This post is a follow up to the idle observations on alchemy and music previously posted as Divine Feedback. What follows is, likewise, idle observation and speculation, but perhaps an interesting starting point for something more rigorous…
Harmony and proportion were major guiding principle for medieval and Renaissance aesthetics. In the case of the alchemy suggested by the Khunrath engraving (mentioned in the above post) it seems that the suggestion is that alchemical work relates to harmony: presumably the proportions of materials and astrological timings of operations should be harmonically concordant (and by extension harmonious in sound). There is the tantalising notion that, by harmonising their preparations and processes and sounding them out, alchemists could have been the earliest practitioners of a form of data sonification!
However, any surviving examples of the application of musical principles to alchemical preparations are – as yet – unknown to me. There is the use of numerology and cabala in an alchemical context in works such as the Aesch Mezaraph and the previously mentioned Voarchadumia, and there are of course musical works such as Atalanta Fugiens and the aforementioned En Pulcher Lapis. However, the trace of such musical-alchemical thought not only in Khunrath, but in – for example – Dee’s letter to Maximillian II indicates it cannot have but underpinned the philosophical approach to the Great Work undertaken by many alchemists of the late 16th and early 17th centuries.
This suggests to me that part of the practice of the alchemist is the ‘rationalising’ of matter though the application of musical (or mathematical) concepts like harmony and proportion to the physical work. By employing harmony a superior (celestial or rational) nature could be brought to bear on inferior matter, perhaps imparting something of the likeness of the living, turning heavens (by the analogy of micro- and macrocosm associated with the rational part of man) to make it fruitful. Part of the interwoven chain of being here elucidated by Marsilio Ficino:
Therefore he (God) laid the inferior things beneath the superior, as an egg to be hatched under a hen, or as a woman to be made fruitful by a man. Into which he from the beginning inserted certain seminal reasons, that they might, taking their opportunities, multiply themselves, as I may say, with a perpetual fertility and offspring. But God wrought out his compacted being of the world by certain harmony and musical proportion allied to one another, that which are in the superior world are in the inferior also, but in a terrestrial manner: that which likeness are in the inferiors, may also be seen in the superiors, in a celestial manner indeed, and according to the cause.
The associations of music with the heavens goes back at least as far as the notion of the music of the spheres, associated with Pythagoras via Plato. Closer to the period in question Ficino – alleged author of the above quoted alchemical text – used music and song in his form of celestial magic. Once more, music is a bridge between the celestial and earthly spheres. It’s apparent from the Khunrath engraving that the use of music is not just an analogy for the astrological conditions of alchemy (itself called astronomia inferior), but also effects the soul of the alchemist (hence the Ficinian quote relating to music relieving melancholic humours). The matter, the heavens, and God are all intimately connected with the alchemist, his body, mind and soul.
To many theorists, musicians and writers with Neoplatonic inclinations the moral and emotional characters of the eight church modes were often associated with the heavenly spheres, as were the harmonic conventions of the monochord . There was therefore a strong philosophical link between music and the heavens until developments in music and astronomy (among others) caused a schism which would lead later commentators such as Antoine Fabre D’Olivet (1767-1825) to speculate that the magical powers and moral natures ascribed to music by the ancients had been lost as a result of – for example – equal temperament turning.
The limitations of traditional musical theory and notation were unable to accommodate the changing fashions and scientific advances of the late Renaissance and Baroque. In this regard I remember a passage in Jamie James’ brilliant The Music of the Spheres that discussed the compositional possibilities offered by Fludd’s Temple of Music (illustrated above), stating that – when one considers that audiences of the time were becoming familiar with increased chromaticism, for example in the music of John Dowland and the opportunities for modulation afforded by new systems of temperament – the music on offer by Fludd must have been about as exciting as auntie’s bloomers.
However, to a dyed-in-the-wool Hermeticist it would seem to me that such novelties would likely not matter: for here, in these well-worn modes and intervals there was something of the eternal nature of the universe: a cosmic sympathy beyond even the anguish of love that the chromatic twist of the lachrimae motif (for example) so powerfully evokes.
Even the great exemplar of astronomical progressiveness, Johannes Kepler, adhered to a Pythagorean vision of the universe. Despite defending Copernicus, the Neopythagorean Kepler redefined celestial harmony in his model of a solar system in which the Platonic solids were nested within the celestial spheres.
Furthermore, to Kepler the music of the spheres were not sustained tones, but glissandi. I particularly like the observations here about the possible influence of Turkish vocal music on Kepler’s music of the spheres. A few years ago, in the footsteps of Wille Ruff I had my own go at auditioning Kepler’s cosmic harmonies. Have a listen below.
Returning to the subject of alchemical harmony, the 17th century English Rosicrucian John Heydon seems to have believed that both astrology and geomancy were somehow related to the execution of alchemical and medical work. He also wrote at length on the harmony of the universe: astrology being somewhat easier to provide a coherent harmonic interpretation of (after Kepler, oppositions being equivalent to octaves, conjunctions as unisons and so on).
Although most of Heydon’s works are plagiarised compilations from contemporary sources, his obsession with geomancy seems to have been his own eccentric innovation, an example of which is shown below. A few years ago I was so struck Heydon’s use of the term ‘harmony’ that I made some experiments into musically sounding out geomantic charts.
The above chart also appears in a plagiarisation of Heydon known as The Rosie Crucian Secrets (Harley MS 6486), attributed to John Dee. It formed the basis for my piece Horizon of Eternity (2006). An algorithimic process was used to create sixteen small musical figures, each of which were associated with a geomantic sign. The composition looked and sounded like this:
Note that the coda was formed by the geomantic method of superjudex – the binary addition of the first and final figures in the chart. A very similar technique, entirely based in computer code, was used to generate the piece ‘Edge of the Dream’ on my Peter Cora album.
Another approach to sounding out the geomantic charts came by way of some code that I wrote which was inspired by Campion’s mechanical method of providing counterpoint to a bassline. The continuing aesthetic connection between the laws of music and those of the physical world is also evident in Campion’s introduction to the chapter in which the four voices are likened to the four elements:
Although the code itself now resides on another computer out of immediate reach, the basic procedure was – so far as I remember it – to generate a series of fundamental pitches from the final figure in the chart (e.g. one dot is a rising note, two dots are a falling note). The characters from the other rows on the table were interpeted row by row to determine the movement of intervals using a table similar to the one in Campion’s method. Perhaps one day I’ll revisit this, but for now, here are sonifications from a couple of geomantic charts:
And before this all gets too heavy… I’m sure this is not what the alchemists had in mind, but it is a fine example of chemically-inspired music: