It was a great pleasure to travel to Aberystwyth at the start of the month for the Listen to the Voice of Fire: Alchemy in Sound Art symposium at the National Library of Wales. The day was organised by Dafydd Roberts, of Our Glassie Azoth, and brought together a variety of academics, composers and musicians to explore diverse responses to the theme of alchemy and its relationship with sonic arts. Below are some thoughts on the day – along with a little digression into the music of Radulescu! You can also find photos of the event here.
Prior to proceedings, it was a delight to hang out with Electroscope (in this configuration John Cavanagh, Gayle Brogan and Ceylan Hay aka Bell Lungs), and also to unexpectedly encounter Johann Wlight, whose Gold of a Thousand Mournings, was one of my favourite Larkfall releases from ‘back in the day’. I am pleased to say that he is still making his music, and hope to be able to hear some more sometime soon…
Dafydd Roberts introduced the day, talking about his own interest in alchemy and noise music – as well as his PhD thesis on the work of ‘alchemistical philosopher’ Thomas Vaughan, aka Eugenius Philalethes. The idea of alchemy as the ‘phenomenology of revelation’ also came up, which caught my ear and gave me the title of this post. This segued into a precis of his essay Born out of Chaos [Academia.edu], which connects the aesthetics of Our Glassie Azoth to both the work of Louis and Bebe Barron and cybernetic theory. An interesting connection was also made between the description of alchemy as a ‘history of error’ and the fetishisation of ‘error’ as an aesthetic via databending and glitch music. This reminded me of Kim Cascone‘s attitude that errors somehow upset our reality by confounding our expectations, and can be used as potent jumping off points for creative exploration. The talk of databending also pointed toward sonification, which would be a recurrent theme for many artists over the course of the day, which I touched on as an alchemical idea here, and which Kristina Wolfe has also suggested manifests a sort of contemporary apophatic mysticism.
Dafydd was followed by Ed Wright (Bangor University) who began by invoking Trevor Wishart’s suggestion that the paradigm of sonic arts should shift from that of architecture to chemistry. Ed performed the latest iteration of his Crosswire piece for electric violin and Max.
One component of this system is the brilliantly flexible Max object fiddle~, which allows the tracking of fundamental pitch and a number of additional partials – in effect, a way to take a sound apart, reinterpret it and even recombine it. The analysis of timbral content – and its manipulation – is integral to a number of works in the ‘spectralist’ genre, and an alchemical interpretation easily lends itself to some of this music. For example, in Désintégrations (1982) Tristan Murail breaks various tones generated by piano, flute and clarinet into their individual sinusoids and re-syhtnesises them to create bells, ‘exploded’ versions of the timbres and modulating textures. The alchemical parallel would be palingenesis, in which a plant was reduced to ashes and then magically revived as an apparition of itself.
The relevance of the manipulating harmonic spectra as an ‘alchemical’ allegory was directly relevant to the talk that followed Ed’s on the mystical music of Horatiu Radulescu.
Composer Francis Heery gave one of the talks that I was most looking-forward to, concerning the music of Radulescu. I’d discovered Radulescu through Kristina Wolfe’s thesis, and had become intrigued by what I could find of his music. Heery’s fascinating talk discussed the Hermetic lineage of Radulsecu’s music theory, in which Pythagoras is cited as an idealised originary figure. Francis points out that according to Radulescu:
[Pythagoras] knowledge was subsequently ignored by future generations of composers. The result of this oversight was centuries of what he calls “pantomime music”, where sound was treated “from the outside”. Here the Hermetic undertones are clear; we have a lament for a lost antiquarian ‘golden age’, with profound knowledge stemming from a semi-divine figure and a utopian call to reclaim this ancient knowledge.
This resonates with the position of the French Traditionalist Fabre d’Oliviet, who lamented in the 19th century that the magical power of music had been lost as a consequence of modern tuning systems – perhaps a similar manifestation of these ideas can also be found in the recent obsession with A=432Hz amongst a variety of online milieux. As an aside, it’s interesting that Pierre Schaffer invoked Pythagoras (along with Husserl’s phenomenology) in order to similarly legitimise the aesthetic and intellectual dimensions of his music. Radulescu also invoked what he called ‘preferential phenomenology’ in a rambling paper published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences [pdf], which seems to relate to the mystical-evolutionary argument for the ‘emancipation of dissonance‘: that earlier cultures grounded their work on the lower reaches of the harmonic series, but more advanced cultures will appreciate the the relationships of the higher harmonics in which more dissonant and microtonal intervals proliferate. Radulescu suggests this is a new phenomenological vocabulary of music, but it is hard to imagine Schaeffer – the other arch avant-garde phenomenologist – making statements such as:
A ritual of psychoacoustic trance is Angolo Divino, op. 87 (1994) for large orchestra, where the same 81 microagogic characters of rhythm vivify the sober deployment of macroregister “mobiles” coming from the highest “heaven” and progressively opening on an “Eternal Sight” embracing both the highest and lowest “skies” through most secretly murmured and most luminous powerful waves.
Reading Radulscu’s theoretical work is itself like grappling with an alchemical text!
Heery himself focused on Radulescu’s pieces Do Emerge Ultimate Silence (1974/84) for 34 children’s voices and bowed monochords, and Sound Plasma – Music of the Future Sign or My D High Opus 19∞ (1975). In the latter piece, a high D tone – almost on the verge of audibility – which wavers very slightly in pitch is the fundamental sonic material, and players mediate between this tone and its infrasonic reflection. To quote the composer:
The harmonic aureole of this high d enters more or less the ultrasonic realm.
When you feel UTOPIA surging and tending to overcome REALITY and vice versa, imagine or realize a reflection of that harmonic aureole into the infrasonic realm.
This mirroring process, the increasing crystallization and stress at the two poles may induce “nirvana” within the audible realm (middle and low register).
These enlightening shadows may appear about three times during the whole performance.
This process creates a hermetically sealed auditory space, in which ‘nirvana’ may be manifested: a powerful aesthetic idea, and one that also seems to be in play in the aforementioned Angolo Divino piece, in which Radulescu spoke of the high harmonics descending from the heavens to the lower skies.
Following Francis, Sharron Kraus read from her paper on the tortured artist as alchemist, which I believe was first presented at Psychoanalysis, Art and the Occult last year – a symposium I wish I could have been to! Unfortunately in the tight time allocations he paper had to be rather abridged, but I hope to be able to read it in full some time, since it gave me a lot to think about. She touched on the Romanticisation of the ‘tortured artist’ and the relationship between ‘suffering’ and the creative process (e.g. the various dark nights of all-consuming doubt that seem to be a necessity to produce many things) – the latter perhaps making me also think of Sendivogius’ ‘torture of metals’ and the ascetic ideal that mortification purifies the soul. Thoughts about John Dowland and his fetishisation of melancholia also arose as possible ideas of precursors to the motif of the tortured artist. Sharron suggested that the experimental alchemist may replace the tortured artist – that the space of creativity is akin to the alchemical vessel, ‘governed by its own rules’ and set apart from more materialist motives. Despite being deprecated by the psychoanalytic establishment, Sharron’s paper also hinted at the continuing relevance of Jungian thought to artists. As a talented artist himself, Jung seems to speak authentically of the creative process to many artists, and of course, his ideas about alchemy, symbols and archetypes have long been identified as complementary to the modern day attempts to re-enchant psychology: as Hanegraaff termed it, the ‘psychologisation of religion and the sacralisation of psychology‘.
Sharron was followed by Ryan Jordan, a noise artist and instrument builder, whose presentation – dryly titled Alchemical Practice in Sound Art – in fact turned out to be something akin to alchemical standup comedy. Ryan discussed a variety of projects the relate to alchemy’s ‘history of error’, which included distilling colloidal gold and silver from computer motherboards, creating his own light-sensitive cells from crushed malachite, attempting to encode his memories into the earth using a magnetic band, and a current project called Decoding the Basilisk, which involved distilling eggs in a compost heap to create a combustible substance.
My own presentation explored the possibilities for musically interpreting John Dee’s Hieroglyphic Monad. You can read the full piece here, and for the benefit of curious readers/listeners I include some of the supporting media below!
Presenting in the afternoon were Alan Chamberlain, Pip Wilcox and David de Roure whose wide-ranging talk revolved around the development of experimental digital humanities: a creative research methodology that uses digital tools to reinterpret the past, in particular by interpreting unexplored avenues of earlier scientific projects. The main focus was on the work of Ada Lovelace and her insight that Babbages’ hypothetical Analytic Engine could be used to compose music [academia.edu], although there were also digressions into the music of the spheres. The idea of experimental digital humanities could, I think, be applied to alchemy, Hermeticism and pre-Enlightenment science… or perhaps that might be what many of us in the room were unconsciously doing in our alchemical perambulations?
I very much enjoyed the presentation by composer Katherine Betteridge, who talked about how imagined places and imaginary travel influence her work. This reminded me of both my own explorations of ‘psychegeography‘ as the flip-side to the material world, and also made me think of a passage from the Hermetic dialogue of Mind unto Hermes:
And, thus, think from thyself, and bid thy soul go unto any land, and there more quickly than thy bidding will it be. And bid it journey oceanwards; and there, again, immediately ’twill be, not as if passing on from place to place, but as if being there.
Two pieces that particularly struck me were Stjörnublik (Starlight) and Forest of Non-Ordinary Reality. The former is for clarinet and harpsichord, and uses the harpsichord itself as a resonant chamber; the latter is an improvised piece based on a dream of light ementating from the floor of a forest.
Following architect Magnus Jennson‘s discussion of the importance of sacred geometry on his design for the first Ásatrú temple in Reykjavík, we took a break during which time I took a look at a selection of alchemical texts on display, including original editions of Michael Maier, Thomas Vaughan and Cornelius Agrippa.
The final set of presentations focused on performances, and were initiated by Duncan Chapman performing a drone piece with Audiomulch based on the atomic number, atomic mass, melting point and boiling point of gold. I was also pleased to discover that this was originally written as a prospective piece for Kim Cascone’s Drone Cinema Film Festival!
Simon Kilshaw performed Cerebral Mutterings, which revisits Alvin Lucier’s brainwave-controlled Music for Solo Performer using a contemporary EEG sensor. There are shades here, once more, of the ‘experimental digital humanities’ approach to revisiting and reimagining past work – and I also think this type of system could be taken into more explicitly ‘Hermetic’ dimensions via an engagement with cybernetics, aesthetics and ritual technology, akin to the work of HyperRitual.
The session finished with a performance of a piece called Aqua Rebecca by Ben Osborn, Rachel Margetts and Bethan Lloyd. Osborn produced a variety of drones, while Rachel and Bethan played bells, singing bowls and sung lyrics abstracted from Thomas Vaughan’s notebook, Aquae Vitae: Non Vitis. I didn’t know much about Vaughan’s life or writings, but the entries in this diary have some striking imagery, and surround the illness and death of Rebecca, his wife and alchemical partner:
On Friday the 18th of July, I myself sickened at Wapping, and that night I dreamed I was pursued by a stone horse, as my dear wife dreamed before she sickened, and I was grievously troubled all night with a suffocation at the heart, which continued all next day most violently, and still it remains, but with some little remission.
The group had re-worked the entries in Vaughan’s diary as a way to give voice to Rebecca, which beautifully highlighted the role of women in the history of alchemy, as well as the making these obscure historic figures human: taking the alchemist away from the cartoon parody of a cowled philosopher amidst bubbling alembics and made them palpable emotional, flesh and blood figures. A wonderful end to my day in Aberystwyth, since I then had to dash for a train, and unfortunately miss the performances by Electroscope, Our Glassie Azoth and Nicole Carroll and Rhodri Davies.
Over the course of the day it became evident that ‘alchemy’ is an evocative concept. Obviously it can be a metaphor for the creative process, but also represents a sort of attitude, which recognises a dynamic relationship between outer and inner worlds. In his talk, Francis mentioned that:
Alchemy brought ‘mood’ to the laboratory and doing so it coupled an aesthetic sensibility with scientific rationality. It was an aestheticised science, one that retained something of a Dionysian spirit that combined a methodological attitude with a profound respect for the uncanny ‘otherness’ of the world.
Like ritual magic, alchemy also creates spaces – the laboratory, the space within the vessels where transformation occurs, and the imaginative space in which dreams and allegorical observations about the state of matter inform ‘the work’. Alchemy is also connected with technology and discovery, despite deriving its authority from ancient sources such as the Corpus Hermeticum. In this respect it is perhaps a fitting symbol for post-secular esotericism, where the use of technology and an awareness of instrumental causality meet the recognition that encounters with irrationality are also valuable experiential tools. Such an attitude pervades much of our contemporary culture and creates the ‘occultural‘ atmosphere in which alchemy continues to enchant artists and audiences.
To wrap up: if you’re not bored of alchemy yet, why not listen to this episode of In Our Time? Broadcast in 2011, Melvyn Bragg chats with Peter Forshaw, Lauren Kassell and Stephen Pumfrey about the history of alchemy.