Diapason (ricercares) wrote,

Interview Postscript

Recently Kevin Moist asked me a few questions over e-mail, the end result of which appears in his webzine Deep Water Acres. I want to use this post to elucidate on a couple of things I mention in passing, since they relate to posts I was one day intending to make on this blog…

Firstly, by some grand oversight I neglected to mention the occasional collaborations with English Heretic. I hear there's a new CD on the way that includes the full version of our collaboration Open the Mithraic Stargate, recorded one winter evening in Rendlesham forest and drawing on Kenneth Grant's connection between the ancient Mithras Liturgy and UFO phenomena in his book Outer Gateways. A post here with my personal overview of Queasy Listening and English Heretic's ouvre is long overdue - although I must say that the interpretation of M.R. James' Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You, recorded on Southwold beach is one of the best collaborations I've been involved with.

Anyway, to the interview proper:

"From the start of XETB there have been some pieces that have started with basic algorithmic techniques (for example one of the tracks on Under a Soular Moon used a map of notes based on a diagram of the constellation Taurus, and the track Horizon of Eternity derived its overall structure from a geomantic chart)."

Aside from improvisation, I occasionally use very loose compositional techniques. The track Whirl Dub on Under a Soular Moon began with the following diagram, based on the constellation Taurus:

Essentially the hypothetical lines that compose constellations and asterisms were used to define paths between different musical notes. In astrological lore, each star has a sympathy with one of the planets, which Agrippa mentions can be divined from the colour of the star in question. Furthermore, each planet has an associated musical tone - derived from a simplification of the theoretical music of the spheres (the attributions also differ from author to author). Through using such systems, each star in the constellation was associated with a tone. The star's magnitude determined how many notes to play. One may, for example, start at the top right, playing 3 B notes (on one or mixed octaves), before either playing 3 more Bs or moving to 2 Fs. From 2 Fs we could move back or forth along the lines or stay put.

The tracks on the split with Jani Hellén are some of XETB's most experimental and personally some of my favourites. Horizon of Eternity (excerpt) derived its structure from a geomantic chart appearing in The Rosicrucian Secrets, a work on alchemy falsely attributed to John Dee (unfortunately the online edition doesn't reproduce the chart). Geomancy is essentially an ancient system of divination revolving around 16 'figures', each composed four rows of one or two dots. In some ways the binary computations employed in geomancy are reminiscent of the I-Ching, although geomancy never developed further than being a solely divinatory art. In medieval times it was a practice associated with the Arabians, for example Marco Polo mentions it as one of the sciences that the scholars of Baldach (Baghdad) were skilled in, and the Islamic Collection at the British Museum occasionally displays an antique device for working out geomantic charts. However, variants on the system can be found all over the world (for example, the Ifa system of Nigeria).

In geomantic divination 4 figures are chosen, and from them a further 11 (or in some cases 12) are derived from adding up the number of dots in each line of each pair (a more coherent description of the process can be found here). For Horizon of Eternity, I made a set of 16 musical fragments that I associated with each of the symbols of geomancy, then transcribed the chart in question into the corresponding notations. I decided to make each part the same length (16 bars) by using repetitions. The geomantic chart was interpreted from the bottom upwards, so the final figure (the judge) is repeated 16 times, then the two figures from which the judge was computed are played 8 times, and so on. The coda corresponds to the 'reconciler' - the 'judge' (last geomantic figure), added to the first 'mother' (first geomantic figure). I think the final result (played on whistle and bowed guitar) worked out pretty well… Back to the interview:

"An example of the overlap with folk-traditions is when Reginald Scot published his famously sceptical work The Discoverie of Witchcraft. He intended it to expose the dangerous foolishness of believing in witches, but it was perhaps a mistake of his to add a chapter containing sundry magical formulae from the books of two magicians T.R. and John Cokar. By including this material he probably intended no only to dismiss the claims of magical spells, but also to have a dig at the similarly superstitious rituals of the Catholic Church. However, he result was that for the first time Scot had let into mainstream circulation a treasure trove of magical lore - I suspect that it was the only part of the book read by many and probably copied innumerable times by the curious. The recipes given by Scott naturally became part of the village cunning man's store of knowledge. In Ralph Merrifield's The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic he publishes several pictures of magical implements and charms that had been found hidden in the walls of old country houses - almost all of the imagery upon them can be traced back to Scot."

Here are a couple of artefacts recorded in Merrifield's book. Apologies for the quality, they didn't scan well:

A knife engraved "+ AGLA +", with magical symbols on the other side. While Merrifield hypothesises that this is a symbolic charm against witchcraft, which it may have been, the design seems to derive from chapter XIII of Scot:

"You must have also a bright knife that was never occupied, and he must write on the one side of the blade of the knife + Agla + and on the other side of the knifes blade + + And with the same knife he must make a circle, as hereafter followeth: the which is called Salomons circle."

The next charm was found in a cylindrical stoneware bottle, buried beneath an old feed-trough on a farm near Sarn in Powys. It's a protective charm, calling on Jesus to be the preserver of the farm's owner (William Pentrynant) and to see that his livestock prosper free from the interference of witchcraft:

At the foot of the page are astrological characters of the planets, divided by six pointed stars and to the right of those a larger, eight-pointed design, one of two that occur in Scott chapter VII:

(Who so beareth this sign about him shall fear no foe, but fear God.)

As an aside, the tradition of the village cunning man, adapting the designs of ceremonial magic to his trade (e.g. charms for the protection people and their possessions from witchcraft, divining the location of lost or stolen property/buried treasure, and so forth) can be found in the life of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith and his elder brother Hyrum. This parchment of the Smiths - perhaps used for ceremonial magic, or perhaps intended to be a more innocent charm - also incorporates the same designs shown above (in the top right and bottom left corners):

However, it's apparent from the other elements that Smith's source was probably Sibly's A New and Complete Illustration of the Occult Sciences (1795), which drew upon a late edition of Scot, amongst numerous other authors, such as Agrippa.

Tags: agrippa, composition, dee, divination, english heretic, geomancy, ifa, joseph smith, kenneth grant, m.r. james, magic, music, xetb
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