Imaginal Acoustics: On Subtle Listening, Sound-Shapes and Time

Poster for the 2013 Dark Stations concert.

Last year I invited Kim Cascone to the university for one of his Dark Stations concerts. Dark Stations is a 42-minute piece for a meditating audience based on a 3.1 diffusion system: the listeners sit in darkness within a triangular speaker array, a sub-bass speaker in the centre. The performance last year was one of the most interesting audio experiences I’d had for some time, culminating in a profound experience of auditory pareidolia: frequencies and room acoustics meshed to form phantom speech that I found it impossible to disassociate from the voice of my (then unborn) son, Lovernios.

I was pleased to be able to invite Kim back this year for a reprise of Dark Stations, preceded by a two-day Subtle Listening workshop. The workshop, subtitled “Inner Ear Training for Sound Artists” takes a highly reflective approach to sound, sound design and composition, designed to take participants beyond the technical ‘how to’s that education in music technology and production often dwells on, and toward a more creative, intuitive relationship with sound and what might be called, to coin a term in academese, ‘the sonic imaginary’, or possibly more accurately ‘imaginal acoustics’.

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Ceremonies of the Horsemen

I recently put together a very quick mix of materials relating to the ‘Society of the Horseman’s Word’, a sort of rural, quasi-Masonic trade union that was particularly active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The most commonly regarded element of the lore of the society regards the use of the ‘toad bone’ or ‘frog bone’ to control horses. The mix includes material from interviews with two of George Ewart Evans’ informants who provided material for his classic book Horse Power and Magic, as well as a few brief lines borrowed from ‘traditional witch’ Andrew Chumbley’s ONE: Grimoire of the Golden Toad (see also the recent publication of his The Leaper Between).


To accompany the mix, I have appended my transcription of an article that originally appeared in The Pall Mall Gazette, January 31, 1896. This article is unusual in that it was written by an initiate to the Society willing to speak publically about the ‘secret science of horesemanship’. Continue reading

Josef Hauer’s Eternal, Atonal Universe

Josef Matthias Hauer

Josef Matthias Hauer

Over the last few weeks, I’ve become increasingly preoccupied with the atonal mysticism of the Viennese composer Josef Matthias Hauer (1883-1959), a marginalised figure in 20th century music. If he is mentioned at all it is usually as a footnote to the work of Arnold Schoenberg, for Hauer himself developed a method of composing with all twelve tones shortly before Schoenberg’s ‘emancipation of dissonance.’

Although both composers corresponded and planned to co-author a work on atonal composition, differences in their respective musical philosophies soon led to animosity between the pair, leading Hauer to stamp his correspondence:

The spiritual father and 
(in spite of many imitators!) 
still the only 
master and connoisseur 
of twelve-note music.

Hauer’s own theories of atonal music, underpinned by mystical hypotheses, stand in opposition to the type of strict statistical unity that Schoenberg’s ‘method of composing with twelve tones’ ensured (- in which all tones will be represented an equal number of times in the piece). Such a disconcertingly ‘modern’ conception of ‘unity’ is absent from Hauer’s approach, which scholar and composer Dominik Šedivý has called ‘anti-expressionistic.’ Continue reading

Three Mind-Expanding Discographies

Following a query from a friend about the tarot and music, I thought I’d re-work series of posts from my old blog that I called Mind-Expanding Discographies, culled from a number of books that I’d been reading on music and spirituality.

The first selection comes from Peter Michael Hamel’s Through Music to the Self (1976), which I first found on the shelves of a composer whose music I was engraving in around 2006. Hamel is, to me, a profound musician and composer, and he succeeded Ligeti as professor of composition Hochschule für Musik und Theater – big boots to fill! Much of his own work is in the a new age/minimalist style, some electronic, some for ensembles such as his group Between.

The book includes a great primer on how to ‘listen’ to Indian classical music, as well as some illuminating material on vowel singing, and a number of meditative exercises and ‘social practice methods’. The discography itself is fairly mainstream (as far as these things go…), but there are a couple of unsung gems in there:

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Past/Present: New Recorder Music

The Famulus has recently published an audio journal on the theme of ‘everyday magic’, to which I’ve contributed a recording of Ten Meditative Fragments [pdf], played on treble recorder with effects.

Ten Meditative Fragments (2007)

Ten Meditative Fragments (2007)

Here’s the accompanying note:

The music of Ten Meditative Fragments was written in 2007 using chance procedures to compose ten musical fragments, which could then be freely interpreted as an improvisation on a monophonic instrument. While I have played the piece privately countless times over the past few years, it was The Famulus’ call for contributions that compelled me to record a version. 

Where is the ‘everyday magic’ here? To me it comes from the process of being able to combine disparate materials into a cohesive whole; to enter a state in which connections can be made between the seemingly disconnected atoms that comprise the piece and in which they appear to make sense. I feel this is akin to the special experience of looking out onto a landscape and being overtaken by the feeling of numinous unity that it expresses. If that’s not a magical feeling, I don’t know what is.

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The Dilly Song of Solomon

Agnes Agar’s letter on “The Dilly Song”.

I’ve recently been enjoying browsing the Full English collection, put together by the EFDSS and the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. One curious find was the above letter from one Agnes W. Agar to the early folksong collector Lucy Broadwood (1858-1929), which includes some rather curious speculations on The Dilly Song. While the speculations about magic are surely way off the mark, the correspondent’s reference to farm men calling it a “secret society song” is interesting. Whether these men were pulling the old antiquarian’s leg, belonged to a rural trade fraternity (such as the Horseman’s or Miller’s Word), or believed that it had an association with Freemasons and their music (- see Katherine Campbell’s article in Oral Tradition [pdf]) cannot be inferred simply from the letter, which I have transcribed below. Broadwood herself has some lengthy notes on the song on pp. 154-9 of her English Country Songs, although this does not appear to be the source where she connects the song with Freemasonry – presumably this was detailed in the correspondence that precedes the letter reproduced below. A note on the song being sung at a Masonic gathering is in an 1887 issue of The Freemason’s Chronicle, but with no deeper association than it being a popular song sung by a brother during a social gathering alongside F.E. “Oh, Danny Boy!” Weatherley’s The Skippers of St. Ives. Continue reading

Devils, Elleves, Firadrakes and Occult Geographies

Earlier this week I presented at the Royal Geographical Society-Institute of British Geographers International Conference, participating in a session called Occult Geographies: (im)Material Agents and the Geographical Imagination. I’ll reflect on the other papers in my next post – until then you may like to take a look at my paper Devils, Elleves or Firadrakes: Genius Loci, Magical Technologies and the Occult Philosophy of Landscape. Full text and slides can be found over at

Entity relationship diagram depicting the digital artist as magician.

Entity relationship diagram depicting the digital artist as magician.

The paper as presented is actually a synopsis of a far more detailed, 10,000-word article, which I hope to prepare for publication shortly. It’s perhaps a peculiar collision of ideas: occult, creative and technological, but I think it’s a fairly good reflection of my multiphrenic identity! One thing it was a shame I couldn’t deal with fully in the conference paper was the further implications of John French’s translation of Agrippa’s Classical terms into folkloric parallels: however, this is discussed in detail in the full paper, tracing the roots of the Agrippa’s calling of the ‘good spirits’ to medieval folkloric practices, which came full-circle in the work of 17th century magical compiler Dr. Rudd.

The Vale of Soul-Making

A brief summary of recent goings-on!

It’s been a very busy three weeks, working on my paper for Devils, Ellves or Firadrakes for the Occult Geographies session at next week’s Royal Geographical Society conference (abstract here). The paper has ended up as a 10,000-word draft, which now needs to be reduced to a 20-minute presentation by this time next week!

While I was in a word-processing mood, I took the time to edit and upload my artist talk Music, Magic, Metaxy: Sounding Psychepoietic Landscapes, which was delivered at the Uncanny Landscapes conference organised by Royal Holloway University and the Centre for Creative Collaboration in March. You can read the text here, and view the slides here.

From Music, Magic, Metaxy: Sounding Psychepoietic Landscapes

From Music, Magic, Metaxy: Sounding Psychepoietic Landscapes

Last year, Tom Carter of Charalambides was hospitalised with pneumonia while on tour in Europe. Gavin Prior of United Bible Studies has put together a vast compilation to raise money to help out with the costs he incurred as a result. 99 tracks from nearly everyone (including XETB!) in the last 15 or 20 years of underground of drone/free folk/experimental music for 7.50 Euros. Download here.

I recently got some copies of the compilation 70 Years of Sunshine, on Monotype records, curated by Kim Cascone. I was pleased to see some positive words about my contribution in Daniel Spicer’s review in the latest issue of The Wire, and he also played it on the latest episode of his radio show, The Mystery Lesson (the Wadada Leo Smith & TUMO track which he plays after is incredible!).

That’s it for now! Something more substantial to come in September, once presentations have been made and prior to the madness of beginning a new academic year…

An Angelystor Companion

I’d like to share a few pieces of music that I feel either resonate with or otherwise influenced Angelystor.

Katharine Norman – Bells and Gargoyles (1996)

St. Michael and All Angels Church, Hathersage, Derbyshire, Panaramio, coljay72 (CC-A-NC-ND)

Bells and Gargoyles is an electroacoustic piece which processes a rather rough field recording made by Katharine Norman at St. Michael and All Angels Church, Hathersage (a location also used in the cult classic The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue). The piece begins and ends with unprocessed recordings, between which she uses various sonic transformations to suggest the blending of the imagination with the environment. You can listen to it in full at Katharine Norman’s website. In Angelystor, nearly all the non-instrumental and non-vocal sounds were also abstracted from the original field recording, although using a narrower palette of techniques. Continue reading


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