Diapason (ricercares) wrote,

  • Music:

Johann Wlight

(Un)fortunately I can't post what I was intending, viz. a couple of interesting magical works about the Olympic Spirits. I hope they will actually make it into print as part of a larger project.

What I'd like to post is my short about Johann Wlight, originally published in Sloow Tapes A Great Magazine. I've had a passion of Johann's music for a long time and highly recommend his subtle soundscapes to anyone interested in this area. I hear he returned to Albion shortly after this article was published. If he reads this: I will be in Wales during the summer. I hope we may re-establish contact.

I Wasn't 'Johann Wlight' (either): The Death, Resurrection and Disappearance of J.W.


When visiting English Heretic's Andy Sharp I would often pass by a well-preserved and presumably listed house on the edge of the city park. A two-story building built into the park walls, it looked out of place next to more recent constructions. I found myself speculating about who lived there. It looked like the perfect place for an alchemist to hide out with his athanor and alembics. In bygone days it was surely the park warden's house, but I supposed that the warden was long gone, his job outsourced to a private company and his dwelling sold off to some rich folks from 'down south'.

I had no idea until a few years later that the edifice that captured my attention was indeed the workshop of an alchemist, namely the mysterious Johann Wlight…

By writing this piece I don't wish to draw too much unwanted attention toward the reclusive person of Johann Wlight, but I feel that the musical experiments he makes - or made - deserve the attention of new listeners. For those that know his music, perhaps what follows might shed some light on the secretive J.W.'s background and approach to music-making.

A Thousand Mournings: The Death of Johann Wlight (2004)

I'd come across Wlight's recordings when I first became involved in the UK "noise/drone/etc underground." My first contact was Rayth on the (defunct?) Sunny Days Out label. I admit, like a lot of things received in trade with labels, I hadn't given Rayth the attentive listen it deserved. The music of J.W. is such a subtle, whisp-like thing that - unless listened to with full attention - it tends to disappear, subsumed beneath the sounds of the corporeal world. His sound is made of some otherworldly material that requires a concentrated effort to keep it anchored in the world of the senses. Rayth simply hadn't arrived in my hands at the right time.

I think it was in late 2004 that I began to receive cryptic packages from Johann Wlight, usually with no explanation as to what the recordings therein were. Usually they came in black homemade sleeves with intricate mandalas drawn on them in gold or silver ink. If a recording had a title, it was usually cryptic: corruptions of seemingly English words, or alien strings of vowels. This is typical of Wlight - a kind of alchemical wordplay, transforming the mundane into something of esoteric wonder. He describes his music as 're-co(r)dings' - which I interpret as the stuff of the external sound-world somehow being translated into a rarefied, more subtle form. Even his moniker, Johann Wlight, is wordplay: an anagram of his birth-name.

It wasn't until I received Thee Gold Ov a Thousand Mournings that Wlight's sound-world really made sense. I remember the scene vividly. I was between houses and staying at my partner's flat on the top floor of a terrace in Leeds. It was a spring evening and sun was setting. The sky was a luminescent orange which seemed to effuse an intelligible spiritual energy. I decided to play the latest disc I'd received from Johann. It was beautifully packaged - a homemade sleeve of black card with a photocopy of what looks like one of August Stringberg's Celestographs on one side and a type-written label on the other. The sleeve also contained a handmade envelope with a black sunflower seed attached to a piece of holographic card. Perhaps the seed had a symbolic meaning - the black sun is an alchemical symbol occurring in manuscripts of famed Splendor Solis.

Listening to Thee Gold Ov a Thousand Mournings while the sun set over the golden terraces was a deeply moving experience. The music itself had a sense of profound melancholy diffused through its field recordings, lonely plucked strings and drifting spirit-choirs. Wlight wrote to me that it was "an elegy for lost love and a song of praise to… something else." Certainly as a sonification of the sadness of lost, unattainable, or perhaps even spiritual love, I felt that Wlight's recording was comparable to John Dowland's Lachrimae pavans. This was a music of such beauty and nobility that I felt I had to release it in some form, which I did, coupled with recordings I had made in spring that year as The Pneumatic Consort. At this point I hope that it's apparent that this isn't a hype-piece for my own releases, but I must stress that (along with being one of his finest recordings,) Thee Gold was the key to unlocking the other works that J.W. had been sending me.

Nearly all of Wlight's work seem to use the same elements. Waves of static of varying pitch and intensity drift through his pieces. They evoke the elemental forms of nature: rock and soil churning in the mundus subterraneous; the white noise of the river; wind blasting over moorland or whistling through crags and branches; and distant thunder. These elemental waves span the dynamic range, from inaudible to (in some rare occasions) deafening. Buried behind these waves are often samples of string instruments, choral singing, synthesiser loops, bells and so forth. These samples never dominate the soundscape. If they did I think it would break the musical spell, shattering the otherworldly and meditative structures that Wlight has built from his stock of elemental sound. There is usually no apparent linear progression or conclusion, rather the pieces seem timeless and cyclical.

Unfortunately it seemed that the alchemist had decommissioned his record label, Nid-Nod, in December 2003, and sometime in early 2004 he had also declared Johann Wlight deceased. I had been too late.

Brightening Air & Darkening Green: The Resurrection of Johann Wlight (2005)

I've no idea how Johann Wlight returned to life. Perhaps it was a string of coincidences surrounding the 'posthumous' release of the Pneumatic Consort & Johann Wlight split. The hazel wand and the fairy lover feature heavily in the magical ritual upon which I based the Pneumatic Consort recordings and by coincidence Wlight had been immersing himself in W.B. Yeats' symbolic poetry, notably The Song of Wandering Aengus, which also speaks of a hazel wood and the appearance of "a glimmering girl" who "faded through the brightening air".

Perhaps Wlight's resurrection was the result of his introduction to English Heretic who had been encouraging him in a joint exploration of esoteric geography their city - a city which according to recent research was one of the last strongholds of paganism in England, having no record of a church until the 9th century.

Whatever the circumstances, Wlight returned with what I think is his best recording to date: Yvnshrynd (Queasy Listening, 2006). Recorded between August and December 2005 the piece explores "the properties of the feminine principle and the undercurrent of the archetype of the Black Virgin." It is a meditation on the esoteric conception of a feminine energy, manifested in the Christianity as the Virgin Mary, in planetary symbolism the moon, elementally as water and the sea (the name Mary was interpreted by some Church scholars as meaning "bitter sea"), and in the zodiac as Virgo. The piece was inspired by Ean Begg's book The Cult of the Black Virgin - dedicated to non-conformist representations of the Holy Virgin found throughout Europe and the Mediterranean. Begg claims that statues of the Black Virgin often mark the site of a wouivre - "a prehistoric track joining two prominent points in the landscape," - a ley-line.

It was during his recording of Yvnshrynd that I met Wlight for the first time and talked to him about how he made his music. It was something of a shock to find that there was no involvement of a computer in any of the stages of production - something I'd expected. Everything was painstakingly created using tapes and then assembled on a Minidisc.

I asked him about the beautiful, spectral choir sound on Thee Gold, I was sure that it was a synthesiser. Wlight told me that he didn't have such a thing at the time and that the sounds in question were recorded onto tape and manipulated from a track on Alice Coltrane's Universal Consciousness.

I'd also been intrigued by the way he planned his pieces, after reading that he worked everything out on paper before he began recording. I was shown a box containing the working notes for Yvnshrynd. It contained numerous sheets of paper divided into sections. Each section had a timestamp (many of which seemed numerologically significant) and a description of what was going on. I recall references to the "God Chord", a cluster of all 12 chromatic notes, which seems to appear at key transitions in Yvnshrynd. I also saw mentions of odd recording techniques whereby sounds were played through homemade tubes and funnels into different resonant spaces. Fragments of a curious narrative were also scattered through the pages.

Yvnshrynd is a beautiful recording. The sounds used all compliment each other in the context of the symbolism. There is the sound of the sea, probably recorded at Dunwich beach - a place allegedly once visited by Dr. John Dee, himself the author attributed to a text entitled The Book Sacred to the Black Venus. There is a recording of a female choir buried beneath the static haze, singing a canticle to the Virgin. The muffled voices and distorted natural sounds evoke images from the beginning of E. Elias Merhige's Begotten, in which a God-figure tortuously disembowels himself in order to manifest the feminine principle of Mother Earth. Into this the atonal God Chord swells and manifests like the flaming and incomprehensible angels of Messiaen's La Nativite Du Siegneur. I was fascinated by this recording, and wondered what his next move would be…

Time and Times are Done: The Disappearance of Johann Wlight (2006)

His next move was completely unpredictable. I heard in August 2006 that Johann Wlight was to leave our shores. He'd decided to get rid of most of his possessions and move to New Zealand. He carried nothing but a tent, seemingly intent on becoming some kind of hermit. Wlight had departed once more.

Whichever "hollow lands and hilly lands" he wanders through, I hope he'll return one day.

Tags: black virgin, dee, drone, johann wlight, music

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