I am pleased to say that I will be participating in Aberystwyth University’s Listen to the Voice of Fire event on the 3rd of March at the National Library of Wales. There’s a pretty diverse range of musicians and academics involved – and tickets can be found here. I am pleased to say that Our Glassie Azoth are on the bill – and indeed, the whole event is organised by Mr. Glassie Azoth himself, Dafydd Roberts. OGA was a great inspiration to me during the early 2000s. Experimenting with an Amen, a split between OGA and side-project Alphane Moon is a particular favourite – especially the way it mixes alchemical imagery, drone and noise, interspersed with sweet, whispy Nick Drake-like miniatures.
I’ll be doing a short talk about John Dee’s Hieroglyphic Monad and its relation to music. Here’s the abstract:
In the Key of Dee: Sounding John Dee’s Monas Hieroglyphica
In an address to Maximilian II, which prefaces his Monas Hieroglyphica (1564), John Dee emphasises that the Monad is not only an alchemical device, but a universal one, with the potential to revolutionise all the arts and sciences. Amongst the examples given are applications to geography, astronomy and music, of which Dee writes:
“How justly may the musician be struck with wonder when here he will perceive inexplicable, celestial harmonies without any movement and sound.” (Josten 1964, 130-1)
Dee’s harmonic conception of the Monad may be interpreted as a progenitor to later alchemical traditions in which music plays an underrated part: music was not only the audible expression of the mathematical, rational world of the celestial spheres, but also of influences the soul, the preparation of which is a necessity for the Great Work (Forshaw 2010, 175). In alchemical practice, ‘speculative music’ potentially bridges the spheres of nature and theology, labour and oratory.
This presentation will summarise the historical and contemporary implications of a musical reading of Dee’s Monad. Commencing with a survey of John Dee’s own musical experience and readings, it will contextualize the philosophical connections between the Monad, alchemy, magic, music, geometry and astronomy.
The concepts of harmonic investigation that characterise Medieval and Renaissance musica speculativa will be applied to the forms and theorems of the Monad as a means of interpreting Dee’s ‘inexplicable, celestial harmonies’. In the spirit of Dee’s age, such an interpretation allows us also to reflect on the tensions between conservative Pythagorean musical mysticism and the more ‘strange and informal’ approaches of composers such as John Dowland: emphasizing the space between tradition and innovation, wherein Dee’s own work often sits.
I will also explore Dee’s Monad into more contemporary areas, based on my use of the text and symbol in my own composition and music-making. The compositional and technological approaches behind a number of my own pieces will be outlined, for example: spectral transformation and the Monad’s proportions in The Great Chord (2012); the relationship between geomancy and the Monad in Horizon of Eternity (2006); the Monad as a graphical sequencer in Hieroglyphic Pathwork (2016); and the use of alchemical cabala in the work of Dee and Pantheus in Osiro Ngatso Nutu Marthek Dei (2016). Many of these works use the aesthetic of drone to provide sonifications of alchemical and Monadic concepts, to create contemplative spaces in which to consider the relationship between alchemy, music and the soul.
Forshaw, Peter. 2010. ‘Oratorium-Auditorium-Laboratorium: Early Modern Improvisations on Cabala, Music, and Alchemy’ in Aries, vol. 20.2, pp. 169-195. [Link]
Josten, C.H. ‘John Dee’s Monas Hireoglyphica’ in Ambix, vol. 12, pp.84-221.
Obviously Dee – and his Monad in particular – is quite a long-running obsession of mine. These posts might be of interest if you feel similarly inclined: Hieroglyphic Monody, XETB Plays the Music of John Dee, Weights and Measures: Alchemy, Harmony, Geomancy and Music. Also, here is a new piece of ‘Monad Music’, which uses the form of Dee’s Monad as a graphical sequencer, implemented with Iannix:
Preparing for this event got me thinking about other examples of alchemical music. I’ve previously mentioned pieces such as the antiphon En Pulcher Lapis in earlier blogs, and the above article by Peter Forshaw (from which aforementioned blog post cribs) is a brilliant example of how alchemy, harmonics, cabala and music were enmeshed in the ‘correlative cosmology’ in which esotericism operates.
But what of the 20th and 21st centuries? In the field of modern composition we are actually quite spoiled for alchemical musics. We have pieces like Johann Hasler’s The Emerald Tablet, part of his PhD portfolio:
While quite a number of more ‘difficult’ composers seem to have flirted with alchemy in the heady days of the 1960s and 70s. Wilfrid Mellers wrote the half-hour long Opus Alcyhmicum in 1969 (revised in 1972 and 1995), an organ piece which takes the listener through nine stages of the alchemical process – albeit in quite unforgiving atonal language. It’s not online, but can be found on Kevin Bowyer’s excellent CD of contemporary organ works. Mellers makes parallels between both alchemy and music as a psychological process in this statement:
This work is based on the three times three ‘stages’ of mediaeval alchemy. There is nothing arcane about this: for musical composition is of its nature an ‘alchemical’ transformation of something (pitch relationships, rhythms, metres, harmonies, timbres) into something else; and Jung has demonstrated that the metamorphoses of alchemy are, like those of music, not so much material as psychological. [source]
A composer also represented on Bowyer’s CD is Brian Ferneyhough – architect of the ‘new complexity’. I don’t know much about Ferneyhough, but was quite surprised to discover that his work Transit (1972-5) was inspired by ‘an anonymous woodcut depicting a renaissance magus in the act of penetrating the last sphere separating the mortal from the divine.’ Obviously Ferneyhough is here actually referring to the famous ‘Flammarion engraving’, which fist appeared in appeared in Flammarion’s work on meteorology – although Flammarion was himself also interested in psychical research and penned tales of proto-science fiction.
However, it is Ferneyhough’s choice of text that is most interesting:
The overall form of Transit is dictated by the texts and their order of presentation. Whilst each of them retains a large amount of internal self-sufficiency (each representing one type of transformation) taken together they collectively represent an open-ended progression from material transformation (represented by texts concerning transmutation by Paracelsus) via cosmological (Heraclitus on the perpetual dissolution and reconstitution of the universe through fire) to universal/mystical transformation (the teachings on the nature of eternity contained in the Corpus Hermeticum attributed to Hermes Trismegistus). [source]
Once again, no recordings are online, although it is can be tracked down on vinyl.
Barely a year later, Peter Maxwell Davies was engaged on his own opus with A Mirror of Whitening Light (1976-77). The title refers to the alchemical process of ‘whitening’ ‘by which a base metal may be transformed into gold, and by extension, to the purification of the human soul.’ This is an interesting piece, which uses the magic square of mercury as its most fundamental compositional structure.
To effect this, Davies takes the plainchant Veni Sancte Spiritus, and creates an eight-note ‘summary’ from it. This summary then becomes mapped to the first row and first column on an 8×8 matrix. The subsequent rows are transpositions of the summary, taking the first value in the column as their tonic. This 8×8 grid is numbered 1 to 64, and the tones are then ‘projected’ into the mathematical arrangement of the corresponding magical square:The music itself is composed by plotting sigils on the magic square, which dictate the order in which tones occur. This is a common technique for Davies, who has used magic squares in his other compositions – his Ave Maris Stella uses plainchant and the moon square, while some of his operatic works assign use, for example, the Venus square to control tone relations for female protagonists. Unlike the last two pieces, this one is easily available online:
Finally I’ll close this little survey of musical alchemy with the works of Rolf Wallin, whose Solve et Coagula (1992) and Boyl (1995) draw upon alchemical themes – the latter being a Middle English rendering of the word ‘boil’ taken from the work of Philalethes. Regarding both pieces Wallin writes that ‘the massa confusa of the subconscious is the prime instrument for reaching mental completeness.’ This is interesting, since – as in the work of Mellers and Davies – it points to an enduring appeal of Jung’s spiritual-psychological reading of alchemy amongst artists, and perhaps the necessity of a form of ‘scientisation’ to legitimise alchemy as a subject intellectually appropriate for contemporary composers to be concerned with. You can listen to an excerpt of Boyl and read the programme notes for both pieces here.
Wallin mentions that both these pieces use a ‘fractal function’, which is a reference to his fascinating approach to developing harmonic and melodic materials through the use of ‘crystal chords’. The crystal chords are quite simple to ‘grow’, but potentially open up interesting worlds of ‘consonant atonality’, as Wallin writes:
In short, the system is based on three germ intervals, that are multiplied and stacked on top of eachother. Many multiplications make a “scale”, few multiplications give a “chord”, which is a subset of the “scale”, just as the C major triad is a subset of the C Major scale. One big difference is that the Crystal Chords do not repeat themselves at the octave, but evolve in unpredictable ways through the octaves, yet still having an inherent quality or “flavour” that depends on the quality of the germ intervals. Dissonant germs make dissonant chords, consonant germs make consonant chords. And as the consonance is of a very ambiguous kind, without any clear tonality, I am tempted to use the term “consonant atonality”. [source]
You might guess that this has become quite an interesting topic for me. Does anyone have any other examples of contemporary alchemical composition they would like to share?