In an attempt to get back into the flow of commenting on Hasler’s PhD thesis/portfolio (see parts 1, 2 and 3), I thought I might make a little typological excursion prior to looking at Hasler’s survey of astrological music.
I recently discovered the work of Marco Pasi (University of Amsterdam) via a post on Egil Asprem’s Heterodoxology blog (highly recommended). Asprem points towards Pasi’s essay Coming Forth by Night, which suggests a fourfold typology for ‘esoteric art’, which I have summarised below under four headings:
Representation: “[T]he representation of esoteric symbols or images associated with esotericism.”
Production: “[T]he production of artistic objects […] that can be interpreted as talismans or fetishes, or in manipulating matter that can be associated with occult sciences, such as alchemy and magic.”
Initiation: “[A]rtistic work becomes a means to induce extraordinary experiences, which can be interpreted as having spiritual/mystical/initiatory/shamanic/magical qualities.”
Mediation: “[W]hen an artistic work is the result of direct inspiration/communication from spiritual entities, or of a visionary/mystical experience.”
This is a somewhat more pragmatic set of distinctions when compared Hasler’s proposed typology for Hermetic music as aesthetic, symbolic or speculative. Viewed through the lens of Pasi’s typology, speculative music as defined by Hasler is often a representative form of esoteric art: even at the most refined, ‘speculative’ level, drawing its fundamental structure from esoteric theories (or speculations) about the nature of the universe, such as the music of the spheres, a mystical or magical potency is not attributed to it by the composer.
Of course, there is the core Hermetic axiom: ‘As above, so below‘. In the context of the traditions of astrological magic which flourished in the Renaissance the materials used ‘below’, in, for example, a talisman – be they metals, stones, or more esoteric images believed to have some resonance with the anima mundi or world-soul – had to correspond with the conditions one hoped to exploit ‘above’ (for example a benevolent conjunction of a planet and a star).
In musical terms, intellectuals like Marsilio Ficino had used song and music (in the an astrologically appropriate modal ethos) as part of his process ‘below’. Hermetic philosophy, the related doctrines of correspondence between celestial and earthly bodies and – by extension – Paracelsan ‘sympathy’ all seem to suggest that works made in imitation of celestial (or super-celestial) things or using symbolic representations of them are potentially magical if they are ‘vivified’ (as Agrippa terms it) in astrologically favourable conditions. Speculative music thus has a part to play not only in terms of representation, but also as either an integral part of the the production of esoteric art objects, or – in the correct temporal context – a potential producer of ‘magical effects’ in its own right.
Some of Hasler’s speculative music compositions do perhaps cross the line into the initiatory type, particularly with works which I will discuss in a later installment like the settings of the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram and a set of Cabalistic permutations known as HaShem (The Name). I’d class the first of these (composed at Hasler’s speculative level) as initatory due to its use in rubric of ceremonial magic: the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram serves itself as a method to change consciousness or to initiate (and terminate) a magical ritual. The latter work is composed at what he calls the symbolic level of speculative music. This is a little confusing since HaShem is essentially a spiritual exercise drawn from the work of Abraham Abulafia (1240-1290) but expressed in the ‘symbolism’ of musical notation (- you can read an additional commentary by Hasler on the work here).
As I mentioned earlier Pasi’s typology is more pragmatic and flexible, focusing as it does on the final art object, whereas Hasler is more concerned with a theoretical, compositional or creative process. Pasi’s typology is also useful in that it embraces the predilection of many artists toward the mystical or occult in a way which Hasler likely could not entertain, conducting his work as as an artist working in the academic framework of a PhD by portfolio.
Pasi also points out that “[t]he ghostly presence of the occult and of the spiritual is far from insignificant even in contemporary art, even if its import, function, or consistency may still elude critics and observers.” In this respect I am pleased to see that he is involved in a new initiative called Enchanted Modernities, coordinated by York University. This project looks at the influence of ‘theosophy’ on modernism between 1875-1960 and some coordinated academic work in this area is well overdue.
Finally, a nice companion to Hasler’s thesis can be found in Serban Nichifor’s Musica Caelestis – The Anamorphosis of the Sacred in the Art of Sounds at Academia.edu. Nichifor also has a collection about the Hermeticism of Debussy, which is interesting with regard to the Enchanted Modernities project: I once read an analysis of Debussy’s music which discussed at length his use of the Golden Section, magic squares and so on… but completely glossed over the prevailing interest of artists of the time in the esoteric as though it was a regrettable, but (barely) forgivable, eccentricity which no serious musical analyst or academic should waste their time on!