A House of Last Witnesses By Erich Barganier Album Review

A House of Last Witnesses

Album Review
By Forest Muran

(A House of Last Witnesses Album Art)

A House of Last Witnesses (bandcamp page)


The last album I reviewed for Vonyco was a release on people places records featuring two contemporary composers, Cassie Wieland and Erich Barganier. Now on the Belts & Whistles label, one half of the duo returns with his first solo release, titled A House of Last Witnesses. After being contacted by the label to write an article, I decided to frame the review as a collection of a few small thoughts that came to mind when listening to the new release. So in this article, as we step into Barganier's spiralling noise environments, we'll also find an opportunity to discuss the nature of the human body, drugs, Japanese experimental music, and the inevitability of death as represented by musical form.

A wide range of influences are evident in Barganier's A House of Last Witnesses. From the first track on the album, “Shame Loops”, recalling the expansive noise abstractions of Ryoji Ikeda, to the busy, Nancarrow-esque tension of “Speaking in Tongues,” A House of Last Witnesses guides us through a variety of intense musical spaces. As a work of contemporary music, Barganier's album requests that we pay close attention. As with a philosophical treatise, in order to get the most out of Barganier's work, we will try to unravel some of the ideas incarnated within it, and in turn hopefully also unravel something about ourselves.

It's probably obvious that many  of the ideas I've collected in this article come from my recent research into the religious and ideological background behind music creation and listening. It was impossible not to frame my listening experience in terms of it. That said, while many of the connections I form may be purely coincidental, I hope they may help provide some deeper insight into the music, insight which might even surprise the composer himself.

Shame Loops: Laughter on the Other Side of Shame

At times, composers seem condemned to a world of mute abstraction. Compared to a poet, what can the musician say? A poet can easy bring clear images to mind – a moon, an ear, a cake. Composers, however, are limited in their vocabulary to abstract sounds. It is certainly a large, potentially limitless, vocabulary, but it lacks the capacity for concrete signification that language is privileged to possess.

The one space in which composers get to tinker with the tools of the poet is in their titles. For this reason, composers throughout the Western tradition, since the dawn of Romanticism, have took eager enjoyment at the opportunity to name their work. “L'isle joyeuse,” “Symphony Fantastique,” “Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band,” are just some examples of the creative liberties taken by composers when playing at the poet, in order to add a certain linguistic grounding to their creation. That said, it's important to consider why a composer may have chosen the name that they did, and to reflect on how the linguistic element might affect our experience of the non-linguistic.

In Barganier's “Shame Loops,” we are immediately exposed to a musical environment of rough digital noise, sickly melodic synths, and distorted samples of the human voice. The piece is clearly reminiscent of the noise music of Ryoji Ikeda, but Barganier emphasizes that he in no way sought to replicate the exact effect of the Japanese artist's music, saying that “the best works are filtered through the individual ... to create a truly honest, intimate piece.” Barganier may take inspiration from the tools of the masters, but he uses them to craft something unique which is true to his own experiential background. In this first piece, the title would suggest that Barganier is trying to evoke something of the emotion of shame. But what does that mean, musically?

(The Transfinite by Ryoji Ikeda. Ikeda is a significant influence on Barganier's
music, though Barganier's interests seem to lie within, while Ikeda seeks inspiration from
the overwhelming complexities of the outer world - a composer of hyperobjects, in
Timothy Morton's language)

Shame doesn't seem to have a specific musical correlate, but by evoking the concept in the title, Barganier encourages us to interpret his musical elements in terms of it. What is shame? Shame is the other side of laughter. We of course laugh at what is foolish, and at what is absurd. When something is “wrong,” we often react by laughing. Shame is a negative reaction to that judgement. In that sense, shame is a negative reaction to Alexander Pope's observation that “to err is human.” In “Shame Loops,” Barganier, through an anxious, blood-pumping drone, chizzles out the mental experience of shame as a reaction to the imperfections of reality, the raw Real which bubbles beneath the surface of social signifiers.

Reality, after all, is the realm of shame. There is often something incredibly uncomfortable about the removal of the mask, the displaying of our flawed, raw forms before the crowd. It is embrassing to have someone read our private journal, and we typically like to keep our bathroom door closed. When raw reality leaks out from behind the mask, when the hard shell of our carefully cultivated persona begins to crack, when we are exposed as the ultimately powerless biological beings we are, we tend to react with a certain shame. This is a necessary biproduct of our nature as social / fantasy beings.

There is also a certain sense of shame in the experience of musical harmony. Atonal music, for examples, can make us feel guilty about the enjoyment of our harmonic fantasies. In many moments found in A House of Last Witnesses, we can hear a kind of desperate dissonance, a cacophony of crunching noise and disjunct melodic movement. We are kept far from conventional consonances. Barganier explains how he often composes based on memories of past experiences, and how, “trying to force consonance on these memories seems dishonest to the way I experienced these memories and events.” For Barganier, the abstraction of the atonal idiom is much more effective at capturing a “huge variety of bittersweet shades of experience.” In other words, Barganier composes music which attempts to confront the complex realities which lie hidden beneath conventionally defined cultural cliches. He avoids taking the easy route toward self expression. It isn't too difficult to take advantage of our harmonic instinct which has been bequeathed to us by millions of years of biological evolution, in order to create a catchy tune. But just as there is so much more to a human being than a pleasant smile and a ravishing head of hair (to quote Eliot: “Webster was much possessed by death / And saw the skull beneath the skin”), there is also more to the experience of music than the pleasant combinations of consonant sounds.

We are like pro wrestling fans, shamed by fans of “real sports” for finding joy in a fantasy. If harmony is an experiential illusion for us human beings, then atonal music is a reminder of what the true nature of sound really is. It's difficult to wrap our minds around, since we romanticize everything. Fantasy is a function of human cognition. We romanticize everything, from harmony to actual romance. For many it is unpleasant to think that beyond the fantasy function of the human brain, chords are really just meaningless noise, and that our lovers are merely animated bags of meat and bones. In a sense, atonal compositions can be seen as a kind of musical Dvattimsakaro - the Buddhist text which monks meditate on in order to develop an intimate understanding of the reality of the human body as an entity composed of “hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, etc,.” In this sense, music which eschews traditional tonality inevitably forces us to confront the fantasy function of the human brain, encouraging us to question why we like the things we like. We are forced to confront the degree to which our entire lives are dictated by pleasure-fantasy mechanisms beyond our control.

When we are confronted with the raw reality beneath the mask, we do sometimes feel shame. We don't like to feel weak and valueless. The entire purpose of the persona is to construct a sense that we are more important than billions of lightyears of unsympathetic, largely empty time and space might lead us believe. The cracking of the persona can indeed bring a sense of shame – but it can also be really funny. The shame which is portrayed in “Shame Loops” is a negative reaction to reality, an adrenaline-filled, nightmarish response to the feeling that nothing is right. It is the anxiety that beneath our cultivated fantasies is a reality which contradicts them in every way. Barganier's expression is notably raw and honest, seeking to depict his vision in a way unencumbered by artifice and irony. But I think it's also important to recognize the joy that can be found in the uncomfortable facts of reality. Our reaction does not necessarily have to be shame – there is also something incredibly hysterical about the weirdness of Being. The nature of existence is, after all, organized like a three-part joke: We emerge from the void, struggle for a while, and - here's the punchline - end up right back in the void after all. That's kind of quirky and strange, isn't it? If we realize that the problem isn't with us - it is with the nature of existence itself - then how can there be said to be a problem?

Bastards of Empty Space: The Frozen Hourglass

Japanese art can be said to contain something of a frozen hourglass. While the history of art in the Christian world has always been goal-oriented – that is, Heaven-oriented - much of the history of Japanese art has involved attempts at capturing the eternity of the moment. It is tempting to look at composers like Midori Takada (who was clearly a main influence on “Bastards of Empty Space”) and Nobukazu Takemura, and emphasize the influence Western minimalism has had on their styles. But it's important to remember that a part of the underlying spirit behind minimalism originally came out of an interaction with the Japanese creative tradition. John Cage had of course been directly influenced by traditional Japanese music, as well as D.T. Suzuki's ideas on Zen Buddhism. What's more is that the Japanese creative spirit has for a long time traced a link between music and spiritual life. Japan was after all home to the Fuke-Sect (普化宗), the only branch of Buddhism to have sought enlightenment through performance on a musical instrument. Though it's true that modern Japan has little interest in things like meditation and Zen, it's easy to underestimate the immense influence a culture's religious tradition can have on its creative spirit. Just as the influence of Zen has impressed itself on Japanese idioms (e.g., らぬが仏), vocabulary (e.g.,餓鬼), and iconoography (e.g., the ubiquitous Daruma doll), the Japanese notion of spirituality has also been profoundly influenced by the Buddhist tradition, just as we in the West owe much of our spiritual assumptions to the thought of people like St. Paul, Aquinas, and Milton.

(Through the Looking Glass, an album by Midori Takeda. Her static sound worlds exemplify
the idea of a frozen hourglass, music aiming to capture the essence of a moment stretched
to infinity. Her percussive works seem to have influenced "Bastards of Empty Space")

It seems to me that one important difference between the Christian and Buddhist traditions can be found in their relationship with time. The Christian world's notion of the spiritual life had everything to do with delayed rewards which were to manifest themselves after death, in the realm of Heaven. The Buddhist tradition, and its interpretation of the Indian idea of karma, lent much more importance to the spiritual life of the moment. For the Buddhist, our karmic destiny is being shaped constantly by the content of our mind and actions. For this reason, meditation played a much more important role in the Buddhist tradition. Buddhist meditation, of course, was undertaken as a practice of coming to understand the mind. The Christian equivalent of prayer, however, tended to revolve around concentrating on the manifestation of a specific desired outcome ("please cure my son of the plague," for example). In essence, Buddhism sought to sever ties with the past and the future, while Christianity sought to mold a desirable future through divine intervention. As Max Weber has suggested, there may even be something of a connection between the worldview of the Christian, and the development of the industrial revolution and the Western capitalist empire.

The Christian and Buddhist worldviews differ significantly in their conception of time. It's interesting that the goal-focused Western world is the culture which produced not only the industrial economy, but functional tonality as well. The music of Eastern countries like Japan, China, and India, however, has often been static and drone-based, with nothing resembling anything like a chord progression. In the shakuhachi music of the Fuke-Sect, for example, there are motivic relationships, but no sense of narrative development. Indeed, for the Fuke-Sect practitioners, their honkyoku (本曲) were performed as an act of meditation, not necessarily for the benefit of an audience. This kind of static relationship with time, where performance is meant to capture an eternity in a moment, has always reminded me of Aldous Huxley's description of his first mescalin experience in The Doors of Perception. After injesting his four-tenths of a gram of the hallucinogen, Huxley is asked a series of questions. When asked about the effect of the drug on his peception of time, Huxley simply says, “there seems to be plenty of it.” In the book he elaborates by explaining how, “my actual experience had been, was still, of an indefinite duration or alternatively of a perpetual present made up of one continually changing apocalypse.” Huxley was shocked with the content of his vision which, instead of presenting him with wild fantasy images as expected, instead altered his perception of the objective world, lending everthing a sense of profound and timeless significance. Huxley's mescalin experience seems to resonate with to the vision of William Blake, captured in the famous lines of his “Auguries of Innocence:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

(Fuke Honkyoku performed by Fujiyoshi Etsuzan. It seems to me that
traditions like the Fuke-Sect have had a significant influence
on the Japanese idea of what a "spiritual" music should sounds like, leading to
a ubiquity of this style of stasis, even in modern experimental works)

The experience of being lost in a single moment is a profound one. Most of the busy people of the world, hopping from one obsession to the next, likely never get to experience it to any strong degree. But something of this “eternity in a moment” had been historically intertwined with the Indian notion of spiritual life, ever since the early days of the Brahmanic Vedas. Buddhism borrowed from this Brahmanic tradition of meditation, though in the spirit of seeking wisdom rather than blissful concentration. Nevertheless, through the influence of the imported Zen Buddhism in Japan, which significantly emphasized the value of meditation, I believe something of a spiritual ideal centred around an awareness of the “frozen hourglass” was cultivated. It can be found in the simple sumi-e paintings of the monk Sengai Gibon, as well as the concentrated haiku of Matsuo Bashō, which present us with a segment of reality highlighting a minor, fleeting, and yet highly profound, experience. There is simply nothing like in in much of the history of the Western world, until poets like Ezra Pound sought to emulate the Eastern effect in their Imagist poems. Western spiritual work tended to emphasize bombastic glorifications, fantastic frescos, and great Gothic cathedrals meant to strike the fear of God into the hearts of men. Whereas for the Japanese monk, understatement was the key to connecting with wisdom. This emphasis on understatement, and on attempting to capture the infinity of a momentary experience, still exists in the creative spirit of Japan today, though it may have been mostly relegated to the world of experimental art (although, to be fair, popular art in any age rarely reflects the nuances of cultural codes).

(First Idea by Aki Tsuyuko, from her work on the Childisc label. Another example
of stasis in Japanese experimental music, an attempt at capturing the world in a grain of sand)

We find this “frozen hourglass” effect time and time again in the world of Japanese experimental music. As already mentioned, Barganier was heavily influenced by Midori Takada, whose percussive works tends to emphasize a static exploration of minimalist repetition rather than dramatic development. In her solo music, frequent Takemura collaborator Aki Tsuyuko similarily explores soundworlds which emphasize a sense of time frozen in time, creating temporal pockets of warmth and cozy eternities. Though I don't pretend that there is a direct connection between this music and that of Fuke Zen, it does seem that a similar musical philosophy is at play. Just as language encodes a worldview, so too does culture, which imparts onto us the collective knowledge and vision of our ancestors. Within a creative culture, we all draw our material from the same creative pool.

With all of this in mind, what I find most remarkable about Barganier's A House of Last Witnessess is the extent to which it strays from its influences. Although, like much of Takada's music, “Bastards of Empty Space” emphasizes circular rhythmic gestures rather than melodic dialogues, there is more of a sense of dramatic progression in Barganier's work. The crunchy xylophone seconds shift positions, and we are affronted with contrasting formal sections, which take us out of any sense of suspended time. The music keeps throwing us back into an awareness of Chronos. In this piece, Barganier is not trying to freeze the hourglass. This is only natural. Barganier himself states that he is unable to exactly reproduce the music of his influences, since their “worldview is not my own and I couldn't force my vision and their vision together fairly.” Although infused with something of the spirit of the eternal moment, Barganier's work is nevertheless situated in a different tradition, characterized by a different relationship with time and reality. Barganier's use of temporality in effect puts us in awareness of our own mortality. In Barganier's vision, music progressess, harmonies change, and, eventually, we understand that the hourglass must one day break. Although seemingly influenced by the circular suspension of Japanese experimental music, Barganier takes the musical ideas of these composers in a completely different direction, presenting us with a dialogue of awakening to the realities of time. Only here, the hopeful salvation of the tonic chord is nowhere to be seen. Tonality is dead, and the composer no longer defines their relationship with the End Times in relation to it.

Barganier, echoing similar ideas experienced by Huxley under the influence of mescalin, states, "the idea of an apocalypse is really great - for me, it doesn't mean the end of the world, and it doesn't have to be 100% cataclysmic. It just means an unveiling of things that were once not known."

Barganier's sense of space may be an empty void, but his music is thick with heavy time, dripping relentlessly onward toward some ultimate, terminating point.

Crossroads in a Fever Dream: Absence in the Absence of Absence

Crossroads in a Fever Dream” begins with the kind of goliath, pitch-wavering saw wave pad you would expect to hear in Vangelis's soundtrack to Blade Runner. Why do we often evoke the emptiness of space, and the coldness of an unfamiliar future, using these open fifths and fourths played on hollow, ravaged synths? The question has everything to do with musical symbolism and the ways that we attempt to express the inexpressable.

(Main Titles from Vangelis's soundtrack to Blade Runner. In popular culture,
open fifths and fourths on a saw synth drone have come to represent the void.
A very different, and perhaps more cynical, worldview from that found in 2001: A
Space Odyssey

In his essay on the role of music in Buddhist history, Ian W. Mabbett describes the shakuhachi as an instrument whose “sound artfully imitates the sounds of artlessness, of nature, like the gentle soughing of wind in the pines that gently breathes and fades into the encompassing silence from which it came.” It is through the musical symbolism of the shakuhachi that, as Mabbett describes, “a shakuhachi maker and player seeks to produce 'sound, woven with silence.'” This signification of the sound of silence in the shakuhachi is meant to represent the principle of the void in Zen Buddhism.

I think a similar phenomenon to the shakuhachi's depiction of the void is at work in the sci-fi “emptiness chords” which we hear represented in “Crossroads in a Fever Dream.” Space is indeed massive, indefinite, incomprehensible, alarming, and unfathomably desolate. We hardly need the poetic majesty of the Bhagavad Gita or The Divine Comedy to fill our minds with awe, when the awesome reality of space's vast emptiness is always out there, surrounding us at all sides at every breathing moment. But all that absence is a difficult concept to grasp, either intellectually or emotionally. In a film, representing the absolute absence of space through a depiction of black silence won't cut it, and so film makers have chosen to fill the void with the next best thing – a desolate harmony, represented by a cold, computer-generated synth. In other words, these deep saw waves are a representation of absence in the absence of absence. Barganier's composition explores the coldness of this computer generated world, using the inhuman tones of digital data to craft an environment of fulfilling loneliness, of satisfying isolation. He codes a signifying matrix which, like the Zen shakuhachi, makes the noble attempt to speak the language of nothingness.

A fever dream is, after all, a kind of dream vision. The title “Crossroads in a Fever Dream” describes something of the form of the piece, which begins with a Xenakis-like environment of digital noise which roars and moans, an anxious representation of isolation in an unforgiving environment. But soon enough the composition transitions into a binary section driven by an inconsistent rhythmic pattern played by an electronic kick, a section of relative stability. Soon afterward, we dissolve back into the liquid texture of the void. The piece invites us to enter into its world of blind vision, and take part in its meditation on emptiness. Like the music of the shakuhachi, there is something representational in Barganier's synths. But instead of representing the void by evoking the wind blowing through the pines, Barganier makes us think of the great emptiness to be found in the sterile minds of cold computers, and in the unfathomable absence of infinite space.

Speaking in Tongues: Language without Signification

The act of speaking in tongues is a lot like performing a piece of music. The sounds we produce have no literal meaning, and impart no concrete information. But the act itself provides an intruiging, if ambiguous spectacle. It may even create a spiritual stir within the minds of believers. Barganier's “Speaking in Tongues” is reminiscent of a composition on his people places records release, entitled “Калі Я Адкрыў Вочы” (“When I Opened My Eyes”), in the sense that it investigates maximalism and an overloading of musical information. Reminding us of Nancarrow's work for player piano, Barganier appears to be using computer technology to create a complicated kind of music which overwhelms the listener with its energy and variety. The rhythm and timbres are not as exploratory as what could be found in “Калі Я Адкрыў Вочы,” but the tonal language of “Speaking in Tongues” is just as disorienting and extensive. As with “Shame Loops,” this piece encourages us to confront our musical fantasies and open ourselves to a nuanced experience beyond crystalized conventions.

For us speakers, language usually feels stable and consistent. We say something, and our partner interprets it. They say something, and we interpret their message back, ideally leaving the situation satisfied that we have been relatively well understood. But we often forget how imprecise this communication can be. Think of all the subtle disjunctions in place between our own personal languages. While it my be easy to clearly communicate simple messages – for example, “the apple is rotten, don't eat it!” - our capacity for communication significantly breaks down the more complicated the thought we are attempting to convey is. This is why philosophers have such a complex about defining things. When it comes to complicated topics, there is always a wide variety of possible interpretations. For example, the word “religion” brings about a huge scope of ideas in different people's minds. Some may see it as a dangerous waste of time, others may see it as the ultimate pursuit in life. A person in India may see religion in terms of what rituals they perform, whereas a North American may see it in terms of whether or not one professes a belief. For some, religion is blindly following a teaching, while for others it is a tool for investigating profound ideas. For this reason, discussing religion in a rational, consistent way can be difficult, because of a necessary semantic gap which distances two minds attempting to impart their ideas. In some cases, it might be better if we spoke different languages altogether, because at least then the misunderstandings wouldn't lead to vitriol. It is also worth noting that different states of mind seem to produce their own subjective languages. The word “water” means something very different to a person dying of thirst.

Speaking in tongues, also known as glossolalia, is a phenomenon which occurs in certain religious traditions in which a person appears to channel some kind of divine spirit, causing them to speak fluently in an unknown language, often interpreted as being of divine origin. Speaking in tongues is a fascinating phenomenon. It is an example of language without signification, at least on a literal level. Whatever signification speaking in tongues does have, it shares with music. For many of those sitting in church, listening to their pastor emmit mystical streams of inscrutable sounds, the effect is profoundly spiritual. It is seen as a direct communion with the divine, and is indeed interpreted as clear evidence of the operation of a sacred power. Many people feel that music also has a kind of sacred power, an ability to heal and elevate minds to new states of consciousness. These of course are observations which we impose onto our experiences after the fact. It is an attempt to apply our worldview onto a slippery experiential phenomenon. It is perhaps because of the ambiguity of the experiences, because of their lack of semantic content, that both the act of speaking in tongues and the experience of music allow for such powerful, mystical associations. Music is perhaps best understood as a language of pure suggestion, a system of infinite intimation. Far more can be said by carving out space for potentials, rather than stating everything clearly and authoritatively.

The less conventional something is, the more suggestive it is, the more it encourages us to look within ourselves for its source of meaning. With that in mind, what would a musical “speaking in tongues” sound like? I think it would sound a lot like Barganier's “Speaking in Tongues,” actually. With no familiar chord progressions or tone patterns, Barganier's piece presents us with a composition full of familiar formal flavour, but without any conventional tonal flavour. This is of course not an element unique to this composition. I actually think the analogy of speaking in tongues would be much more ideally suited to a work like Berg's Wozzeck, which employs classical forms beneath an atonal framework, leading even more to the experience of listening to the “fluent speaking of an incomprehensible language” - that is to say, an incomprehensible tonal language. Berg uses all the conventions of classical presentation, but none of the “signifying units” of traditional tonality. Of course, Berg was not just composing with random notes, but had worked out his own compositional systems and rules in Wozzeck, perhaps bringing the metaphor closer to the phenomenon of artificial languages, like John Dee's language of the angels, Enochian - that is to say, the language can indeed be understood, but only after arduous academic labour. In that case, speaking in tongues might be something closer to free jazz – chaotic, improvized, but still fluent enough to appear like some kind of music.

(Act II, Scene I of Wozzeck by Alban Berg, written in a sonata form. A musical
example of speaking in tongues? Or perhaps a musical
equivalent of Enochian?)

One of the effects of a piece like “Speaking in Tongues,” anyway, is that it calls us to question the content of the musical langauge we use. It forces us to recall the arbitrary nature of art. It encourages us to recollect how relative our perception of beauty is, and how dependent it is on our very particular circumstances in life. We may think music is a universal phenomenon, but how many times have you seen an ant enjoying a Beethoven symphony? How many cats have you seen appreciating Pink Floyd? Out of all the species we could have been born as on this planet, not to mention potential other planets if we want to consider aliens, we were born as human beings, marked by the unique capacity to create and appreciate music. The odds were certainly much greater that you would have been born a bacteria, after all. Although, can it really be said to be a game of odds? Your consciousness is entirely a product of your current situation, your body working as a single unit to propel you to satisfy your biological needs through a complicated system of fantasy constructions. To that extent, how sure can you be that you possess independent consciousness at all? You are aware that a being is going about its biological business – but is that being necessarily you, or are you merely its witness? Perhaps being forced to ask such questions is a good way of assessing the extent to which we can be said to even "be" ourselves, and the extent to which music can be considered to be such.

The illusion of music is without a doubt a very beautiful gift. If you, reader, are a human, there is nothing wrong with appreciating that fact and finding joy in it. But like any gift, it's easy to take it for granted and assume it to be a necessary factor in our existential situation. Naturally, however, nothing is an essential factor in our existential situation. Everything in your life can, and will, someday be taken from you. Realizing this is an important step toward learning to appreciate our lives and live more easily amidst all our transitory experiences. Much like the phenomenon of speaking in tongues, Barganier's album prompts us to investigate more closely what we have always taken for granted, to see just how strange, and just how arbitrary everything we experience actually is.

Concluding Thoughts

Buddhist monks are prone to dismiss a lot of things, among them music and philosophy. Many Christians will also suggest that anything which does not move us closer to God is of no real lasting value. I'd like to suggest that certain kinds of music, music that was completely unknown over two thousand years ago in the age of the early Buddhist Sangha and in the early Catholic Church, have a profound value, beyond mere entertainment and sensual distraction. While it may sometimes seem like music and philosophy are just a lot of busywork meant for those with too much first-world time on their hands, we forget the immense value that knowledge and experience can have when planted in the right soil. The achievement of wisdom and peace is never a straight path. It is full of bumpy terrain, treacherous mountains, and illusory forests. While it may be true that we do already possess the answers to all of our questions about life, this wisdom still requires something to prompt it, to awaken it. After all, even the Buddha had to leave his palace in order to percieve the facts of sickness, old age and death. That is then one of the most profound benefits to art – by investigating it, we are able to also investigate ourselves. By understanding a painting, we understand ourselves that much more. When this creative tool is used by the right person, it can lead to profound insights which benefit them, and everyone around them, in profound ways.

Some types of music function as a kind of mute philosophy, putting forward a thesis in spirit, if not in logical content. An album like Erich Barganier's A House of Last Witnessess is not music you put on in the background as you wash dishes or study geography. It is an album which you take time out of your day to sit down with, to absorb into your experience. You let the motions of its sound environments spawn new perspectives in your imagination. You allow it to rub up against distant memories, igniting associations with parts of yourself which you thought had been lost long ago. I think this can be said to be true of most contemporary music which, in contrast to the music of the common practice period, is meant to be contemplated more than viscerally enjoyed. The end result is, nevertheless, thoroughly enjoyable. Although it is not the same as the purely sensual joy of hearing a satisfying chord resolution, the experience of sinking into an album like Barganier's first solo release is one of self-discovery which, really, is the most satisfying experience of all. An abstract work like A House of Last Witnessess, consisting of inhospitable noise wastelands and moody journeys into dissonant revelations, asks us to quietly contemplate it, and in turn contemplate ourselves – which, after all, may be the most fascinating subject in the universe.

You can listen to and purchase A House of Last Witnesses on Bandcamp here

You can experience more of Erich Barganier's work here on his artist's website

Barganier's Soundcloud page


Blake, William. "Auguries of Innocence." Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43650/auguries-of-innocence (accessed March 13, 2020).

Huxley, Aldous. The Doors of Perception & Heaven and Hell. New York: Harper Perennial Classics, 2009 (originally 1954).

Mabbett, Ian W. "Buddhism and Music." Asian Music, Vol. 25, No. 1/2 (1993 - 1994).

Weber, Max. The Sociology of Religion. Ephraim Fischoff, translator. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993.

Note: All quotes from the composer come from my own email correspondence with Barganier in preparation for this review.