Following on from part one

By his own admission, in his acknowledgements (p.iv), Hasler has not conducted any new research with historical or archival material in the course of producing his thesis. At first I was rather disappointed by this, and felt myself becoming frustrated by the lack of depth – historical and theoretical – as I began to read the first half of the thesis, which treats the symbolic relationships established between astrology, alchemy, cabala and music. However, these frustrations were unfounded: to treat the various subjects here at a depth that would please the speculative-music-obsessive such as myself would be beyond the scope of what is essentially a composition PhD and thus geared toward the practical end of producing a portfolio of compositions, which are commented on at length in the latter half of the thesis. 

It appears that this PhD came about as the answer to a creative crisis. He tells us that he began composing at the age of fourteen, when “only stylistic considerations were of importance to me, and they consisted mainly in adopting and adapting to my own mode of working the style of composers I admired and whose music I enjoyed.” (p.10) It seems that elements of this juvenile style persisted until his 30s and – although he would not consider himself so – such a kaleidoscopic approach to quoting and reinterpreting the past placed his work in the postmodern style. It’s interesting that someone who admits that the non-musical part of his life was consumed by a fascination for the esoteric and Hermetic kept his music entirely partitioned from this and “devoid of any ideological, aesthetic, political or philosophical preoccupations.” (ibid.) It’s interesting that he managed to keep uphold the notion of absolute music in the rather sterile, formalist sense of speaking of ‘nothing but sound’, since even the implications of ‘absolute music’ in the Romantic sense (e.g. music as “the echo from a transcendent harmonious world”) are positively crying out for the composer who sees himself as a transcendent hero, a speaker in the language of a higher realm, whose words are drawn from the harmonies of the universal soul: in other words, a magus.

A “Lullian wheel” used in Ars Combinatoria, designed by Mnemosyne Arts.

The mystical and esoteric interpretation of music owes much to the legacy of Pythagoras. Even when Pythagorean and Just intonations fell from common use, the notion of music as a pure, transcendent and magical language remained. All traditions have given us their magi: Hasler talks at length about Mozart Freemasonic opera Die Zauberflöte, and mentions in passing Satie, Scriabin, Cyril Scott, Messiaen and so on. It seems that certain themes and modes of esoteric thought have preoccupied many composers: astrology and cabala, for example, present us with complex sets of symbols that can have near infinite combinations and variations, much like the elemental units of music itself. In this respect, music and composition could be seen as a form of ars combinatoria in which the inner and outer worlds are explored through the combination and contemplation of symbols.

While Hasler doesn’t explore his own compositional practice in terms of ars combinatoria, he does point out that he is using cabalistic numerology “as the source of musical material in very much the same way as other numerical series are used in contemporary composition.” (p.126) Indeed, this is a fascinating area, especially as it relates to what is often called ‘atonal’ music. Despite being commonly thought of as ‘difficult’, ‘inhuman’, or ‘unlistenable’, the dodecaphonic (twelve-tone) approach to composition had something of a mystical genesis in the theories of Josef Matthias Hauer (1883-1959), who considered such compositions as cerebral, “purely spiritual, supersensual”. Here is something that feels to me not only echoing the perennial Pythagorean maxim that “music is number made audible”, but also a conception of the type of hierarchical cosmos that Agrippa and his contemporaries promoted. Here, the divine world found its expression in purely intellectual  patterns (cabala), the celestial world inhabiting a middle ground, with it’s planets and music of the spheres ready to incline the emotions (astrology), and the natural world finally being situated on the  lowers rung of creation (natural magic).

To another, later, exponent of non-tonally centred music, Dane Rudhyar, such developments in musical thought were indicative of the developing of new culture “characterized by its philosophical, occult, cosmic trend, and by its search for naturality in sound and for intrinsicality of construction, repudiating outer moulds and reintegrating forms into the ocean of Life.” Rudhyar himself posited the new composer as “no longer a ‘composer,’ but an evoker, a magician. His material is his musical instrument, a living thing, a mysterious entity endowed with vital laws of its own, sneering at formulas, fearfully alive.”

This has all been a little bit of an excursion from the topic at hand, but probably gives an indication of how fascinating, discursive and wide-ranging the study of this subject area can be. It is no surprise, then, that Hasler has had to constrain himself to three fairly narrow fields in the course of his thesis, which I will examine in the next post of this series.

Hasler is keen to describe his compositions as ‘speculative music’, but what does this mean? As I mentioned in the first part, ‘speculative music’ could be considered a form of mathematical and harmonic investigation, broadly influenced by the Platonic conception of the universe, rather than anything concerned with the practicalities of playing or composing music as we commonly know it. Hasler suggests that the definition of ‘speculative music’ be broadened to encompass practically all music that involves some metaphysical aspect. This moves his own ‘speculative music’ away form the traditional Boethian theoretical model into the practical world of the composer – the speculation here now seems not to be on the nature of Boethian numbers and ratios, but rather on how to use the esoteric symbol systems to express metaphysical ‘realities’. He suggests a tripartite typology for ‘speculative music’ involving aesthetic, symbolic and speculative levels.

Speculative folk music? (Image by Phil Legard)

It seems that anything with a ‘metaphysical’ title would be classed on the aesthetic level of this new speculative music (- one of Hasler’s examples is generic new age ‘relaxation’ music). Works whose esoteric theme are represented in the structure and composition of the music are classed as symbolic – Hasler’s example being Die Zauberflöte. Finally, Hasler’s ‘speculative level of speculative music’ is where esoteric systems directly influence the compositional choices or even creation of the musical system. Rather bizarrely, Hasler’s example here is Enya, although he does talk about Atalanta Fugiens too! In the case of the former he argues that such musicians and composers who “refer to Celtic mythical or magical lore and which take the trouble to use Celtic harmonies, scale-systems or melodies – as transmitted down in oral and recently in written history – are transcending the symbolic level of use of musical material related to the occult, and going into the speculative level of actually modifying or subverting the musical system they usually work with for the sake of a deeper connection between the musical and the extra-musical, in this case occult, substrata of their theme.” (p.51) I must say that this seems to present all kinds of problems to me – too numerous to go into here – but the notion of ‘speculative folk music’ is one which I can relate to. Such ‘speculation’ on oral traditions aside, Hasler’s own ‘speculative’ music on this level is mainly concerned with creating musical systems derived from esoteric theories of correspondence, for example between certain zodiacal signs and key signatures. It almost seems as though it represents another, deeper layer of symbolism: an ‘integral symbolism’, perhaps! As may be expected, this could become something of a cerebral exercise, although it may be argued that this befits a music that transcends the cares of the individual in favour of expressing a metaphysical reality, perhaps akin to position of the more mystically inclined dodecaphonic composers mentioned above.

So, we’ll dive into the world of alchemical music in the next post. To prepare yourself, why not revisit my earlier musings on the topic of musical alchemy and also take a look at Peter Forshaw’s excellent recent webinar on Michael Maier’s masterwork:

And while we’re on the subject of mystical music, take some time to listen to Carl Orff’s final composition, the overwhelming apocalyptic mystery play De Temporum Fine Comoedia. A sublime end to his legacy, absolutely entrancing. The music starts at 1:18.