Finite

The Aboriginal Australians have a central story that encompasses the beginning of the world known as the Dreaming or Dreamtime. This narrative describes a spontaneous act, or “that moment when the world first came convulsively into being, thrown up in an explosion of energy by ancestral spirits.”1 Dreamtime is a single concept of religion and myth unified in the tangible expression of the land. Furthermore, “all that occurs in their land becomes a part of the land itself; not time but space is the continuum in which history is measured. No external creator conjured this reality into being; the land is the beginning and end of all…From a rock formation to a tree, everything extant is seen as a feature of that land.” 2

Within the framework of this “sacred narrative”3 of Dreamtime is the belief of the songlines or dreaming tracks. “Songlines trace the journeys of ancestral spirits as they created the land, animals and lore.” The Aboriginal Australians walk through the landscape, singing a specific song which marks the rocks, trees, rivers, streams, hills, and mountains, moving along the path of their ancestors. The songline provides the information necessary to navigate through the land, a directional code known only to the Aboriginal Australians, acting as “a memory bank for finding one’s way about the world.”4 In this way, they are not only celebrating the knowledge of their ancestors, but also passing along this sacred knowledge in art to the next generation. Songlines “reference the cultural, political, spiritual, ecological, geographical, historical (and more) wisdom archived in the land. They embody stories of the ancestors’ creation of the country itself.”5 By traversing the songline, the individual embraces the knowledge of the landscape, but also stays in connection with their ancestors as well as the very beginning of the world and the understanding of the cosmos itself. 

The actual songs sung by the Aboriginal Australians remain sacred and rightfully protected within the people of that specific land. The idea of what a songline could sound like is manifested within the work of many Western musicians. This is a musical analogy to songlines, not a conscious act, but rather as a way to conceptually understand the music. These musical creations have the feel of a songline as if the song acts as a navigational tool as well as a celebration of the understanding of the people who came before and the force that created our world. Beyond the sound itself, the idea of the songline allows us to comprehend the act of musical creation itself. What are the impulses that govern a musical choice or idea within a song or composition? How does a songwriter or a group of musicians choose certain phrases within a composition or a group improvisation? The band Natural Information Society is one example by which the songline helps to explore these questions.

The band was formed in 2010 by musician Joshua Abrams, who got his start as a bassist playing with a number of projects touching on jazz, experimental music, minimalism, and more. The music of Natural Information Society features Abrams playing the guimbri or guembri, a three stringed instrument of the Gnawa people of West Africa played in a similar manner as a lute. As Ben Vida stated, the guimbri “has become the compositional focal point and tiller of [Natural Information Society’s] music.”6 For his own part, Abrams also uses a transportation metaphor to describe his music saying that it is “a means of navigating the world. It can function as [an] augury & engine.”7

Natural Information Society features a rotating cast of players who play a variety of different instruments. Despite the changing nature of the instrumentation, the music stays essentially the same because of the constant presence of Abram’s guimbri and his compositional approach and musical vision. In a past interview, Abrams described how the band’s music is both an expression of his vision, but yet still the result of a group process:

“I write all of the music, but it is very much ensemble music, a group endeavor. A lot of the philosophy behind the group’s approach is to create music that allows for simultaneous differences to coexist. We focus on collectively building sonic environments. These environments are not static, they tend to shift, but perhaps on more of a micro level.”8

The songs of Natural Information Society reflect the songline concept, maintaining a steady, consistent pace and rhythm while still responding to the contours and natural terrain of an imagined landscape. The song “Finite” off of their 2019 release Mandatory Reality is a good example of this method. The full 39:50 version of the song will be explored below and can be purchased on the band’s Bandcamp page; an excerpt from the song is found here:

The song starts, appropriately, with Abram’s guimbri as he hits two notes in quick succession; a pause and then two more. He proceeds with a solo which serves as a table-setting of sorts, alerting the listener to the tone of the musical piece to come as if preparing for a long journey. The solo gives the sense of the guimbri; an earthier tone than that of an acoustic, standup bass.

There’s a pause at the end of the solo and at 1:16, and Abrams begins playing the central musical theme that begins the journey of “Finite.” In a different kind of musical approach, this riff would be referred to as a bassline, but since “Finite” does not feature a bass, it’s the guimbri-line. Note the traditional vernacular utilizes the image of the line as that which grounds a song. A bassline is the conceptual foundation of a song, reflecting the idea of a songline that ties itself to a particular terrain. Even the words being used to describe a bassline — “foundation” or “grounding” — are descriptors that correlate to the earth. 

At 1:24, a piano played by Ben Boye enters along with percussion performed by Mikel Patrick Avery and Hamid Drake. Single notes from the piano ring out followed by short, simple runs as if signaling the commencement of this aspect of the songline. At 2:53, the full array of instrumentation enters with Ben Lamar Gay’s cornet, alto saxophone by Nick Mazzarella, and Jason Stein’s bass clarinet joining the group. These different wind instruments alternate notes with the piano, both in counter to the underlying cadence of the song and, at other times, in lockstep with the rhythm section. These alternating notes by the wind instruments and the piano form the featured melodic pattern of the song. Variations on this pattern present themselves along the course of the song, but what we hear in the beginning of “Finite” is the essence of this songline. It encompasses the rhythm instruments which depicts the sound of the physical act of walking through the landscape, but also the melodic soundings representing the features of this region, including the animals, rock formations, and plant life encountered along the way. The song sung along a dreaming track is “a song of praise. Aboriginal people were obliged to sing their appreciation of all they saw in their travels. Birds swooping, animals grazing, the vistas and landmarks they saw and the Dreamtime creation stories embedded in the landscape. This was a process called ‘Singing Country.’”9

Abrams has described the music of Natural Information Society in a similar way as

“a sonic environment that a listener can dwell in if they are so inclined. I’m not so interested in treating it episodically, jumping around from style to style. It’s more of a longer trip. For example, if you’re taking a long train ride, the environment might change over time, but it’s usually gradual and it’s held together by the context of the train you’re riding in. So even if there’s a big shift, you’re still viewing it from your window.”10

Picking up again with “Finite,” as the pattern continues and the band keeps playing, subtle adjustments can be heard such as Mazzarella extending the notes he is playing on the saxophone longer than before causing the cornet and the bass clarinet to shift accordingly. Meanwhile, the piano dances in and out of the pattern created by the wind instruments. At 5:17, Gay’s cornet begins playing a different, higher note and soon after an electric keyboard — perhaps an electric autoharp also played by Boye — enters, providing a rippling effect as if the sound of gusts of wind are causing havoc with the leaves and branches in the trees overhead the path.

We hear the bass clarinet take over the pattern for a while without the saxophone. It’s not exactly a solo as we are used to hearing in jazz, but rather it’s a point of emphasis for the listener with that instrument. Abrams has said that these features are “less of a solo and more collective improvisation within the framework of the music.”11

We hear the bass clarinet take over the pattern for a while without the saxophone. It’s not exactly a solo as we are used to hearing in jazz, but rather it’s a point of emphasis for the listener with that instrument. Abrams has said that these features are “less of a solo and more collective improvisation within the framework of the music.”12 The prominence of the bass clarinet is over before it begins as the regular pattern is picked up again by all instruments. This section of this song lends to the feeling that “Finite” conveys a group of people trying to hold a net carrying some sort of load along a path. As the topography of the terrain changes, so too the group of people need to adjust accordingly to accommodate the fluctuations of the ground.

At the 10:00 minute mark, the piano announces a shift in the theme. The guimbri and drums keep course, but there has been a deviation as all of the other instruments are now playing new parts while still adhering to the original idea of a web or net of sounds playing in concert with one another. At 10:38, there is what could be described as a conventional solo by the alto saxophone. The cornet occasionally joins in to harmonize with the sax, but then stops, as if the two are meeting up and breaking away. At times, it sounds as if these are voices heard from the assembled caravan, calling out into the distance. Sometimes the tone of the sax’s calls has a melancholy sense as if pleading for something. It could be a cry for others to join.

At 14 minutes, the solo by saxophone is done, retreating from the front, and quieting as we hear only the rhythm instruments. Then there is a resumption of the original pattern with no lone voice uplifted by the others. The interplay between the wind instruments continues as they adapt to one another along the way. The overall sound that they are making is beautiful, a mesmerizing collection of noises which may cause one listener to drift away into their own reveries while another listener may be in complete lockstep with what the band is producing. The length of the piece allows for listeners to fade in and out while the journey continues.

At around the 20 minute mark, there is another shift in the pattern; no solos this time, but rather a subtle distinction in what is being played driven by Abrams and his guimbri. If the listener is off in a contemplation, the alternation may be missed. As the song proceeds and the pattern continues to evolve based on Abrams’ alteration, the listener might ask themself, “How did this happen? How did I miss this?”

The music produced by the Australian band The Necks can cause a similar reaction. During their 40+ minute, single-song, completely improvised sets, their performance lulls the listener into a deep reflection or sometimes even a meditation. During the course of the set, the listener suddenly becomes aware that the music has shifted to a different theme or mood without ever noticing the mechanics of that variation. The musicians of Natural Information Society share that same ability, especially in a long piece such as “Finite” within which a listener is prone to losing themselves. Abrams agrees that his music has a “meditative quality” that is achieved through

“rhythm and the way rhythms can shift against each other. Density, orchestration, and frequencies are all factors. There needs to be space for everything to be heard.”13

At 21:40, the cries of the cornet begin, coming to the forefront of what is being presented while being supported by the other wind instruments as well as the steading pace of the rhythm instruments who are providing the foundation. Sometimes Gay plays against the beat, offering resistance to the tempo as the dissonant notes cry out creating a hint of tension within the song. This could be reflective of the feelings of that particular voice or it could be in response to what is encountered on the path, a sense of foreboding and even danger. Soon, the cries stop and the cornet fades away. At 24:40, the other instruments stop leaving the rhythm instruments alone to continue, determined on the path ahead. 

As archaeologist Wayne Brennan said, the songline is a sort of road map. The Aboriginal Australians “would have learnt songs about the country, and when you were at a particular spot you would know the key motifs and key engravings that help to understand [the] country.”14 The variations on the “key motif” of “Finite” emerge throughout the rest of the piece as can be heard when the piano joins the rhythm instruments at 27 minutes before dropping away. The bass clarinet begins to assert itself starting in the 28th minute, taking a solo and calling out to the world with the piano answering the hail. These calls have an undulating feel that are responses to the environment, representing the idea of the songline that “every rock, every dried-up streambed [is] endowed with sacred significance for all time to come.”15

As the group reaches the 35 minute mark, there is a sense that they are approaching an ending. A throbbing sound is produced by the repetition of notes by the saxophone and the cornet. There isn’t a build to the music, but rather an anticipation that one is reaching the end of something. Thirty-seven minutes in, the guimbri signals a slight change in the rhythm pattern and the cornet and saxophone respond accordingly. The wind instruments sound individual and deliberate notes. The guimbri indicates a conclusion and single notes are repeated in succession before reaching the conclusion of the song and the journey.

Abrams has said that the longer pieces within the music of Natural Information Society provide

“the musicians the opportunity to slow down, to try and take the approach of savoring what we’re building together…If we can get to that space, you notice the focus broadens and zooms in at the same time.”16

Though the song is called “Finite,” there’s an irony to the title since it is quite a long song, but it has an ending despite the sense that “Finite” could continue on and on as one passes through the country. But all travelers must rest, including the members of the Natural Information Society. 

Image: CSIRO, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Footnotes

  1. Tony Allan, Fergus Fleming, Michael Kerrigan, Journeys Through Dreamtime: Oceanian Myth (London: Duncan Baird Publishers, 1999), 24.
  2. Allan, Fleming, Kerrigan, Journeys Through Dreamtime: Oceanian Myth, 23.
  3. Lynne Malcolm and Olivia Willis. “Songlines: the Indigenous Memory Code,” ABC Radio National. July 8, 2016. https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/allinthemind/songlines-indigenous-memory-code/7581788
  4. Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines (New York: Penguin Books USA, 1988), 108.
  5. Paul Daley. “Travel and Endless Talk Connected Me to Details Chatwin’s Songlines Missed,” The Guardian. October 16, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/postcolonial-blog/2017/oct/16/travel-and-endless-talk-connected-me-to-details-chatwins-songlines-missed
  6. Ben Vida. “Joshua Abrams & Natural Information Society’s Mandatory Reality,” Bomb. August 21, 2019. https://bombmagazine.org/articles/joshua-abrams-natural-information/
  7. “Joshua Abrams (Natural Information Society, Mind Maintenance) Shares his Creative Process,” Fifteen Questions. https://15questions.net/interview/joshua-abrams-shares-his-creative-process/page-1/
  8. Will Schube. “Joshua Abrams is a Focused Force in Jazz and Film Scoring,” Bandcamp Daily. May 16, 2017. https://daily.bandcamp.com/features/joshua-abrams-interview
  9. Jim Poulter and Bill Nicholson. “Toward the Municipal Mapping of Traditional Aboriginal Land Use,” Reconciliation Manningham. July 2018. http://reconciliation-manningham.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Aboriginal_Land_Use.pdf
  10. Schube, “Focused Force.”
  11. Schube, “Focused Force.”
  12. Schube, “Focused Force.”
  13. Schube, “Focused Force.”
  14. “Songlines Across the Wollemi,” The Sydney Morning Herald. September 27, 2003. https://www.smh.com.au/environment/songlines-across-the-wollemi-20030927-gdhgw0.html
  15. Allan, Fleming, Kerrigan, Journeys Through Dreamtime: Oceanian Myth, 26.
  16. Jason Woodbury. “Joshua Abrams and Natural Information Society: Mandatory Reality,” Aquarium Drunkard. April 24, 2019. https://aquariumdrunkard.com/2019/04/24/joshua-abrams-and-natural-information-society-mandatory-reality/

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