Friday, November 30, 2018

Soundtrack for The Immobile Flaneur: The Seductive Music of Nas Hedron

“Music is frozen architecture and architecture is frozen music.” – Goethe

Museum of Dreams. That was the title that my friend and fellow broadcaster the late Kevin Courrier and I gave to an episode of a pilot for a radio program we were working on together a few years back. The program was called Musical Chairs, with each weekly episode devoted to a particular theme and featuring drastically diverse musical examples evoking a given subject. That particular installment was about “The City,” and it offered a wide range of international music, including songs, instrumentals, pop, folk, jazz, classical and avant-garde, all of which personified life in an urban setting: what it meant to be city dwellers, all of us strangers living together in close proximity. My notion was that every city was a kind of museum collecting all the dreams, and even perhaps the nightmares for that matter, of all the inhabitants it had hosted throughout its history. Maybe even the dreams of future inhabitants would be stored in this urban museum, people who hadn’t even arrived there yet.

We had songs by Bruce Cockburn from Inner City Front, a concerto by Aaron Copeland called "Quiet City," The Lovin’ Spoonful’s "Summer in the City," Ornette Coleman’s "Skies Over America" jazz suite, Scott Walker’s enigmatic "Farmer in the City," Stevie Wonder’s "Living For the City," and the mysterious chamber work by American composer Charles Ives, "Central Park in the Dark," among others. The idea being to freak out as many listeners as possible by exploring one single, simple subject and theme, the city and its sounds, through as many divergent threads of musical styles as possible. In between tracks, Kevin and I would chat about how and why we each had chosen our alternating selections to play for the other (and the audience). If only I had known back then (mid-'80s) about the music of Nas Hedron, we could have programmed a whole episode, maybe even several, come to think of it, merely by playing a flock of Hedron’s own shimmering compositions.

Every so often, usually by either serendipity or synchronicity, one comes upon an artist who gives a fresh new and startling meaning to the word interdisciplinary, and Hedron is just such a one. In fact, some of the other episodes of Musical Chairs were slated to include wildly varied themes such as love, politics, science, conflict, fashion, and the importance of understanding the role of place and space in our lives, and in retrospect, Kevin and I could easily have programmed three or more of Hedron’s albums and just sat back and let them unspool their restless but tranquil energy across the airwaves. Now, the inimitable Elvis Costello once uncoyly remarked, with typical sarcastic bravado, that writing about music was like dancing about architecture. But remember, I take the poet Goethe literally when he identified music and frozen architecture and architecture as frozen music: so let’s dance.

Nas Hedron, artist’s self-portrait.
Far be it from me to contradict one of our greatest singer-songwriters; however, some exception must be taken to the talented Mr. Costello’s observation. First of all, let’s readily admit that he is utterly correct, insofar as music and the songs they convey are best appreciated in the temporal immediacy of the listening experience. But, by reflecting on the music’s origins, their narrative blueprints, so to speak, one can often clarify how such songs occupy the landscape of both our culture and our own personal lives. Thus, we attempt to imagine the biography of sounds and visions and their ancestry in our lives. Writing about music just might be like dancing about architecture, but it is also equally true that some architecture deserves to be danced to, especially when it seems so crystal clear that each song is also a kind of aural building, a building imagined to contain the message of the song itself, designed and constructed by the writer, and delivered in his or her own distinctive sonic signature.

The best music, whether songs or instrumentals, is little houses that take our breath away. Songs which, as a friend of mine once told me, you can live inside of for a while. Which is why, when I first encountered the music of Nas Hedron, in the form of his recording called A City is a Sound, it felt like I was returning to a place I was familiar with, even though I had never visited there before. This sensation of synchronicity recurs again and again in his many compelling compositions, which often explore the notion of dwelling (in the widest possible sense of the word) and also what the Vedantists refer to as indwelling. In almost all of his works there is a high degree of statistical density (a term I’ve borrowed from the American composer Frank Zappa) and highly developed informational systems that manifest complex patterns independent of melody. Each is also a kind of aural weather front, a texture, and an exploration of what I’d refer to as acoustic ecology: they have the added charm of brevity and restraint, something rare in music these days.

“I’m a big believer in allowing the unconscious and aleatoric chance operations to do their work. I wanted a particular quality, where the music is very textured, and fairly dense, but without detail becoming lost, which can be a hard balance to strike” is how he accurately describes his musical motivations. “Each of the three albums is defined in some way by the notion of place.” But his definition of place is also very broad, being both physical and psychological, and he manages to maintain a consistent vibe in each new album, one that is sonically clean, coherent and almost saturated with a unique kind of clarity. His artistic agenda is to create fresh maps of a territory located in the geography of imagination. This is also, of course, a domain which has been fruitfully visited by musicians who share his affection for atmospherics, Brian Eno, Fred Frith, Cluster, Harold Budd, Jon Hassell, among others; however I am quite comfortable positioning him in their company in a most positive manner. Distinct and shared family resemblances overlap all of them, and in a good way. “I consciously write music in an album format – my goal is to do my best to recreate the kind of experience I had when I bought albums in the 1970s and early 1980s. Each album should hang together in a unified way, both topically and musically, and it should have a structure—a sense of flow and an overall arc.” That creative arc also encompasses his personal experience as a polymath and multi-media artist, including visual art, poetry, narrative lines and ancillary support materials that allow the albums to have multiple life-spans perhaps parallel to his own multi-faceted lived experience.

Nas Hedron (short for Nassau) is based in Toronto, a home locale to which he has recently returned after working in Brazil from 2011-2018 (and not a moment too soon, given the recent turn of events in that country). In addition to music, he has published short speculative fiction, poetry and a novel, as well as being a book editor for independent authors at, which he founded in 2012 with a business partner. IBL offers editing, cover design, e-book and print book production, as well as distribution and promotional services, and is soon to offer the audiobook format option as well. In September of this year he released Avant, his fifth album, celebrating avant-garde artists from the late 1800s to the 1940s, after previous releases of the three-album series Another Place, consisting of A City Is a Sound (my first encounter with his music), Alone In a Big Place, and Out of Place, as well as the album entitled Time.

Even more impressive, he is a one-man band, creating all the instrumentation himself via electronics, both samplers and synthesizers, within a digital audio workstation called FL Studio, including vocals by him as well as instruments that sample or synthesize a vocal sound, and merging them with non-musical sounds he develops with his own microphone array.

This multi-layered conceptual approach of his is mirrored in the way he has absorbed and transformed his own many stylistic influences and inspirations. Diversity is his middle name, as indicated by his own straightforward divulging of sources and origins: “Musically, I have eclectic tastes, and everything I listen to feeds into the things I write. Rock, pop, ambient, jazz and blues, obviously, but also Western classical music, traditional music from many different cultures, and various niche genres, like Exotica, which I love without irony. You can see these influences on a track like "Autobody By Moonlight" on A City Is A Sound, which is the first movement of Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" (Piano Sonata No. 14 in C♯ minor) arranged for car parts and synthesizers. Or "Every Page," on Avant, where the opening is a nod to Wendy Carlos (née Walter), specifically to the beginning of the title music for the soundtrack to A Clockwork Orange, while the melody, played by the bass, I wrote with Henry Mancini in mind, especially Music for Peter Gunn.” This is, of course, a creative project that sounds like quite the opposite of what most songwriters do, what Tom Waits once described as “making jewelry for the inside of people’s minds.”

Some of the inner catalogue artwork by Hedron for his Avant recording.

“On A City Is A Sound, I was revisiting the great American cities as I saw them when I spent several years hitchhiking all over North America beginning in 1979, going to Los Angeles, New York, Detroit, Kansas City, Las Vegas, and San Francisco, among other places. I wanted to evoke these places in a multisensory kind of way. I tried to create music with texture. And I wanted music that would call up the fragrances those cities had at the time: exhaust from giant, inefficient, American cars, cigarette smoke everywhere, hot tarmac, diesel fumes, perfume, and weed. And, of course, each city had its own palette of sounds that blended into a distinctive vibe, which is where the title comes from: A City Is a Sound.”

That evocative description is indicative of what I’ve called the acoustic ecology in his work, which tells a story, from album to album, in a loosely organic and narrative way, but without being programmatic, as even the best Debussy can be on occasion. With his excursion into evoking the artistic sensibility of great 19th- and 20th-century visionary artists whose media experimentations were not only extremely innovative but also influential in a way that continues to resonate into the 21st century, he has continued this album as fictional novel approach to sharing his music.

“To me,” he explains, “these artists were doing nothing less than inventing a new, modern way to see and understand the world around us, very much in parallel with the radical scientific work that was being done at the time in fields like physics (relativity, quantum mechanics), and psychology (Freudian theories, for instance of the subconscious). Tristan Tzara conceived of the literary cut-up, in which texts are literally chopped up into pieces and then reassembled, rather than existing in a continuous flow, for example, and this has an obvious parallel in the notion of the quantized physical universe in quantum mechanics. Apollinaire himself drew a parallel between cubist painting and four-dimensional geometry.” Personally I have no hesitation in describing Hedron’s music as “four-    dimensional geometry,” especially since it unfolds in the domain of time, with duration itself often being a kind of aural painting medium.

Eve, photograph by Iwata Nakayama, 1940.

And one of the best, or at least most instructive, examples of this trans-media method of approaching composition, one that incorporates elements of writing, visuals, sound, and cinematic techniques into the fabric of his music, would be a piece such as “Eve,” on his Avant album. Ostensibly it evokes or celebrates a 1940 photograph by Japanese master Iwata Nakayama of the same title. It remains almost impossible to explain exactly how or why it sounds like this image looks; it just does. Objects suspended in space seem to mirror the musical notes hanging in silence, in a zen-like dance of image intersecting with both idea and sonic presence. Is the image a kind of spiritual diagram of the song, or is the song a mathematical reflection of the image? The answer is yes.

One of my favourite French culture critics, Roland Barthes, once described a kind of literature that starts from the basic structures and signs of language itself, which he referred to as Writing Degree Zero, and spirals outwards, perhaps infinitely, until it somehow turns into Balzac or Proust. And in offering these observations on the music of Nas Hedron, I would posit an elastic realm of multi-sensory experience that might be termed Music Degree Zero. Starting from silence and returning to silence, as is the urge of all music, and yet also traveling lightly with silence as a hitchhiking passenger on the far-flung voyage. Indeed, it was in another superb Barthes book, his majestic Image-Music-Text, that he explored a similarly pertinent relationship that applies so vividly to Hedron’s overall aesthetic agenda: the intersecting links among words, images and sounds.

Another French writer, Roger Caillois, also came to mind as I was exploring these compositions by Hedron, a musician who truly treasures the exotic allures of frozen architectures and melting music. And this examination of Hedron’s seductive music, I would emphasize, has not been conducted in the form of a review in the traditional sense of the word, but more in the shape of an appreciation for something both poetic and inexplicable. His is a four-dimensional, breathing building, growing into a constellation-like city of sounds, with each song an emotional site we can live inside of, for a brief period of time, until time itself sends us, like immobile flâneurs, back out into the waiting streets of silence. In a very real sense, he has produced a movie for our ears: he has mastered the art of sonic collage and musical montage.

As we experience his poetic ear movies, I am reminded again of how Caillois put it so succinctly: “We listen with delight” Caillois said, “to a very pure song which tells us all about ourselves and our lives: we expect nothing else, I imagine, from poetry.”

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. His latest book was Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, published in November 2018. He is currently trying to complete a book on the life and work of Yoko Ono.

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