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Feeling in the Dark

Photo by Jack Gould

It happened again today. I got into Z’ev’s orbit, and reality was no longer real.

This time the instigator was a CD of two recordings Z’ev made in the early ’80s, as Uns. He was using a bunch of cassette players, a bunch of amps, a microphone feeding back, all really loud. Heavy, heavy noise, with unpremeditated rhythms sometimes breaking out.

There were moments when I realized that, for how long I didn’t know, the world had vanished; I had been sucked into a sound hole. Afraid of losing myself, I dimly figured I’d better think about something, anything. The cat. Wires. Windows. But no — no use to thrash against the current. I was in a place beyond thought, and it felt something like home.

The disc ended with a live performance, which concluded randomly, and Z’ev has some things to say about that in the notes. It seems the bass feedback was growing too intense; he felt he had to shut it down. Z’ev told the audience he didn’t want to blow the amps, which were borrowed. But in the CD booklet, he confesses the real reason he stopped: “I was not sure I would have been able to control whatever energy/ies was/were coming down the line.”

All this clarified why, in 1998, experimental-music purveyor Blake Edwards chose the Uns material as the “message of intent” that would serve as his CIP label’s first release. “I think,” he says, “it captures some of his most incredible — and some of the most incredible — audio ever.”

Yes. And it brought back memories for me. I remembered the first time I listened to Z’ev’s record of metallic nuggets, Heads & Tales (Avant, 1996) — I kept turning off lights until I was crouching in complete darkness. (I later learned he often chose to perform in the dark.) I remembered getting my head spun in some club circa 1980, as he summoned spirit howls by whirling a stretch of plastic ducting around his head. Some months earlier, I had first gotten splattered by the stage blood of the fantastical performance artist Johanna Went, and it was Z’ev whose percussive tribal clatter accompanied her. (After he moved on, I blared sax noise with Went for a good span.)

Z’ev has traveled a lot in the time since, and his base of operations has shifted often (San Francisco, Amsterdam, London). So early this year, when I heard he’d be visiting L.A. again, I thought I’d better talk to him, which I’d never done at any length. He had taken some long sabbaticals from his art, had even considered “learning a trade.” But he had recently come out with another otherworldly disc of distilled sound, The Sapphire Nature (Tzadik), an abstract sound-sample meditation on mystical Hebrew texts. And he was on a curve of increased visibility in Europe, where he has collaborated with Spanish found-sound composer Francisco Lopez, done Noh theater music with K.K. Null and Chris Watson, and taken a whack at interpreting Dante’s Inferno with Simon Balestrazzi and Silvio Linardi. A CD revisitation of some early work with sonic reconceptualizer Carl Stone should be coming out before long. And you can investigate his other recordings and ideas at www.rhythmajik.com.

Stubbled and smoking hand-rolled tobacco, Z’ev (a.k.a. Stefan Weisser) wears a black cap, small earrings and a row of string bracelets. He seems present and, simultaneously, not present. Bridging dimensions is what he’s all about.

 

Picture Stefan, age 2, in his mother’s L.A. kitchen. She rummages through the drawers and cabinets, dredges out a wire whisk, a metal bowl, a spoon, a can opener. Lays them on the floor. Stefan’s eyes light up. He begins banging things together.

“Not that many Americans have that experience,” says Z’ev, his voice nasal, quietly piercing. “But Europeans I’ve talked to, it’s very common — they put all the kitchenware down on the floor, and that’s what the kids play with.” He built his own little drum set at age 6, took lessons at 8.

In some ways, Z’ev thinks, he takes after his inventive and highly independent father. “When I was growing up, there were two ways to do things — the way the world did it and the way my father did it. So I thought, okay, that’s what one does — make his own way.” Well, not around Pop. “It wasn’t like he was saying, ‘Obey the rules.’ It was like, ‘Obey my rules.’”

Stefan was dyslexic, a condition he spent countless hours overcoming through exercises, and with which he still struggles somewhat; this may explain why much of his work deals with the written word as a mystic gateway to the unknown. When he attended CalArts in the ’70s, studying with concrete poet Emmett Williams, he came up with his own compositional mode, an example of which he shows me: thin vertical strips of type carefully pasted and layered on cardboard. It makes the desired impression of visual beauty, while offering an opportunity to consider the meanings of re-sequenced letters.

Worldwide, a number of meditational practices require reordering letters; Z’ev says that he can shuffle through all 5,040 permutations of a seven-letter word without paper. Though he has undertaken lengthy studies in Buddhism and kabbalah, his motives have not been religious. Raised Jewish, and having employed Hebrew letters and texts as touchstones, he nevertheless doesn’t consider himself a believer. Religiosity and spirituality, as we know, can be very different things. “Religions, even the best of them, are systems of control.”

Many Hebrew letters radiate an organic beauty that transcends their origins as symbols for an ox head or a tent peg. In kabbalistic meditation, says Z’ev, “The letters are a physical embodiment of energies, and through the letters you make a relationship with those energies, which get activated within yourself.” The hoped-for result is a trance.

 

“The notion of trance was inherently seductive to me,” says Z’ev, who thinks his music can induce such states. Not recognizing that I’ve been living proof, I tell him that I don’t remember ever having been in one.

“Oh, sure you have. The hypnagogic states you’re in right before you go to sleep and wake up are considered trance states, for example.” So what does a trance accomplish, anyway? “You become more connected to, shall we say, the universal flow. People become more relaxed, more comfortable with themselves, more appreciative of nature. You’re more in touch with your feelings when your body’s talking to you.” He says trances can aid intuition, decisiveness — even the immune system.

Z’ev saw the Doors several times early on, “before they were signed and went downhill.” Not yet a pop star, Jim Morrison was a perfor- mance artist and a poet who aspired to be a shaman and a trance master, and sometimes he pulled it off. Along with Jimi Hendrix and James Joyce and Gertrude Stein, Morrison dug lasting grooves in Z’ev’s brain.

The techniques Z’ev employs, of course, are different. He wails on gongs and other metal vibrators. (One of his CIP releases is a 10-inch vinyl disc jacketed in metal plates.) He uses time-stretching and pitch-stretching software. He layers tapes from innumerable field sources: “I used to go to zoos. I have an amazing recording from the birdhouse. I got a fabulous recording of these guys washing out some of the cages — really echoey, resonant, and you also hear some of the cats growling.”

And if you’re curious, Z’ev has written a number of treatises on his concepts and processes; anyone who can wade through Kierkegaard or Crowley should be able to hang with his Rhythmajik texts. But that stuff is mainly for the arcana specialist. All the listener needs is an open mind. All? I guess that’s a lot.

Johanna Went looks forward to this next of her occasional bang-ups with Z’ev, the first of which occurred at the Hong Kong Café some 25 years ago. The iconic ritualist says her old percussifier will probably be playing drums this time, instead of the junk metal he used to haul up onstage. (Trash-yard finds were among their shared interests.)

“He was a wild man,” says Went. “He’d be throwing stuff around onstage, and when we’d finish playing, his hands would be all cut up. He has this mysterious element. I’ve always thought of him as an alchemist.”

Z’ev provides sound support for Johanna Went at Track 16 Gallery, 2525 Michigan Ave., Building C-1, Santa Monica, Friday and Saturday, June 11 and 12, 8 p.m.; (310) 264-4678.


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