Speculative Music

Many of the posts on this blog are on the subject of what has become broadly identified as ‘speculative music’. This is a term most readily associated with what 6th century philosopher Boethius termed musica mundana: the harmonies of world – particularly the celestial world. Speculative music combines metaphysics, cosmology and acoustic science to relate harmonics and tuning to the music of the spheres, and the the moral qualities which those spheres were believed to affect in men and women.

By the Enlightenment, the links between acoustics, music and the cosmos were firmly the stuff of poetic metaphor, and decidedly allied with those forms of ‘rejected knowledge’ that we identify as the mystical, esoteric and occult. Yet, speculative music continues to fascinate composers and aestheticians: it not only speaks of a sense of harmony between mankind, science, art and the cosmos that has been lost, but also places music on a larger-than-human scale: a form of ‘speculativism’ can therefore be seen in the adoption of series and sets by composers in the early/mid-20th century, the radical reinvention of acoustics by the ‘spectralists’ in the later 20th century, and the contemporary preoccupation with data and sonification as compositional materials.

This page collates links to my own articles and recordings on the subject of speculative music. In the future I will also add links to other books and other online resources.

Blog Posts
P. B. Randolph’s Astrological Melody: deciphering the instructions for a magical melody in Randolph’s Magia Sexualis.

Kim Cascone: Dark Stations and Black Fields: A brief interview with Kim Cascone, with an emphasis on mediation and the imagination.

The Phenomenology of Revelation
: a report from the Listen to the Voice of Fire symposium.

Listening for the Voice of Fire
: reflections on the use of alchemy in the work of modern composers.

Enquiriel & Co. – Selenus’ Musico-Angelic Cipher
: exploring a 17th century cipher that mixes Trithemius’ demonic magic with music.

Exploring the Hexadic System
Tradition and Innovation: Speculative Music and the Hexadic System: two posts about Ben Chasny’s Hexadic system of composition.

Kircher & Schott’s Computer Music of the Baroque: a look at the 17th century Organum Mathematicum, a Baroque computer that could write polyphonic compositions.

Imaginal Acoustics: On Subtle Listening, Sound-Shapes and Time: a reflection on a workshop with composer Kim Cascone.

Josef Hauer’s Eternal, Atonal UniverseTwelve-Tone Games & Opusmodus: Josef Hauer felt equal temperament perfected the scale and lent it a mystical unity. To compose ‘true’ twelve-tone music, he developed an alternate system of atonal composition that prefigures the aesthetics of minimalism and chance music.

Say Aaah: Music of the Vowels: a short piece on the use of vowel singing.

The New Speculative Music [part 1] [part 2] [part 3] [part 4]: a work-in-progress, looking at the PhD portfolio of Johann W. Hasler.

Divine FeedbackWeights and Measures: Alchemy, Harmony, Geomancy and Music: a couple of posts speculating on alchemy, the music of the spheres, and sonification.

Articles and Conference Papers
In the Key of Dee: Sounding John Dee’s Monas Hieroglyphica: a paper on the acoustics of Dee’s Hieroglyphic Monad, read at the Listen to the Voice of Fire symposium, March 2017.

The Bright Sound Behind the Sound: Real-World Music, Symbolic Discourse and the Foregrounding of Imagination: published in Interference: A Journal of Audio Cultures (Vol. 5, 2016). This looks at the role of the esoteric/poetic imagination in creating pieces that respond to ‘real-world’ sound.

The Many-Coloured Earth: Visionary Creativity, Imaginal Landscapes and the Hermeneutic Imagination: reflections on how Angela Voss’ ‘methodology of imagination’ has led me to compose and evaluate my own work. Read at The Alchemical Landscape, March 2015.

While most of my music involves some degree of esoteric influence, the following are the most ‘speculative’ in nature:

Hesperian Garden: 28-min EP with 16 pages of liner notes. Draws upon approaches from medieval and Renaissance acoustic theory and John Dee’s Hieroglyphic Monad.

Sorath: an album exploring Ben Chasny’s Hexadic system – particularly its relation to speculative music.

Rosicrucian Enlightenment: pseudonymous ‘new age’ album that uses combinatorics, geomancy and other ideas related to speculative music and esotericism.

XETB Plays the Music of John Dee
: a collection of older pieces inspired by John Dee’s work.

Ben Chasny hosts a series of Hexadic pages on his Six Organs of Admittance website. These include a page of Hexadic resouces, other Hexadic explorations, images, and hosts a page about my application of his system to keyboard instruments.

Kristina Wolfe often composes music that draws on medieval aesthetics and mysticism combined with field recording and contemporary spectral theory. She maintains a website, Academia profile and Soundcloud.

Johann W. Hasler completed a PhD portfolio on the theme of speculative music entitled Towards Hermeticist Grammars of Music, which is available here. He also maintains a Soundcloud. His Academia page also hosts articles on astrological music and the use of sigils in composition.

Kim Cascone is an electronic musician and composer with a deep interest in speculative and esoteric themes. His writings look at the ‘Transcendigital Imagination‘ and glitches as divination, while his Subtle Listening workshops explore the inner experience of sound. Drone works like Dark Stations (alias Becoming Aion) are intended to create acoustic spaces that act as ‘magic mirrors’ to the meditating listeners, while pieces such as Lunar Mansions respond to Steinerian musical theory.

Richard Dobson‘s The Solfeggio Frequencies: The (dis)harmony of the Spheres? is an amusing and critical look at the confluence of speculative music and New Age ‘vibrational therapy’.

The Cambridge History of Western Music Theory contains around 200 pages of articles on ‘speculative traditions’. This primarily focuses on theoretical treatises on the relationship between the music of the Middle Ages and Greek treatises, as well as the development of tuning and harmonic theory. The editors are keen to stress that “most treatises of ‘speculative’ music theory in the late Middle Ages had dropped any serious discussion of celestial harmony (or at least, tempered it by a healthy dose of Aristotelian skepticism)” – although this may be true for many of the core treatises, it is does not necessarily hold true for the way music and mathematics have been beheld by those of a more esoteric inclination, as we see in the many works of Joscelyn Godwin, who has been instrumental in associating the term ‘speculative music’ with astrological, mystical and magical musical theories.

Indiana’s Thesaurus Musicarum Latinarum contains many Latin treatise on music from the Ancient, Medieval and Renaissance periods, many of which are highly theoretical/speculative in nature., and many of them discuss the topic of musica mundana.