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Ken Hyder: On Magic and Music

January 18th, 2011 |  Published in Articles

Ken HyderScottish drummer, percussionist and vocalist, Ken Hyder, is a musical and spiritual adventurer. Over forty years ago he began playing jazz in his native Dundee before moving to London and studying with the legendary Improv drummer John Stevens. Subsequently, he formed the pioneering Celtic free-jazz group Talisker and then during the 1970s, moved further away from jazz, investigating ethnic music from around the world, and studying spiritual practices from Tibet, Tuva and Japan.

In 1990, with long-time musical partner, Tim Hodgkinson (formerly of Henry Cow), Hyder made the first of many trips to Siberia where they played and recorded with local musicians and shamans. Hyder became deeply immersed in the culture of the shaman, took part in shamanic rituals and devoted himself to learning the subtleties of the shaman’s drum, the dungur. Hyder and Hodgkinson now perform all over the world as K-Space with Tuvan singer Gendos Chamzyryn.

This conversation with Daniel Spicer took place at Glasgow airport last December, the day after Hyder had performed with another long-time collaborator, Scottish free-vocalist Maggie Nichols, as part of the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra Festival.

DS: I’m interested in the idea of music as a way of achieving a magical state, or having a magical effect.

KH: I think of it as the other way round. The magical effect or the magical way is a way of transforming music into something else. I think that music is music, and at its most simple and unenergised form, it’s music. It could be all kinds of dance music, it could be just ordinary music, you listen to it in the background, it’s fine, there’s nothing wrong with it – it is music. In the same way as you might say there’s forms of graphic art or posters and you say ‘that’s commercial and it’s pleasant to look at but it’s not really Mark Rothko, it’s not really Van Gogh.’ So, there’s music and there’s something which is extra-music, supra-music. So, I think that it’s the magic that transforms it, it’s not the music that transforms itself. I think that’s where maybe a lot of people get it the wrong way round. I mean, if you focus on improvisation, that’s just a technique. That’s like the saying ‘the key to good music is double-stroke rolls.’

DS: So, you’re saying that music can be used to achieve an altered state of consciousness in conjunction with other things? For example, in the West, I suppose for the last forty years people have used music and drugs to achieve higher states.

KH: OK but, now, this is maybe a very difficult and subtle difference – and I’m not saying that you’re absolutely wrong – but I’m thinking it’s more like you achieve the altered state so what you then do in the altered state is magical, whether it is music or painting or whatever you do. So the key thing is not that the music is the vehicle for the transformation, the transformation has to be separate. Now, when I say that, because it is subtle and difficult, of course, you can work the music to be part of the transformation, but I think that then tends to put you in the frame of mind that it’s the music that is the magic – and I’m saying the magic is the magic and when it’s infused in the music, the whole thing is magic. It’s not the music that’s magic, it’s the magic that’s magic.

DS: Is there a sense that achieving that magical state is an end in itself, simply because it’s good for one’s soul or one’s spirit?

KH: Well, yeah, it can be. But I want to think about the purpose. So, if I want to be doing magical stuff, for me, I can do it at home in my studio and I don’t need to go out. If I’m doing a performance, I have to think ‘why am I doing a performance?’ it’s not to get me off, it’s for the audience.

DS: To impart some joy in people’s lives? Is it an altruistic thing?

KH: It’s that kind of thing. You have to start using expressions like ‘touch people in some way.’ And then you say ‘well, what do you mean by that?’ and then we go back to Theodor Adorno – and I would recommend his book on aesthetics, which took me thirty five years to complete, which I did earlier this year, and if you do it quicker than that, you’re a good man. I think it comes down to the aesthetics of art. I’m not saying that Adorno was right but he did make me think about a lot of things. One of the things that is desirable in art is to make people think. So, it’s not like ‘here’s a pretty picture’ and then you walk into the next room. It’s ‘oh, that’s interesting.’

DS: Another way of saying ‘to make people think’ is to encourage people to become more intelligent, isn’t it? So it’s a transformative process.

KH: Yes, but that’s a very provocative thing to say, to become more intelligent. It’s to use their intelligence, to use their thinking.

Ken Hyder

DS: To blow the dust off their brains and actually engage with reality.

KH: Yes, but it can be a non-specific engagement with reality. I’m not disagreeing with you that it’s to make people use their intelligence, but it would be equally successful and valid if, as a result of exposure to the art, somebody goes ‘I feel spiritually uplifted. I don’t know why. I haven’t analysed it, but I feel uplifted. And that is good, and I’m happy for it, thank you very much.’ So, it doesn’t have to be with the intellect.

DS: Can we draw a comparison between the magical state and the psychedelic state, where people have achieved a dissolving of personal hang-ups and a sense of all-encompassing love and inclination towards enlightenment? A magical state and a psychedelic state, as I understand it, both lean towards being more deeply immersed in reality as it is right now…

KH: Yes, but wait a minute, that is a bit generalist. Some people who have been in a psychedelic state have got well fucked-up and ended up in hospital so it doesn’t sound like they were engaging with reality, they totally messed their mind up.

DS: Sure, but when it works…

KH: Yes, but it’s this generality saying ‘it’s this or it’s that…’ Actually, I never took acid. And maybe it’s because I’m a susceptible kind of guy that I thought ‘if I take acid maybe it’s gonna do my head in.’ So, I’m choosing not to do that. There are some ‘helping’ drugs, like cannabis, which can give you a more measured and therefore perhaps safer experimental usage in terms of finding out that kind of thing. There are others that are more powerful and therefore potentially harmful. So, because I haven’t had acid, for example, I can’t say what it’s like, I’ve only read about it because I never fancied getting myself into a position where I’m taking it, right?

DS: Can you also draw the same conclusion about magic? Is magic potentially harmful if your brain’s not ready for it?

KH: Yes. Absolutely. One of the shamans that I studied with said that he doesn’t approve of doing workshops, for example. He doesn’t want his students to do workshops because you get anybody coming in off the street and paying their money for a weekend workshop. It’s like ‘I’m going to do a workshop on fire eating or knife throwing.’ You get a bunch of learners in – ‘Daniel, would you like to stand in the corner while the newcomers throw knives at you?’ I think there is the potential to be a bit hurt by this, yes? The thing is, if the magic is real and powerful, then it’s rather like fire. If you have fire, you could roast your venison chops on it, and it’s good. If you’re cold, it’s fine. But if you set fire to your yurt or your house it’s dangerous, right? It’s like electricity. Wow, you could put on your sound system but if you put your finger in the socket, you’ll electrocute yourself. So, magic is powerful, it is energy – and the energy can be directed to heal people, do beneficial things, but it can also do powerfully dangerous things…

DS: Which is why only a few people get to become shamans, because you need to have proven you can handle it.

KH: Yes, and in fact, there are black shamans and white shamans.

DS: So, you mean, malicious people and…

KH: No, that’s the thing. A lot of people in the West think that’s what it means but actually what it means is that white shamans deal with the beneficial side of the energy – healing and that kind of thing – and they’re not able to deal with dark stuff, the black stuff. Now, those who deal with the black stuff are not necessarily using the black stuff to harm people. Like, they’ll have clients who come who are being harmed by the dark shamans but these shamans are able to deal with the dark energy and take it out and throw it away. It doesn’t mean they’re black magicians and all they do is put curses on people. But I would be misleading you if I said they didn’t have the capability of doing that. But they don’t go around doing it all the time. What it really means is they have the capability of dealing with – usually for beneficial purposes – with the dark side of the energy spectrum.

DS: I’m sure magic happens all over the world in pre-scientific communities, but in Siberia and that kind of situation where you’ve learned about magic…

KH: I didn’t learn black magic – I just learned about it.

Ken HyderDS: Sure. In places like Siberia where magic is a very real thing and part of the community…

KH: Yes.

DS: Is it there because they’re living in a situation where they haven’t got electricity, and they’re living in a hostile environment as well – and they’re going to need some extra power to survive?

KH: No. Actually because that kind of magic is regarded as being a bit exotic here people imagine it’s an exotic thing… but a better way of dealing with it is this: in the beginning there were only a few yurts and actually until about the turn of the 1900s nearly everybody in Tuva lived in yurts and were nomadic. So, you’re talking about a system where there aren’t hospitals, there probably aren’t schools because people are moving around…

DS: And probably a pre-literate society too, where people didn’t really write…

KH: No, there would be an oral tradition. Not so much in Tuva but in places around Tuva there were the big epics that would go on for about twelve hours and people memorised them and in order to help them do it they would have the story but they’d improvise around it… twelve hour performances about the big chief who went on a big journey kind of thing, and he met this person and that person and so on. So, really, if you think about it, shamanism in Siberia was actually about everyday things like your kid’s ill, your cattle are ill or you’re hunting and you don’t know where the prey has gone. So, it’s about everyday things that would bother people and… I was going to say they didn’t have doctors but that assumes that they’re ignorant motherfuckers that weren’t ‘like us’ – and of course, everybody should be like us, you know? No, their system was that the people they had to do their doctoring were shamans. And they believe that, basically, in very simple terms, when things go wrong with people, a lot of the time – apart from broken legs or something – when things go wrong with people, it’s to do with black energies affecting the person, which might be to do with something they’ve done, or somebody’s had a bad curse on them, so really, what I’m saying is that shamanism is part of everyday life. You know [radical Scottish psychiatrist] R.D. Laing? Before he died he was just about to bring out a magazine called ‘Shaman’ because he believed that shamanism was the original psychotherapy. So, the shamans were dealing with a kind of psychotherapy as well.

DS: It’s interesting that you should mention Laing because, of course, he was also a great advocate of the psychedelic experience – a very psychedelically informed individual. In the late 60s he was very much a central figure in the counterculture, which was putting forward the psychedelic experience as a way of loosening our western conditioning.

KH: And it was a great privilege to play with him at Ronnie Scott’s [jazz club in London].

DS: What did he play?

KH: Piano, in a black velvet smoking jacket as I remember. Swinging jazz, man! I only met him on that one occasion and I remember he had a great smile and he seemed a good geezer. I thought ‘he’s a geezer I can hang out with.’ He was kind of iconoclastic. For him to be saying shamans were the original psychotherapists… what I’m saying is… Ken Newman, when he was Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, used to say that he wanted omni-competent constables who could do anything. So shamans are actually omni-competent therapeutic practitioners. Like, one of the places I visit when I go to Tuva is a shaman centre, which is like a group practice. There was this shamanka there called Larissa, a lovely woman, and one day I was sitting on the porch and I looked out and this car drives up. This guy gets out of the car, Larissa goes over to the car, has a conversation, then she goes back into the place, comes out with her gear on and drums round the car. She specialises in protecting vehicles. Talk about omni-competent! Senior shamans say ‘shaman must be able to do everything.’

DS: So, you’ve talked convincingly about how shamanism is an everyday thing…

KH: For people there, yeah…

DS: Yeah. But there’s another stream to this, I think, which is that when you’re doing a musical performance, which is like a ritual, that’s something special – that’s a special occasion.

KH: OK. Well, wait a minute. Do you mean when shamans are doing things like that? They do but if we’re talking about that, there’s one thing I’d like to say, that there’s a kind of misconception. You know I’ve played with Tibetan monks? And I’ve played with shamans. When they do that, when the monks do stuff, they do not consider it to be music. People in the West who are interested in music listen to it and judge it on musical terms. But the monks and the shamans do not think of it as music. With the shamanic thing, the purpose of the drumming in a ritual like that is to help get the individual shaman into the altered state…

DS: In which they can then start to practice magic?

KH: And do their business, yes. It’s fascinating to listen to them doing it all together. You get three shamans and they each do their own thing, somebody’s doing a bit faster, somebody’s doing a bit slower. That’s their thing.

DS: It’s polyrhythmic?

KH: Polytempic. It could be the same rhythm in different metronomic tempos. This was the thing that Tim Hodgkinson and I were just so fascinated with. It made us think. We’d listened to shamans doing an outdoor ritual and they’re all playing in different tempo. But they don’t think of what they’re doing as music. It’s almost like three individuals are getting ready to do whatever they’re doing and one person reads the Beano, one person reads the Koran, one person has a shave. They’re all doing it at the same time and it doesn’t matter because the boy having a shave isn’t affecting the boy reading the Beano, and when they’ve done the shave and reading the Beano, they’re in the zone so then they start doing their stuff. But actually when you listen to the three of them drumming in different tempi, totally absorbed in what they are doing, and not responding to or being expected to respond to what somebody else is doing, because it’s not a musical performance. It’s the same thing with the Tibetan monks. When they’re doing their stuff, they’re getting into higher ground. They’ll be sitting in a line, looking straight ahead, and somebody would go BOOM on the bass drum, the guy with the Tibetan hi-hat would go CRASH CRASH CRASH CRASH CRASH – it’s what you do to get the energy happening. But when I was playing with them, they don’t count it in, of course, there’s no way they’re doing it the same way every time, there is no way you could go ‘oh yeah, it goes like that, I’ve got it. Actually, what was very interesting was – and they can’t have had many people just throwing themselves into it like we did as musicians – the only way you could play with them is just go BOOM BANG WALLOP – though with some sensitivity – and just try and feel that energy going because you couldn’t count it.

Ken Hyder

DS: So that’s a clear distinction where you say that what we would call the musical aspect of the ritual, they don’t think of it as music, although it ismusical, and it enables them to get into the zone where they can then do their magical works.

KH: I’m not trying to be pernickety, but when you say ‘although it is musical’, it does depend on your definition. The simple definition is ‘music is the organisation of sound,’ which is a bit open and… maybe it’s better to say that when they do that, they’re making sounds not for the benefit of an audience, but especially for the shamans, for their own benefit. So it’s almost like they’re doing a mantra or they’re doing something private for themselves but they happen to be in the same place at the same time.

DS: OK, but, following on from that, what I’m interested in is, when you perform… from a very mixed set of influences and intentions… you’re going to be using your magical experience alongside your experience as an improviser, from a Western background – are you attempting to have a magical effect in the room?

KH: Yes. The thing that you would be most familiar with is last night, when I played with Maggie [Nichols], we had absolutely no, zilch, no rehearsal at all. The set was devised through email exchange. The analysis in the email exchange was considerable. The analysis was ‘why are we doing this? What is the set?’ The set was really ‘what are we like?’ meaning, this is the culture of our people. And when we looked at each constituent part, the question was ‘what is our motivation? What kind of effect are we trying to have on the people listening?’ So all of that was discussed, analysed, argued over and made very clear. Everything was very, very detailed in its consideration. Then, when it came to doing it, we said, ‘right, there’s no way that we could talk any more about it, we just have to trust each other and trust the material.’ That’s where the magic started.

DS: What about when you’re playing with K-Space. That has more overt links to shamanism.

KH: Yes, that’s true.

DS: So, when you’re doing that, is there more of an overt magical aim to it?

KH: It seems so obvious to say it but people sometimes forget, it depends on who you’re playing with. Often you chose to play with people that understand your approach and you have a joint approach. So, the other thing is that there are many ways to the top of the mountain, but if people are engaged with trying to get to the top of the mountain, they’re actually sharing a lot of problems and anxieties and somebody might say ‘well, go that way,’ there are different paths but the goal is to get to the top of the mountain. So, it’s not that everybody’s going to sign up for the same procedure. Maggie and I have been playing together for forty years. It’s a long time, you know? We have a belief in working with energy rather than music.

DS: That’s a key phrase you’ve just said. That lies at the heart of everything I’m trying to talk about here.

KH: And that’s what I’m hammering on about because, yes, people talk about improvisation but, no, you’re missing the point, it’s not about improvisation or written material it’s about energy. And that’s what makes the difference between it being musical and it being magical. It’s not musical differences, it’s magical differences.

DS: You may disagree, but I think the definition of magic is something that has an effect on reality external to oneself. That could be something as simple as you play some music and it makes the hairs stand up on my arms.

KH: It’s funny you should say that because I was thinking of a section last night where Maggie was at the piano and I was feeling it, and Maggie was feeling it, and I spoke to the sound guy and he said ‘when you played that, the hairs on the back of my neck were standing up.’ Whether you call it magic or spirit or … this is very difficult to pin down. I think the following musicians regularly played with magic – and when I give you this list you’ll think ‘they’re really quite different but maybe they do share something.’ But what they don’t share is a method. So, Frank Sinatra, James Brown, Albert Ayler, Marvin Gaye, Bela Bartok, Jimi Hendrix. You can’t say ‘yes, well, they were all Christians or this or that…’ and if you mentioned magic to Frank Sinatra, he’d have been ’what are you talking about?’ Right? But for me, hey, there’s magic. Willie Nelson! Right? There’s magic in these performers. Most of them will not talk in magical terms. But they do have that kind of performance, which is something extra – whatever it is. Extra-special, extra-sensitive – whatever it is, it is extra. And actually, if you look at that list, there are very few – Al Green, of course – there are some who have Christian spiritual connections, like Marvin and Al Green…

Ken HyderDS: Ayler was kind of post-Christian, wasn’t he?

KH: The sanctified church kind of thing… but I don’t think Sinatra was very spiritual – and for me Sinatra is magic. His phrasing is magic. And the thing is, you can’t really sort it out in musical terms as well, what the magic is. I remember, people would talk about trumpeters, and there were three trumpeters in the jazz scene that were magical: Miles Davis, Chet Baker and Don Cherry. Most other trumpeters, like Freddie Hubbard, were actually technically better than them. So how do you explain them? You can feel it. Chet Baker was magical because he was so vulnerable. It sounded like it could fall apart at any time – and it drew you in. he was the wounded healer – which is something that some people call shamans. But what I find interesting with that list is that a lot of them are not overtly spiritual. Miles Davis was not overtly spiritual.

DS: Sinatra and Miles Davis would have been fully paid-up capitalists.

KH: Yeah yeah. So, if you look at it again, it doesn’t fit into the little boxes. It’s fucking human and humans are people who vary.

DS: I’m curious about the idea of why bother making a magical event happen? Some say that every time you access that state… do you know [psychonaut and occult scientist] Terence McKenna? He talked about how every time once accesses the transcendent state –he was talking about via psychedelics but I guess it could count through other ways as well – every time one accesses a state of reality that is different from the every day, you are helping to form reality. It’s not just a place you visit and then come away from. Every time you go there, you’re making that element of reality more real and helping to change the reality in which we live.

KH: I don’t know about the second part. It certainly increases your understanding and connection to reality. I don’t know if it necessarily improves it for anybody else – unless you’re doing it in public, unless it’s performance. If it’s performance then why you’re doing it and what you’re doing is you want to… one of the things I have always wanted to do in performance, like what would be the ideal consequence – I would like people to think about their life. You might want people to think differently about their reality. I want to suggest to people that they themselves can see differences in life that would make life more interesting for them. I’m not talking about musical techniques – that’s not the answer to the thing – it’s magical techniques. And it is possible to do. You don’t have to be a shaman. You can do it. Right?

Will Montgomery’s Wire magazine profile of Ken Hyder can be found here.  A review of K-Space’ masterpiece, Infinity, can be found here.  All photographs and embedded video were taken from the MySpace pages for Ken Hyder and K-Space.


Rehearsal with Sergei at the Adyg Eeren shamans centre, Kyzyl

K-Space | Myspace Music Videos


K-Space rehearsal with shamans Sergei and Tepan

K-Space | Myspace Music Videos


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January 18th, 2011 | by | Published in Articles

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