's newsletter together. Everything was all set. I was ready to schedule it and noticed that the time zone was wrong. The only way to fix it was to click on this link to go to my settings. I did so and then went back to my newsletter draft. But I hadn't saved my previous work. So 2/3 of my newsletter was gone, never to be retrieved. Upsetting? To say the least. And as it was late in the evening, I wasn't about to head back and start over. So I held off until this morning - Saturday the 7th - to head back to the drawing board. Did I turn autosave on? Reader, you know that I did.
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That's my intro. See you on the other side.
About 40 years ago, two cultural nomads — Sussan Deyhim and Richard Horowitz — were introduced to one another in a recording studio. The former was a dancer and musician born in Iran who spent her formative years as a member of her home country's national ballet company and a student of the School of Performing Arts in Brussels. After years of working with the prestigious Bejart Ballet, she expatriated to New York and found herself thrown happily into a downtown cultural community that produced future luminaries like Arthur Russell and Steve Reich. The latter is an American who, while living in Paris, fell in to the open arms of the free jazz scene that included Alan Silva and Anthony Braxton before relocating to Morocco to soak in the culture with fellow wanderers Brion Gysin and Paul Bowles. By the time they met, they were both working on individual projects at Noise New York where its owner Frank Eaton recognized them as kindred spirits and insisted they meet. Their creative attraction was immediate and they soon set to work on Desert Equations: Azax Attra, released in 1986 through Crammed Discs. It's a gripping and, at times, distressing work that taps into the rhythms and drones of South America, North Africa, and the Caribbean in a Fourth World fashion, with some acoustic instrumentation but much of it created using then-modern gear like the DX7 and Fairlight. What lifts and electrifies the music like a lightning strike is Deyhim. Her dynamic vocals can light a thousand candles and jarringly stomp and snuff them out from measure to measure on this album. With a recent vinyl reissue of this work. I took the opportunity to spend a little time on the phone with Deyhim from her part-time home in Morocco, to discuss the creation and impact of Desert Equations and her continued work with Horowitz.
So much of the material in the booklet accompanying this reissue, at least with regards to the material you wrote for it, talks about your development as a dancer and falling into the worlds of ballet and dance. But during the time you were in Iran as you were dancing, were you also making music of some sort? Was that part of your world?
Well, I loved music, and I grew up in a very musical family. Everybody, for some reason, decided they could sing or play an instrument. My sister was extremely good at it and she had the golden voice. But I was most interested in dance in those times. I studied dance. As you read in the booklet, we had this camp at the Caspian Sea and they would bring musicians and dancers from all over Iran so we could study with them to really get a vibe of the authenticity of things. That itself was really novel. In Tehran, at that point, the hipsters were into American radio and you'd hear everything that everyone else would hear, outside. Nobody was really talking about the heritage. So, there was a very special moment where our dance company had a foot in the deep, deep roots of Iranian folklore and a foot in the international avant garde. I think that was the core of my formation then and now. It either has to be really ritualistic with deep ceremonial intention or it has to be way futuristic. In between, there's just too many people that are doing things that are trying to produce a good version of the formulaic thing. For me, I had to go to the absolute heart of the roots and traditions or just bring it forward, bring it into the future. Especially, the cultures that I come from and live in, as far as the ancient world is concerned, is making a bridge and a transition in a sensitive way is much more challenging than doing something that is accepted in some of kind of institutionalized Western school. I always felt that there was space for all these things, but if you're really interested in moving the culture forward, you're really going to be lonely.
From what I understand, when you met Richard for the first time, you were recording some vocal pieces for one of your dance performances. Was that pretty typical of your work at the time—combining voice and dance?
Yes, totally because I went to a multimedia and multidimensional performing arts school, and we had all the different kinds of classes. Of course, all the different dance traditions, especially ballet, but we also music classes. We had improvisation classes. We had theater classes. So when I left that school, I started doing my own work, which was a combination of all of the above. Whichever medium I could use it my work that was relevant to what I was doing was included. I did choreography for a solo project I was doing and I felt like silence didn't fit and referential music didn't fit, so I went to studio and tried to do some very experimental vocal techniques. Taking the indigenous vocal works and bringing it into a new medium. That's when I met the studio director Frank Eaton, and he said, "You have to meet this other person who has been recording here tomorrow. You really should do a collaboration together." So I went back and met Richard who had his Moroccan babouche and metallic briefcase. He looked like a person from five different realities. We did once piece for Richard's album Eros In Arabia and then Frank said, "Here are my keys, and you can have the studio to do a project together." We actually went for it. This project took two or three years.
Because this project took a few years to complete, were you able to work really quickly together or did the music need time to develop?
Some of it was really quick. I don't remember actually. It didn't feel like we were sweating or anything. We would come in with an idea and think, "Oh, that's kind of cool," and we would nourish it. But it wasn't a very self-conscious, intellectual, "Let's do this because it's cool." Something felt promising and we would continue until we felt like whatever it was became whatever it was. We just tried to make each piece make sense for itself. It did take a long time to put it together between 1982-83 and 1985 and it came out in 1987. Any time Richard came back to New York, we would just go in and work on another piece.
Did you have a lot of say in the musical aspects of these pieces or were you primarily concerned with the vocals and responding to what Richard and the other players were doing?
It really was mutual. We would just play with an idea and the other person would add something and I would add something. It was feeding each other. The only piece... I really love that piece, it's the most timeless piece of music, is "Desert Equations." Richard had that piece and brought it to the studio and it took five days of discussion about whether I should go "ah" or "ooh" or "um," and he won because he said, "You have to just hum it." At first I was like, "Are you sure?" But then I started humming it, and I thought, "Wow, this is a very interesting mysterious place that works for the piece." The vibe is just so genuine and trance-y.
As you were singing and developing these pieces, did you find yourself referencing songs or melodies from Iran or North Africa, these parts of the world where you had spent a significant amount of time?
Not necessarily in a forced way but if there was an influence coming from indigenous heritage, I always embrace it when it comes and it felt like a genuine space for that kind of idea. But I wasn't going to reach for the tradition to try to be authentic in a linear or a literal way. But with Richard and I, the work often came from an affinity with surrealism and ritual and ceremonies. My school in Europe was led by Maurice Bejart who had come from an amazing era of surrealism. His father was a very well-known French philosopher who was friends with Breton and Man Ray. So that kind of vibration of bringing ritual into futurism and abstraction. Both Richard and I had lived in the era of Europe that was very inspired by all that. I always say that I am the daughter of this festival that was in the heart of Persepolis, in the city of Shiraz. That was one of the most important avant garde festivals of the ’70s. As a dancer, my company would be sent there to study and to be influenced by dance companies and theater companies. Everything in it purely came from deep, deep roots of indigenous cultures of India and Iran and Indonesia. Suddenly you had John Cage and Stockhausen and the Living Theater and Martha Graham. It was this schized out environment of excellence from such vast areas. That was my formation, my initiation with both the ancient stuff and this incredible intellectual Western experimental material on such an intellectual level. It was all subsidized by the Ministry of Culture in Iran. They kept the echelon of people invited really high. I was lucky to be exposed to all that. It blew me away. I was supposed to be a scientist and then I became a dancer. My father goes, "Really? You're going to go to a dance school?" I said, "Uhhhh, maybe?"
I'm glad you brought up the influence of the avant garde on your work, because listening to Desert Equations, some of the sounds you generate with your voice are so strange and, at times, sound almost not human. Where did that come from? Were you just pushing your voice to see how far you could take it?
Again, starting from the festival, I was always fascinated by the capacity of human vocal cords. I'm amazed at what these two quarter-sized cords can produce from Wagner to Strauss to pygmies to Persian classical music to raga music to Bollywood to gospel. It's the same vocal cords that can produce this astounding array of sounds. I became very interested in experimental vocal works. Living in New York, we really concentrated on extended vocal techniques. For me, it had to be really edgy and abstract like what you're talking about or it had to become the roots. My training was in classical. As much as I loved European music, I felt like, really who needs another opera singer? If it's your real passion but for me, the indigenous vocal techniques in the global sense really nobody was bringing it on. People would come and do the tradition from their culture and country and talk about their nation, but as a tapestry — this astounding valuable and precious tapestry of textural possibilities with vocal cords coming from these traditions that are rich traditions connected to sensuality, connected to ceremonial rituals. I always reconstructed these vocal techniques but in a whole different context. That is still what I do. I think it's pretty much I had to be able to create a technique so I could sing something close to the pygmies or close to raga singing or is close to this tradition or that tradition. To be able to train the vocals in a flexible way. And because I'm an electronic singer, I don't sing acoustically like at an opera house which is very, very specific or else you won't project in a 5,000-seat theater. In my case because I have the luxury of a brilliant mic, then I could be quieter and create a lot of different soundscapes within the cavity of my vocal resonance. So all these different vibes and sounds really came from studying aurally because some of these traditions are studied aurally. No one is able to teach you what is behind the pygmy singing. You can study everything else about the culture but for this you have to deconstruct it yourself. How do you produce this sound? Is it in your head voice, your chest voice? Vocal cords and the art of singing are really complex. You don't really see your vocal cords. It's not like your body where you can stretch yourself and suddenly you seem taller. It's this mysterious inward instrument.
Out of the recording and release of this album came that Azax Attra performances that you and Richard gave at La MaMa Theatre in New York. What can you tell me about those?
Those performances were pretty much like dada. Very abstract and very nonlinear. No language and no literal storytelling. It was a serious of very abstract tableau combining music and visuals. It was a group of scenes being intertwined with live music or just my vocals. Occasionally another instrument, but it was pretty much the early days of Mac and Fairlight. Richard handled that. We were associated with La MaMa, which was Ellen Stewart's company. It was a laboratory of experimental theater since the ’60s. Anyone from Sam Shepherd to Robert Wilson to Harvey Keitel had a passage through La MaMa. When I went to New York, somebody introduced me to Ellen Stewart and she asked me to join a production, and after that she got to know my own work and said, "I'd like to present your solo work." Richard and I did two projects with Ellen Stewart that were considered operas or performance art. In those days, people really didn't talk about performance art, but it was really a performance art piece. And also we did one at Carnegie Hall. After that, it became a whole different thing. We did an album for Sony Classical and we felt the pressure to be more referential and more harmonically between Western harmonic and Eastern harmonic sensibilities. Of course, for people who had loved [Desert Equations], they were like, "What is this album? Where is this coming from?" It's a beautiful album but there's only one track on that album that I still perform. Then Reagan took over and Thatcher and everybody became more conservative. The whole art world became so corporate and corrupt.
Both you and Richard have gone on to work on so many different projects and collaborate with so many different people, but you seem to keep returning to each other's orbits. What is the connection you two have? I get some sense of it from where you both lived and the cultures you are both influenced by. Is that what is at the core of this - that shared creative and cultural language?
Exactly. I think that once you've lived these kind of alchemical rituals and you've by touched by it, I think it's really difficult to suddenly go and find it with people who haven't been there. Richard lived in North Africa for six years. The first time I met him, he played his flute, his ney, and I knew that he had lived the alchemical aspects of certain cultures. That idea of whatever art or music or vibration takes you to that place where you're not self-conscious anymore. The vibration comes to you and you create work that is not formulaic. It's really hard to communicate those things with people who haven't been there. They could feel it. You can offer it as an object and people feel that vibration but for collaboration, once you have that bond with someone, it's easy. It's a language beyond language. It's telepathic. You don't know exactly. It's unknown. It's very much looking for the spaces in between to learn and discover new places. Richard and I really believed in that. It mattered so much more than repeating ourselves. That's why I think we've been involved in many different projects that have nothing to do with each other. And yet they absolutely do.
Whew. Glad that got done. I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Sussan Deyhim. If you did, and you'd like to hear more of her work with Richard Horowitz, be the first person to respond to this email and I'll gift you with a download of the reissue. It comes with a few tracks that they pair made in the early ’90s that is very much in the same vein. First come, first served.
I'll be back next week, likely with my interview with East Portal, the experimental duo that released their debut album last month through AKP Recordings. Until then: Do no harm. Take no shit.
Artwork for this edition is from Ricky Swallow's exhibition Sand in My Joints, on display at London's Modern Art Gallery through May 14.