Every Wednesday, Douglas Wolk explores the people, places and coincidences that tie disparate musicians together.
Yo La Tengo's thirteenth album, Fade, came out this week. It is, as pretty much everyone who's written about it so far has noted, at least partly a meditation on mortality. Instead of the long albums/long tracks schema that's been Yo La Tengo's practice for the past couple of decades, it keeps things brief for the most part. Its first and longest track, though, is its statement of purpose: a hypnotic one-chord jam whose lyrics seem to be about love in the face of the void. "This is it, for all we know," Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley sing. "So say good night to me/ And lose no more time, no time/ Resisting the flow." Here's a live performance of "Ohm" from a few days ago.
The title of "Ohm" is a multiple-layered pun. An ohm is, in fact, that which resists flow: it's a unit of electrical resistance. (Its symbol is the Greek letter omega Ω, the final letter of that alphabet -- another suggestion of conclusion.) It's close to "home," a word that has extra meanings for a band that's always been built on the bedrock of domesticity and named after a baseball joke. And, most of all, it's a homonym for "om," the Sanskrit sound that has enormous significance in Buddhist, Hindu and Jain traditions. (Varations on that particular pun have been made in music before: there's a 1975 track by Kraftwerk called "Ohm Sweet Ohm" that appears below, as well as a totally different song by Cheap Trick.)
"Om" made one of its earliest significant appearances in Western music in 1965, when John Coltrane recorded a half-hour-long piece called "Om." It begins (after a brief introduction) with Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders reading a piece from the Bhagavad Gita, and rapidly spirals off into chaotic, discordant free jazz. But Coltrane was recording at an exceptionally prolific rate during that period, and Om wasn't released at the time; it finally appeared as an album in early 1968, six months after Coltrane's death. Here's an excerpt:
Coltrane and Sanders' chant -- as well as, I believe, a bit of McCoy Tyner's piano part -- was sampled by Canadian rapper/producer Sixtoo for an early section of his 14-plus-minute 2001 single "Work in Progress."
Another underground hip-hop "om"/"ohm" had turned up a few years earlier. Around the time he appeared in the movie Slam in 1998, Saul Williams recorded an "Ohm" of his own -- a poem backed up by a track prominently featuring an "om" chant.
"Om" was in the air in the late '60s; it seems to have come into pop by way of the Moody Blues' 1968 album In Search of the Lost Chord. That record closes with a brief poem--"The Word"--which segues into a longer song called "Om." Unsurprisingly for that particular moment, it's got sitar and tambura on it: somebody had spent a while listening to the Beatles' "Within You Without You."
The great German experimental band Can mangled "om" into the long drone-and-echo-based piece "Aumgn," on their 1971 album Tago Mago. ("Om," as a mantra, often seems to give musicians license to explore a single sound for a long time.) Keyboardist Irmin Schmidt slowly chants a syllable that's sometimes an "om" and sometimes more like the title (it occasionally ends with a gngngngngn sound).
In 1978, Kate Bush worked the longer version of the Buddhist mantra "om mani padme hum" into the chorus of her single "Strange Phenomena." Here's a fascinating video of her performing it on stage in 1979; bonus points to her for finding several ways to approximate lotus position as closely as it's probably possible to do while standing up and wearing a suit and top hat.
Around the same time as Bush's "Strange Phenomena," the British prog-rock guitarist Steve Hillage concluded his Green album with a variation on an endlessly looping mantric riff he had first recorded (as "Master Builder") with Gong a few years earlier. This time, it was retitled "The Glorious Om Riff."
"The Glorious Om Riff" has subsequently become part of the repertoire of the hyper-prolific Japanese psychedelic band Acid Mothers Temple (in its various incarnations). Two of their live albums to date consist of very, very long versions of the "Om Riff," including this 51-minute blowout, released in 2005 as IAO Chant from the Cosmic Inferno.
More recently, OM has reappeared as the name of the doom-metal duo formed by bassist/singer Al Cisneros and drummer Chris Haikius, both formerly of stoner-rock masters Sleep. (More recently, Emil Amos has replaced Haikius.) Their first album was 2005's Variations on a Theme; it begins with the 21-minute "On the Mountain at Dawn," the sound of early Black Sabbath boiled down to a sticky resin.
Finally, it's worth remembering that the sound of "om" can be music all by itself. In the Shaivite Hindu tradition, "aum namah shivaya" is a well-known mantra; Sheila Chandra recorded this exquisite a cappella version of it to conclude her 1992 album Weaving My Ancestors' Voices.