PRINT January 2011


Catherine Christer Hennix’s The Electric Harpsichord

WALKING DOWN THE STREET RECENTLY, I saw an adult hand a thin book to a child she was pushing in a stroller. The adult looked away, and the child immediately began to gnaw a corner of the book. It is the metaphor I want for the public reception of composer and artist Catherine Christer Hennix’s The Electric Harpsichord.

It’s likely that I first heard The Electric Harpsichord in the summer of 1976. My first reaction was that it did not sound like it came from planet Earth. (I was not the only person who had this impression. One of my acquaintances at the time called some of Hennix’s writings “esthetics of the nonhuman.”) It was too intelligent and too unsentimental, and at the same time mesmerizing. I have had several life-changing moments: This was one of them. The audio band was saturated so that pinpoint attacks merged into an organlike roar. The attacks twinkled, one could say. The pitches belonged to a scale exotic to Western ears; the scale was “musical” in the technical sense. There was no thematic articulation; there was some textural development, but no thematic development.

Catherine Christer Hennix’s poster design for the 1976 Brouwer’s Lattice music festival at the Moderna Museet, Stockholm, at which The Electric Harpsichord was performed and recorded.

It was a constructed audio program: I never thought of it as music. If it was unearthly, why would I know what its intended purpose was? At the same time, I immediately found it to be mind-altering or consciousness-expanding. We normally have an illusory sense that our mind is behind our eyes. As I listened to The Electric Harpsichord, my sense of mental localization began to change. All the while, there was a sense of a nonadvancing “now” or of being out of time. This impression can be produced by music, but it was far more intense in this case because The Electric Harpsichord is not articulated like music.

You could not freely continue to enjoy your impression that Hennix’s work was unearthly, because you couldn’t get “in the stream” without knowing Hennix’s sources. But Hennix had combined precedents from several different civilizations and modes of activity in a way that simply would not have occurred to anyone else. To reduce her achievement to chic tradition, to the influence of her mentors, or to fads of modern music would be an incomprehensible insult, which is why I began this review as I did.

Trained in theoretical linguistics and recursion theory, Hennix was saying that you need an algorithm to achieve a distinguished result. If that algorithm is simple in principle, it can also involve a massive amount of data crunching. At the same time, Hennix seemed to be playing with the idea of distinguished results gained outside an algorithm, calling them “miracles.”

What was the result here? J. R. Smythies had published on mescaline phenomena in 1953 in the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science. Hennix was the first ever to say that discontinuous experiences (as we may call them) should be primary evidence in philosophy.

I was on WBAI in New York all night on October 17, 1977. To herald Hennix’s arrival in the city for a planned show of her visual art, I played a recording of The Electric Harpsichord and said approximately what I am saying here.

I saw The Electric Harpsichord as initiating a new genre. I thought she and I, or anybody, should produce more works in the genre, not only because they would be valuable in themselves but to show that The Electric Harpsichord was not a fluke. The first of these new works, from 1978, is called Stereo Piano. Hennix applied her “billowing cloud” keyboard technique to a scale of mine, on an acoustic piano; I subsequently layered the recording. It was the only contribution to the genre on which Hennix and I collaborated.

At first I named the genre Hallucinatory Ecstatic Sound Environment (HESE). Hennix asked me to think of another name, for reasons of euphony. I came up with Illuminatory Sound Environment (ISE). The two of us presented The Electric Harpsichord along with two of my works in a concert at the Kitchen in New York in February 1979. (It was too late to change HESE to ISE on the concert’s extensive press materials.)

The print publicity for the Kitchen concert included a photocopied monograph consisting of substantial essays by myself and Hennix. (Another essay I wrote is in the book accompanying the CD.) Hennix’s text was called “17 Points on Intensional Logics for Intransitive Experiences, 1969–1979” (intensional with an s is a technical term in logic). Her draft began with a sentence that I thought was mandatory to rephrase. To make a long story short, I now suggest the following: A reconsecration logic consists in the sets of symbolic forms by which one can be delivered to one’s dignity.

The word dignity runs like a thread throughout “17 Points.” Hennix showcased the word, then, in her 1979 reflections on The Electric Harpsichord. She had made the inquiry into dignity the order of the day, or, rather, of the century.

Henry Flynt is a philosopher, composer, and artist living in New York.