Over the last fortnight I’ve been reading Johann Friedrich Wolfgang Hasler’s PhD thesis with much interest. Entitled Towards Hermeticist Grammars of Music: A Proposal for Systems of Composition Based on the Principles of the Hermetic Tradition, with Musical Demonstrations, the thesis was completed at the University of Newcastle Upon Tyne in 2011.

Obviously, considering my musical, philosophical, historical and aesthetic interests I couldn’t ignore a title like that! I’ve read some brilliant doctoral work on magic, mysticism and music, not least Angela Voss’ thesis on Ficino’s astrological music. These works have, however, tended to be historical, theoretical or sociological discussions, rather than the sort of practical demonstrations that a composition PhD, such as that completed by Hasler, entails. Having finished reading his work, studying his scores, and even playing a couple, I have a lot of thoughts: far too many for a single, easily readable blog. Therefore, as time allows over the next month or so, I will be posting a series of shorter blogs about this interesting piece of work. 

Boethius’ De Institutione Musica, which became the canonical textbook for speculative music in the Medieval era.

I’d like to begin with a few personal reflections before responding to the actual content of the thesis. Hasler often places his own work in the tradition of speculative music. I’ll discuss his own typology for speculative music in the next post, but historically musica speculativa was distinct from musica practica in that it dealt with music as a  theoretical, primarily harmonic, science. The theories of musica speculativa are often considered esoteric doctrines since they were bound up with Pythagorean and Platonic theories that suggested the universe was ordered according to the rules of mathematical proportions: music could therefore be used to explore the nature of the universe. Probably the most inspiring expressions of this idea is the ‘Music of the Spheres’ in which the motions of the planets are conceived as having some sort of ‘harmony’, often resulting from the mathematical relations of either their orbital velocities, masses or relative distances. During the late Renaissance and early Baroque eras the the power of speculative music waned, perhaps eroded not only by the changing cosmological picture (although even Kepler contrived theories to keep the universe ‘rational’ and harmonic), but also by developments in tuning systems which took methods of the constructing the musical scale away from simple ratios (as in Pythagorean and Just Intonation) and into more complex mathematical relationships (as in Equal Temperament).

The Divine Monochord, from Fludd’s Utriusque Cosmi Maioris Scilicet et Minoris Metaphysica (1617)

The problem with speculative music and the correspondences that they suggest between man, the universe and music is that they are incredibly inspiring theories, yet tremendously difficult to convincingly work into actual musical compositions: the music of the spheres – the overwhelming, all-penetrating and yet inaudible sound of an ordered universe – all too often becomes lifeless and mundane when an attempt it made to bound it in the temporal and audible constraints of musica practica. In this respect I have often felt that Ficino instinctively had the ‘right idea’ about the application of speculative theories to practical music making: Angela Voss has suggested that he may have improvised, rather than composed, perhaps using the eight musical modes (each one often associated with an ethos or moral character, and by extension a planet), along with his voice and perhaps also an instrument. This approach of using a symbolic tonal structure alongside improvisation in an attempt to affect some sort of spritual change in the player has long been a cornerstone of my own practice (see Pyschogeographia Ruralis). I was therefore very interested to discover through Hasler’s thesis how someone whose practice and musical education is rooted in the ‘Canonic’ works of Western Classical music (rather than the improvisation, experimental and folk musics that comprise my background) would approach the practical application of speculative theories. So, I’ll start the next post by looking at the first chapter of Hasler’s thesis, which discusses his musical background and the creative crisis that led him to investigate the possibilities of composing a new speculative works in the context of contemporary music.