Alice Coltrane: Turiya Sings (from AdHoc Issue 2)

Alice Coltrane: Turiya Sings (from AdHoc Issue 2)

This is an article from AdHoc Issue 2. Purchase this issue or a subscription, and pre-order AdHoc Issue 3.

"At dawn, sit at the Feet of Action.
At noon, be at the Hand of Might.
At eventide, be so big,
that sky will learn Sky."

— Alice Coltrane,
Monument Enternal

“Jagadishwar” doesn’t so much begin as continue, its nearly imperceptible opening hum growing, vibrating into the ambient noise of the room. The source of the sound is hard to place, not just because it’s so quiet and ripped from its cassette with intriguingly low fidelity. This is music without relational qualities: unbounded, expanding in every direction at indeterminate rates. The voice that proceeds to enter the mix evades description: it’s not “good” or “bad” or “deep” or “light” or “soulful” or “mellifluous.” Rather, it drifts around and through that underlying hum, using repetition to guide listeners to their own message. After six-and-a-half minutes, the piece doesn’t end. It instead vibrates away—leaving a brief mauna, or silent interval—until “Jai Rama Chandra” arrives to fill the void with a slightly different set of paranormal hums and tones. The way the songs begin and end so subtly allows for the on-a-loop listening that such spiritual music requires.

This is Turiya Sings, an album by Alice Coltrane-Turiyasangitananda, released by her own Avatar Book Institute in 1982. It now exists as an impossible-to-find cassette and, thankfully for people like you and me, a digital rip. It was Coltrane’s first musical release on this imprint, and her first solo record in general since 1978’s excellent Transfiguration. Turiya Sings, of course, doesn’t sound too much like Coltrane’s previous records.

Even if those–like Transfiguration, or the heavily lauded Journey in Satchidananda–showcased Coltrane’s interests in Hinduism and the cosmos and the music thereof, none were as sedate, spiritual, vocal, and full of fear and trembling as Turiya Sings. Though Coltrane would explore the avenues opened up on this tape over the course of the next decade—self-releasing three more solo albums of cosmic devotional music—Turiya Sings remains the most entrancing and confounding tape of this period and perhaps in Coltrane’s whole oeuvre. It is an album that resonates with many boundary-pushing musicians of today and helps solidify Coltrane’s unique legacy, one related to but separate from that of her late husband, John.

“For even though the destination is one, the roads that lead to spiritual realization are many.”

The last few years have seen a surge of interest in Coltrane’s life and music at large and, for the first time, in these Avatar Book Institute albums. Spurred by several recent reissues of her work as well as name-checks from contemporary figures such as Flying Lotus (her great nephew), Sunn 0))), and dublab’s Frosty McNeil, Coltrane has risen to a new relevance throughout this century. The rediscovery of the Avatar Book Institute
tapes makes sense.

Besides having a diverse and brilliant discography, Coltrane is a fascinating figure. Initially known best as John Coltrane’s wife, Alice broke out on her own after her husband passed away. From 1968 to 1978, she released a steady wave of amazing cosmic jazz records, which feature her virtuosic piano and harp playing. Throughout that time, though, she was also going through an intense—and often painful—spiritual journey. Then, from 1978 on, she largely stopped recording music.

Turiya Sings and the three other self-released, limited-run, very non-commercial albums on Avatar Book Institute are all that came out of this quarter-century-long period, from ‘78 to the mid-’90s. While these are getting their due now (Sounds of the Universe is reissuing the Avatar tapes this year, minus Turiya Sings and Glorious Chants, while Divine Songs was a hot bootleg last year), they were ignored, or simply unheard, upon initial release.

The 1977 release of Coltrane's spiritual memoirs, Monument Eternal, on Vedantic Press coincided with her departure from the jazz world. The book (quoted here at length) describes the physical and metaphysical journey she took between 1968 and 1970. In it, Coltrane lucidly and plainly details her conversations with the Supreme Lord, developing her sense of spirituality, astral plane travels, past lives, and struggle towards austerity through program of tapas. Explicitly and implicitly, she references the musical nature of her spiritual universe, noting the hums of the people and objects around her, as well as the Lord’s own musical capabilities. “The Supreme One—the best and only great musician—can render multitudes of choirs of angelic singing and symphonies of sound literally from out of the air.” Likewise, the tracks on Turiya Sings, like “Jagadishwar” with its indeterminate start and finish, seem to “sound literally from out of the air.”

In a parallel to Coltrane’s description of the Supreme Lord, Turiya Sings draws its power, in part at least, from existing outside our recognized physical space and time: from its refusal of genre, its elusiveness, the way the music hovers and fades in and out. Coltrane harps on the restrictiveness of earthly space and time in Monument Eternal. “When looking through the spiritual eye,” she writes, “one can see vividly beyond the ken of human eyesight [...] transcending the limits of time and space.”

It’s genuinely hard to distinguish the time difference between “Rama Katha,” which is twelve minutes, and the rest of Turiya Sings’ pieces, which are all four to seven minutes in length. The music drifts, bringing you to “a state of perfect peace, which is unchecked and unlimited by time and place—with their judgments of death and decay.” Spiritual music—music that brings you to that state—isn’t unique to Coltrane of course. From Christian mystic plainchant composer Hildegard von Bingen to Sufi mystics to Revenant Records’ American Primitive Vol. 1: Raw PreWar Gospel, there’s a long history of devotional music that pushes musical boundaries to channel both the agony and the ecstasy of the spiritual. What makes Coltrane’s music unique among others is her ability to deliver such an ambiguous message while painting such a beautiful, albeit complex, portrait of her East-meets-West (Hindu, Christian, and more) spirituality. It’s mesmerizing and at least slightly innovative.

“Death and decay” in that quote betrays, too–the agony of Coltrane’s spirituality, the aforementioned fear, trembling, even dread that is sonically present in Turiya Sings. As serene and peaceful and transcendent as these songs are, they’re all a little, well, creepy. Coltrane’s detached vocals shy away from inflection, connoting nothing in particular, increasing their ability to be read subjectively. However, the effect is rather disquieting.

Monument Eternal’s focus on the tapas experience might explain the paranoid, on-edge feelings. Tapas, for Coltrane, is an investigation of “the dualities of life—polarization,” and on Turiya Sings she presents these polarities delicately but emphatically, juxtaposing them starkly to expose each side. Light and dark, good and evil, calm and tense, synthetic and organic, earthly and cosmic: it’s all there, via the vocals and the instrumentation and the drifting anti-form. Because her journey was so difficult—mentally but also physically, isolating, and, actually, brutally painful—Coltrane does not make this an easy listen for us.

“My physical body succumbed to the sound of planetary ether. Its spinning sound whirled and revolved so strongly inside my ear that I fell into an unconscious state.”

The music on Turiya Sings, for all its transcendental aims, is certainly solitary. The sounds of the cosmos and music of the Supreme Lord insert themselves into her songs, she explains, but it’s difficult to ignore this music’s isolation, the feeling that––via its vocal and harmonic simplicity, and low fidelity––it was created by and for one person in search of higher meaning. Still, “Because of this closeness,” she says of the Supreme Lord, “I do not know what loneliness is, nor do I know what it feels like to be lonely, for I am never alone.”

Of course, it’s hard to read that, especially in the context of the dreary and isolated Turiya Sings, and not think about the earthly realities of Coltrane’s life. The experiences she describes in the book took place from 1968 to 1970, which were the three years following her husband John’s death. Her sole direct mention of John in Monument Eternal underlines her inescapable love for his soul and grief for the passing of his body. “Not only could the thoughts of people be heard, they could also be seen,” she writes. “This recalled to my mind a time when the beloved John Coltrane Ohnedaruth, shortly before his final departure from the earthly plane, told me of Akasha. Akasha is the universal memory file cabinet of the universe.” John is there with her, their mutual inspiration on each other guiding Alice on the earthly plane and John on whatever one he is on.

John exists in her Akasha, and is a major factor in both her continual spiritual journey and, indeed, her music. “He was at times, away from [his body] for hours,” she writes of John near his death. “Occasionally, he would speak of his interspheric travels.” Even if Turiya Sings doesn’t sound like anything John ever recorded, the commitment to expressiveness, freeness, and bodily transcendence through music on the album relates to John’s later records. The sense of longing in Alice’s voice suggests an attempt to reach wherever her husband is on the astral planes.

“The possibility of levitation presented itself.”

It should be noted that just as her musical approach does not rely on John’s, Alice’s legacy has in some ways eclipsed her husband’s, at least in contemporary underground music circles. The rash of re-releases of her albums and general resurgence of new age thought and music have coincided with a wave of contemporary artists drawing influence from Coltrane’s records and spirituality. Consider four recent releases: Flying Lotus’s You’re Dead!, Scott Walker & Sunn 0)))’s Soused, Bitchin Bajas’s Bitchin Bajas, and Grouper’s Ruins. Each album engages with and reinterprets different aspects and phases of Coltrane’s canon. Flying Lotus imports her earlier, technicolor cosmic jazz into the twenty-first century. Scott Walker and Sunn 0))) reference the penchant for lateral musical structures found throughout Coltrane’s catalogue, as well as that religious fear and trembling. Bitchin Bajas take cues from her spirituality, her synthesizer meditations, and, on their most recent record especially, her textural use of woodwinds and strings. Grouper, meanwhile, doesn’t reference Coltrane directly. However, on Ruins more than ever, Liz Harris recalls the Alice Coltrane of Turiya Sings with her understated lyricism, emotion, spirituality, and tender-but-abstruse vocals.

Coltrane’s music might be so inspirational right now because (besides being so damn good) it’s incredibly flexible sonically, ideologically, corporeally, spiritually. It is an album without boundaries, be they stylistic, temporal, spatial, geographical, or racial. That is appealing to people making music now who aren’t interested in succumbing to a specific genre and don’t need to, as well as those who are interested in a non-religious brand of spirituality. Turiya Sings is inspirational and beautiful, musically and religiously, but without any prescriptions.

“You become readily adaptable to all types of change, or conditions,” Coltrane writes in Monument Eternal, “ready to chart a new or alternate course; alerted to encoding and decoding techniques, ready to abandon traditions, prepared to sever any attachments, prepared to discard, or renounce everything.”

Indeed, this music is severed. It abandons traditions and charts new courses. It takes Vedic Chants that repeat the names of deities (the content of the lyrics) and situates them in an abstract musical context that only seems to reference other musics. It could reference jazz because Alice Coltrane was hitherto a jazz musician, and because “Chanaram” is rhythmic, almost funky. But the track is too static to be “jazz.” It could reference the music of the 1980s because it uses synthesizers, and because “Hara Sira” has a simple synth line. But it’s more church organ than, say, Depeche Mode. And it could reference different strands of Indian music because of its subject matter, because “Prandhana” sustains a drone for a bit. But it then wipes that out with a swift, cosmic, harmonic shift.

Those aforementioned contemporary musicians have likewise moved away from their initial reference points and are making music that is resistant to description. Flying Lotus isn’t really “beat music” anymore. Sunn obviously isn’t metal. Scott Walker has been pushing himself further and further away from pop for fifty years. Bitchin Bajas aren’t the krautrock group they were once thought to be, coming as an offshoot of Cave. Grouper has undoubtedly carved her own generic niche, similar to but removed from folk and drone. Turiya Sings, though, more than any of these 2014 records, presents an artist at odds with being boxed in, even if that’s a spiritual choice more than an aesthetic one. The album just doesn’t sound like any of the things to which you’d want compare it.

It sounds, if anything, like Coltrane attempting to mimic the celestial music she hears and details in Monument Eternal. In the book, she writes about music “beneath the range of human hearing,” with “long sustained buzzing”: “the sound of planetary ether.” What’s more, “Many of the celestial musical instruments can be played without the use of the hands or any physical contact whatsoever. Your mind, your heart, is your only approach to them. Your thoughts open up the many avenues of sound and expression on these wonderful instruments.” And that’s how you approach Turiya Sings as you listen to it over and over and over, letting its endings become middles and beginnings and vise versa, ad infinitum, until, with “power, light, energy,” you reach the one destination.

“Be so big, that sky will learn Sky.”

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