My recital next week (Tuesday, November 14) is the result of my on going fascination (or obsession) with ritual and symbol. While this preoccupation is multivalent, three main ideas emerge: 1) that ritual and symbol are means of giving physical expression to non-physical reality, that is to say to the numinous or sacred, 2) this process of manifestation opens us to the ineffable, moving us beyond the limitations and biases of discursive reasoning, and 3) the seemingly ubiquities notion that sound in some way manifests these mysteries within the limits of time.
Given the importance of sound as a liminal substance, I have long wondered what sounds were used in archaic rituals – what words were said, in what language? Were they chanted, intoned, sung? Were instruments used, which ones, how so? On a more practical level, I wondered what types of sounds could be used in a modern concert to create an imaged ritual – clearly, these sounds would not be music from the classical-romantic tradition. As my interest in ritual has grown, I have become increasingly disinterested in that repertoire and the concert conventions accompanying it. I tend to see it as even antithetical to a ritual-symbolic perspective due to its preoccupation with emotional self-expression, which channels the experience back to the ego. My aesthetic concerns have become less and less about music, and more and more about sound – sound as an icon (eikon), which art historian Bissera Pentcheva defines as, “matter imbued with divine pneuma [spirit], releasing charis, or grace.” From this perspective, a concert can open a window to the infinite, and indeed this has been my emerging goal for sometime. But, the question remained how to translate this iconic notion of sound into audible music.
A clue came a few years ago when I stumbled upon a copy of On the Mysteries by the late classical Neoplatonist Iamblichus (245-325), in which he presents the philosophical rational for theurgy. Literally meaning ‘god work’, theurgy describes a group of ritual practices designed to purify the soul and lead it to direct experience of the divine. As Crystal Addey explains, “The goal of theurgy was the cumulative contact, assimilation and, ultimately, union with the divine and thereby the divinization of the theurgist; in other words, the ascent of the soul to the divine, intelligible realm and the manifestation of the divine in embodied life… Iamblichus maintains that the highest purpose of theurgy is ascent to the One, which was thought to be beyond Being itself.” To achieve this goal, Iamblichus argues, we must transcend the limits of our own intellectual effort, and philosophical contemplation must be supported by theurgic ritual – that is, we are dependent on the work of the gods in us.
A key element of theurgy is the use of physical objects – symbols and tokens (symbola, sunthemata) – that contain immaterial aspect of the gods within their material form (more or less an icon). These can be things such as words, numbers, colors, images, plants, metals, and so on. Iamblichus affirms sound as one of these symbols saying, “Various melodies…correspond through their motions to certain gods, who are…the sources of these motions. These gods…are particularly present in the melodies that they particularly correspond to.” That is to say, the god is a specific musical formula – they are ontologically linked. He continues, “The cause of this inspiration is not so much man’s passion aroused by music as it is the correspondence of music to a god, through which the god is naturally present…so that the whole man ascends under the aegis of this or that god according to the properties of [particular] melodies” (III, 9). Thus we are not moved by our emotional or psychological response to hearing music as we expect in traditional music, nor are we moved by the beauty or expressiveness of the sounds, but rather by the divine presence in them. How this actually works is a mystery, as Iamblichus explains, “It is the accomplishment of acts not to be divulged and beyond all conception, and the power of unutterable symbols, understood solely by the gods, that establishes theurgic union” (II.11.96-7).
And indeed, the details of theurguc rituals have not been divulged. What actually happened in these rituals is largely lost to history. It may have included sitting for long periods in silence, perhaps in the dark – perhaps various lighting effects broke the darkness. Magic tools, like the bullroarer (or rhumbas of Hecate), may have been used; hallucinogens may have been ingested. These are all techniques used to induce trance or ecstatic states, practices that seem to go all the way back to very deep antiquity. Of particular interest to us is the recitation or chanting of invocations and divine names. Iamblichus explains that these names were revealed by the gods and must never be translated or altered, because it is the sound, the sonic quality of the names, not their meaning, which empowers them as divine symbols. These are known alternately as nomina barabara (barbarian names), voces magicae (magical voices) or voces mysticae (mystical voices). Although these words have no semantic content, Iamblichus reminds us that what is meaningless to us is not meaningless to the gods.
These types of mystical or magical nonsense words are found in various ancient sources representing many traditions including Christian and Gnostic as well as Pagan – not to mention their uncanny resemblance to Vedic mantras in India. Although these formulas have no semantic or lexical meaning, they do have very intentional arrangements of letters, such as palindromes or clear patterns of adding or subtracting letters. The ritual use of nonsense words is also found in the Hebrew Kabbalah, itself considered a later monotheistic form of theurgy. Kabbalah strives to achieve mystical states by meditating on word transformations generated through specific variation techniques: notarikon, where a single letter is replaced by a group of letters, a sort of reverse acronym; temurah, where letters are substituted through a process of letter substitution (e.g. Aà Z, BàY, etc.); and the famous technique of gematria, where a word is replaced by another word with the same numerical value.
Sound that undergoes specific formal and transformational processes, but lacks linguistic content comes very close to a definition of music. This at last gave me concrete musical procedures to use to create theurgic music – by exploring the musical possibilities of Kabbalistic transformation. The result was my collection of Voces mysticae. The first is named in honor of Abraham Abulafia (1240-1291), a medieval Spanish Kabbalist who used letter permutations in theurgic contemplation as a tool to induce ecstasy. Akrakanarba is a magic word found in the Greek Magical Papyri (a collections of Greek and Egyptian spells), while Auioeoueei is a magic word I created myself. All of these words go through various Kabbalistic transformations, which in turn become the forms of the pieces. In each movement, each letter is assigned a musical motive, which follows the letter-pattern of the incantation. Each time a musical motive appears it undergoes its own musical transformation derived from Kabbalistic procedures. In so doing, I hope to blur the distinction between music and text by using the saxophone part as though it was the invocation or magic words chanted during a theurgic ritual. The soprano saxophone is somewhat reminiscent of the Greek wind instrument the aulos, which Plato associates with mania or trance.
The next three pieces are played continuously as a single multi-movement work; the first two are improvisational while the last one is fully notated. Jeff Herriot teaches composition and electronic media at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. Sometimes, a communion uses the Max/Msp application to generate all of the electronic sounds from the saxophone in real time. The title comes from a quote by Iamblichus, “For either the God possesses us, or we become wholly the property of the God, or we act in common with him…and of these enthusiasms, sometimes it is a bare participation, sometimes a communion, and sometimes even union.” The further in the nearer was my first piece using Max/Msp for dynamic sound processing. The title comes from the thirteenth-century German mystic Meister Eckhart. In his Eleventh Sermon he states, “To find nature herself all her likenesses have to be shattered and the further in the nearer the actual things.” This cryptic passage refers to the idea that the physical manifestation we perceive through the senses does not represent the essential quality of the object. Focusing on the external-material image can actually obscure true knowledge of what is beheld; thus the outer image must be shattered in order to transcend it and reveal the inner image. I revised the electronics this summer and included my own processing to a video by an anonymous filmmaker. Mark Snyder’s hauntingly beautiful Harvey was originally written for clarinet, electronics, and video. When I first heard it, I asked him to arrange it for saxophone, which he quickly did, but I am afraid it has taken me several years to actually perform it. It is only in writing these notes that I learned that the piece was written in honor of his dear friends, the Harvey family, who were all found murdered on New Years Day 2006.
The Chaldean Oracles (2nd century CE) are a collection of fragmented and esoteric texts, which profoundly inspired theurgic practices and have even been called the Neoplatonic Bible. They are attributed to the two Juliani, a father and son, Julian the Chaldean and Julian the Theurgist. One tradition holds that the elder Julian, in a state of divine possession uttered words that his son recorded as hexameter poems. Only fragments survive scattered through works by later authors. Here I use them as incantations for my imagined theurgic ritual to conclude the concert. I did not want to write a piece that was simply inspired by the Oracles, but rather to incorporate them into the structure of the music. To do this I followed the same procedures used in my Voces mysticae, of assigning motives to letters which both undergo Kabbalistic transformations. The four movements are each based on different oracles heard at the beginning, read in Greek by Dr. Mischa Hooker. Together they form a single theurgic ritual: Oracle 112 is slow and introspective, the initial disconnection from normal reality; in Oracle 115 the music is faster and more frenetic, as though the initiate is beginning a wild dance; by Oracle 116 the initiate is crossing into a visionary realm as the music becomes more disjointed and weird – the text spoken throughout this movement is no longer Greek, it has undergone various Kabbalistic transformations to produce new incarnational words; the last movement includes three short oracles, as the music again becomes frenetic, leading to the final ineffable vision of the gods.
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Some thoughts on music, ideas, and meaning