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
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.