Sonic Mysticism and Composition

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My dissertation project consists of an album of three pieces based on mystical processes and shimmering intonation systems, a series of scores, and a Codex of imaginary illuminated works.  I was driven to create these systems to break out of my creative habits and discover new ways of working. This direction was inspired by research on holy numbers and their relationship to temperament and knowledge, Deep Listening, EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomenon), Infrasound, medieval traditions, and my readings in archaeoacoustics and aural architecture.  These studies led to meditations and reflection on sound, the perceptual characteristics of space and objects, and the creative use of these characteristics.

Specifically, my research on holy numbers and temperament led to explorations of the quadrivium, and ancient notions of the limits of ‘knowing’ through quanta (quantity/Number/mundane/measure) and qualia (quality/experience/divine/immeasurable).   I was fascinated by this world view—especially the historical notions of the immeasurable and methods devised to comprehend that which, by definition, can never be fully understood.  According to these ancient doctrines, hidden aspects of the world can be ‘transcribed’ and reproduced through numerical sound (qualia can be accessed through the use of quanta, but qualia cannot be understood using quanta).  The aesthetic profundity of the experience was proof that the listener had discovered and learned to conjure something immeasurable (divine).  Patterns of the world could be comprehended through sound, but the mechanism by which this knowledge was attained was mysterious and interpreted as sacred.  This ancient perspective returned in the Victorian era due to the incorporeal quality of recorded sound.  Recordings, because they reproduced the ephemeral, seemed to prove the shrouded existence of the Unseen by documenting its movement in the air (vibration). Sentiments resembling these can be found in philosophies on recording, sonification, and microtonality, but this level of speculation on the origin of disembodied sound has become uncommon in contemporary listening.

Specialized listening practices such as Deep Listening can train the ear to hear these presences in the world in a holistic, mystical, and imaginative way. This is similar to medieval eremitic traditions that listen to the songs of the world and can hear the voice of nature. These kinds of listening practices train the ear to hear subtlety and meaning. For listeners, training in sonic attention, imagination, and non-judgement can foster empathy and a deeper appreciation for the sound world.

The presumption of meaning in sound has a profound effect on its reception and I explore this at length in this dissertation.  Scholars such as Jean-Luc Nancy and Don Idhe have studied how sounds are perceived differently when they are assumed to be meaningful, and in Archaeoacoustics, Aural Architecture, audio analysis, and paranormal studies, this recognition of presence can be defined in relatively quantitative terms.  This quanta permits the composer to investigate (or gives the composer the impression of being able to investigate) the qualia of presence.

The quanta (recordings or transcriptions of the mystical sonic experience), can be used creatively, and in electronic music and spectral techniques (such as instrumental synthesis), an appreciation of these phenomena may add dimension to musical works.  In this project, the resulting music, dissertation, scores and mode of listening are intended to 1) promote curiosity and attentiveness to the present, 2) inspire exploration of listening habits and knowledge, and 3) serve as historical background and inspiration for listeners to reflect on the role of attention and imagination in appreciating their experience of the world.

The mystical systems I built reveal presence and give rise to curiosity in the world in the following ways: mediators of experience conjurers of experience documentation of notable experiences perceptual experience-seeking systems exploratory tools

Process music and generative systems are well-suited to bring out the mystical in sound and to bend the compositional intuition. As conjuring or divination tools, the system can be set to generate work based on rules or spells. These rules/incantations are expressed in the experiential-ephemeral domain and become mystical through the mediation of the invisible.

Sound is a mediation of the invisible. The systems and tools that I have made mediate between my perception and the experience. As a mediator, the systems permit me to go beyond my compositional and imaginative predilections to look for things that I may not have been able to imagine, and allows me to explore my listening without having to remember every detail of the process.  Automating small-scale decisions in my compositions allows room for prototyping imaginary forms and compositions embedded within the generated material. This process transforms the composer into a listener, experiencer, or audience member and changes the emphasis of a work from personal expression to something similar to storytelling.  These works are generative—not through-composed; they are based on experiences I have had and wanted to share.

Musical systems are also a way to explore knowing and epistemology because emergent, sonified, and generative systems are never objective. The rules and preconceptions of a system are determined by the designer. Designing a system brings this process of rule creation into the foreground of a work and is a form of contemplation for me. When implementing historical or magical systems, the process of learning and researching historical context for a system is academically rewarding. I learn about the world from a new perspective and use these perspectives to reflect upon my work.

The compositions I have created mark three points in this process: 1) Kyrie: the first point where I composed work using a glowing pitch system

  2) Agnus Dei: the point when I composed a work based on a structured historical ephemera-driven process, and 3) Ebbinge: exploring the relationship to magic and conjuring in emergent processes. The recordings are records of my intentions and are examples of the phenomena and micro-events in my work. With the Codex and scores, I try to find a notation system that materially represents my process and illustrates some of these concepts.

My Listening Inspiration

I believe when I am in the mood that all nature is full of people whom we cannot see, and that some of these are ugly or grotesque, and some wicked or foolish, but very many beautiful beyond any one we have ever seen, and that these are not far away when we are walking in pleasant and quiet places. Even when I was a boy I could never walk in a wood without feeling that at any moment I might find before me somebody or something I had long looked for without knowing what I looked for. And now I will at times explore every little nook of some poor coppice with almost anxious footsteps, so deep a hold has this imagination upon me. You too meet with a like imagination, doubtless, somewhere, wherever your ruling stars will have it, Saturn driving you to the woods, or the Moon, it may be, to the edges of the sea. I will not of a certainty believe that there is nothing in the sunset, where our forefathers imagined the dead following their shepherd the sun, or nothing but some vague presence as little moving as nothing. (Yeats, 2004, p. 45)

When I was a child, I spent many summers wandering in the woods with my brother and cousins in one of the oldest areas of Denmark called Mols Bjerge. People have settled near this natural harbor since the Neolithic Era, and many remnants of the past remain, such as roads, barrows, and dolmens. The adults in my family used to like to tell us about the history and purpose of these monuments and numerous “legends” about the various incorporeal beings that inhabited the area. As children with children’s imaginations, we took these stories as practical advice on what to look out for while alone in the woods.

One legend told of malevolent trees that would intentionally re-position themselves so they could confuse travelers and trap them in the forest forever. Another mentioned a spirit who walked to the sea at sunset and would turn anyone who saw her into stone. Other ideas would seemingly just invent themselves, especially when alone and left to come up with explanations for evocative situations.

These supernatural risks meant that we needed to pay attention to our surroundings, for even if spirits were not interested in us, they were still all around us; they assumed the form of imagined observers and watchful eyes. While we could not see them, they were aware of us and chose not to act upon our presence. My working assumption was that I could learn to recognize them by listening to the changes of space in place.   Most have had the experience of having  a bad ‘feeling’ about a place or sensing something under the bed (or in the dark) as a child.  This heightened, primed attention is a highly creative, curious and imaginative state.  I realized,years later when reading accounts of archaeoacoustical sound scholars, that my technique for sensing fantastical creatures was centered around listening for subtle differences in the soundscape and could be used to expand my listening practice.  Once the imagination is primed for the recognition of the uncanny, even the most common sounds are rendered strange, meaningful, and engrossing. The unusual reflection of a rock or tree can sound as though there is something lingering just out of sight. The eye can see that there is nothing, but the mind cannot shake the distrust, curiosity, or unease that results from sensing an unknown—or the Unknown.

An Imagination Turned Towards Listening

From the perspective of the composer or sound artist, this raises a few technical questions.  Mysterious presences can be interpreted from many angles. A composer can prime the listener with stories and descriptions or even attempt to recreate work reminiscent of this space in hopes that the effect will reproduce itself.  Were there unique timbral characteristics to the sound that imbued it with an uneasy sense of presence?   It is difficult if not impossible to determine whether a sound is inherently strange or if the ‘thinking’ made it so.

Sounds without visually-apparent sources (or sources of manipulation) have always been a source of aesthetic interest in electronic music, and inspired some of the first electronic modes of listening such as musique concrète and acousmatic music. These modes of listening typically characterize invisible sound sources from a formalized aesthetic perspective—with emphasis on their form and shape.  They trade in image but not visions. The implicit perspective in these methodologies is that people are not visited by spirits during a work; the veil of reality remains firmly in place. When listening while seated in a closed space, it is not customary to believe that the body has moved. The perception of motion is believed to rest solely inside the imagination, and the impression of the experience is considered less real than an experience that can be seen, felt, or recorded scientifically. Stockhausen criticizes this in his Four Criteria of Electronic Music:

Our conception of truth of perception is entirely built on the visual. It has led to the incredible situation where nobody believes somebody else if he can’t see what it is. In every field of social life you find this need to establish everything in visual terms, because what you cannot see people do not believe . . . when they hear the layers revealed, one behind the other, in this new music, most listeners cannot even perceive it because they say, well, the walls have not moved, so it is an illusion. I say to them, the fact that you say the walls have not moved is an illusion, because you have clearly heard that the sounds went away, very far, and that is the truth. (Stockhausen, 1972, pp. 107-108)

In my work, these mysterious sounds and spaces strike me as similarly (and singularly) inspiring, and very much like the magical wall that Stockhausen heard. I use many of the same techniques as in the formalized listening modes mentioned above, such as attention to timbre, gesture, and space.  The primary difference is that I believe perceptual incongruities, such as Diana Deutsch’s album Phantom Melodies (Deutsch, 2003) or any optical illusion, should not be treated as a daydream.  Like Stockhausen’s wall, the world has moved, and ghosts have appeared. The mind has learned to see it.

In my practice, I seek out and discover sounds in their own realms, record their “pathetic triggers” (Voegelin, 2006, p. 13) in material forms, and attempt to capture and record their experiences in my memory. The sounds of interest to me are heard to come from other worlds or represent the voice of the world.  Instead of choosing to believe these particular sounds are projections, I hear them as real meetings with “sonic strangers”, and use the tools of electronic music to transcribe and reflect upon the experience.  “Transcription” and “reflection” are both terms reminiscent of measure, but my recordings are personal markers of fantastical occurrences that were experienced once and perhaps never again. “Transcriptions” and “recordings”, in this case, are more like travel journals or bestiaries than atlases.  They are reminders of compositions I have not written.

Mystical Listening

“The laws of logic which ultimately govern the world of the mind are, by their nature, essentially invariable; they are common not only to all periods and places but to all subjects of whatever kind, without any distinction even between those that we call the real and the chimerical; they are to be seen even in dreams.”—Comte, Cours de Philosophie (Patterson, 2011, p. 244)

This paper combines three approaches to sound mysticism: practice-based approaches (such as Deep Listening), mystico-theoretical/structural approaches (like Stockhausen or Radulescu), and poetic inspirational research-based narratives (like Jonathan Sterne, Barry Blesser, or David Toop). The aim of this dissertation is to give theoretical context, creative motivation, and process-based guidance on understanding and creating the mystical work.  It is also a guide to understanding my work and the reasoning behind the dissertation project.  I hope to expand and collect the research on this kind of sound divination as a way in for those who might not fully grasp the reasoning and influence of mystical sounds.  I hope this dissertation helps clarify not only how phantom and apparitions might be found in sound, but why.

There is a scientific and academic bias towards quantitative data and logic to prove something, rather than qualitative, intuitive, phenomenological understanding.  This tradition, when applied to art and contemporary composition, tends to prioritize the musico-theoretical underpinnings and rational justification of a work over the irrational and mystical aspects of the same work.

  This is problematic in the mystical work, where there is a natural tension that exists between “capturing the metaphysical/spiritual/amorphous” and the physical media used to try to capture it: “the ‘spirit’ seeking embodiment in art clashes with the ‘material’ character of art itself” (Sontag 1969).   A composer’s mysticism, superstitions, or religion (in short, their intentions) are often treated with great sensitivity and then passed over in favor of more easily answered questions.

This avoidance is well-illustrated in Horatiu Radulescu’s Brain and Sound Resonance: The World of Self-Generative Functions as a Basis of the Spectral Language of Music. Radulescu dives into deep mathematical and technical detail on how to conjure a phantom viola da gamba and other “timbre-psyche processes” (Radulescu, 2003, p. 331) using “preferential phenomenology.” (Radulescu, 2003, p. 322) This is similar to Kyle Gann’s Outer Edge of Consonance, where Gann devotes pages to describing the precision of La Monte Young’s intervallic structures. Given each of these composers’ deep interest in phenomenological precision, it is justifiable that these texts would express these efforts, but it might have, perhaps, been just as helpful to attempt to aid others in learning how to recognize a phantom viola da gamba when it enters a room.

To be fair, there are many reasons to favor the theoretical over the mystical in a textual setting.  For one, it is much, much easier to discuss mathematical or theoretical frameworks than it is to speak about the mystical or experiential in art.  The mystical must be experienced to be understood.  While I fully acknowledge with the importance of theory, so, too, is intention, and even more important than intention is the explanation of how listeners, like archaeologists, can discover and reproduce experiences in their own imaginations.

The spiritual imagination is crucial to understanding and appreciating the mystical spectral or electronic music work.  Composers conjure, using illusion and metaphors of light, beautiful timbres, and construct ghostly images of phantom objects (using techniques like ring modulation and instrumental synthesis). For example, composer Tristan Murail “compares the effect of [his] overtone chord with the condition that occurs when the sun is at its zenith: it casts no shadows” (Haas, 2007, p. 3). In these “outer edges” of consonance, composers describe works using words dripping of séances, storytelling, and Plutonian shores, but generally avoid speaking of the mystical in the music. Conjuring and magic within ring modulation and phantom instruments is set aside in favor of the mathematic proportions that are used to conjure it.  The imagery and inspiration is missing, replaced only with the tools used to channel these effects.  When the imagery and background is neglected, listening becomes disorganized.  Echoes disintegrate and become dissonance.  The spirits leave.

I am not suggesting that listeners drive themselves mad trying to understand how Harvey might have felt comprehending a “long day’s journey on the Saturday” (Harvey, 1999, p. 47) any more than I would suggest that a listener physically suffer as Hildegard von Bingen might have during her Passion (Holsinger, 2001, p. 191). I am suggesting, however, that listeners develop an imaginative mysticism, and learn to turn their ears to an inner mystic. Mysticism and superstition are universal habits of mind and the only way to truly appreciate a work based on mysticism is to allow oneself to let go of a pre-formed perspective in favor of the possibility of finding something new (or something very old).

Important Note

It is not dangerous to momentarily don a shamanic imagination, nor is it imperialistic to try on views without actually harboring them yourself. Like an optical illusion, the shamanic imagination is a sign of a shared tendency to frame the world in certain ways.  Kim Cascone says that “our sensory/intellectual process of perception often is the very thing that prevents us from truly ‘hearing’ the inner spirit of the sound” (Cascone, 2015).  By prioritizing the rational faculties, there is a risk of gradually losing the ability to hear a work as it might have meant to be heard. This imagined superstitious empathy might help us see, if only for a minute, what was meant to be seen. It does not matter if it was appealing. Art is a way of seeing. This medium can be both a form of communication and a being in itself.

The Medieval and the Other

Medieval mysticism and Medievalism play an important role in the creation and framing of this dissertation and in the contemplative art practices that will be discussed in the next section. In short, the Medieval era is strange in comparison to modern sensibilities. In composition, this strangeness is a way of reflecting upon the aesthetic apparatus, or the intuition.

A composer seriously concerned with ‘expressing himself’ is at once fascinated, by, and highly suspicious of, this aesthetic apparatus. In no circumstances will he simply make use of it; rather must he master it, technically and spiritually. Whether he recognizes it or not, he cannot wrestle with the rules of the games implicit in the aesthetic apparatus without being dragged into the conflict that determines the consciousness of our society. This conflict-fear of freedom and simultaneous longing for it-is his own as well, and consequently he cannot evade the crucial decision. Either he must face up to the conflict and bring it to a head, or he must close his eyes and trust in his ‘naive artistry’. If he chooses the latter course he must try to salve his conscience by pretending that the current rules of the aesthetic apparatus are harmless ‘laws of nature’, which can be ingeniously exploited, once one has adapted oneself to them. But he should recognize that the material he uses, however arcane or however familiar, is always and from the outset in direct connexion with the aesthetic apparatus, and under its sway. (Lachenmann, 1980, p. 23)

The Middle Ages was, in many ways, the last holdout of a very different mindset, and is thus in essence a stranger or an Other. The Medieval aesthetic is also a luxurious, enigmatic, impressive, imaginative, and extraordinarily beautiful one. From a creative perspective, the Medieval work that has survived shows extraordinary amounts of effort put into articulating the beautiful. The narrative of modern philosophy and aesthetics frames itself as being born from Renaissance and Classical thinking, with the ‘dark’ or Medieval era being generally cast off as the time before Western society found Reason. In spite of this, the Renaissance was born from the Medieval.

The literary history of the Middle Ages told the story of how we came to be what we are, in strange disguises. It is a story we (do not) recognize; some sense of its import glances across our reading, but only peripherially, insofar as its meaning escapes from… the canon is an allegory whose code has been misplaced, or more precisely, repressed. (Haidu, 2004, p. 5)

What is known of the Middle Ages and its underlying aesthetics alludes to a philosophical framework that is culturally similar to the Renaissance and Enlightenment, yet is still wholly separate from it.

These views reflect the materials that have survived from the era, notably in bestiaries, cosmological texts, puzzle scores, architecture, and illuminated manuscripts.

The Medieval era, in my practice, is both a source of inspiration and a reminder that the world is not as fixed and structured as it is represented in modern society. In my studies, the aim of this contemplation was to question my contemporary process and aesthetics by comparing them with the Medieval. Just as an experiment may raise more questions than answers, the aim in my practice was to displace comfortable certitude in any preconceived ideologies that might frame the world as a small and solved place.  Medieval art, while sharing history and an interest in Greek philosophy, produces work that is completely different.

  Some examples of these differences can be found in the process and philosophy of timekeeping, mysticism of the historical event, and nature mysticism, which I will discuss in further detail.

The Medieval sensation of time is similar to the spectral definition of time in music, in which “Real musical time is only a place of exchange and coincidence between an infinite number of different times” (Grisey, 1987, p. 274). Medieval time, like spectral time, is defined only through events. It is defined as such in Time in the Medieval World: “time itself, especially past time, was not measured. It could be counted, but only for very specific purposes,” and that time was “not intended to situate events on a continuous time-line” (Humphrey & Ormrod, 2001, p. 5).  In early Christian communities, there was a feeling that Mankind existed in a boundless, formless, middle era between the birth of Christ and the Resurrection.  This eschatological perspective framed the world, as a time without form.  This present era, “between the Incarnation and the Second Coming”  (Humphrey & Ormrod, 2001, p. 27) was imagined to be “entirely homogeneous” (Ibid.).

“This is the sixth and final age of the world… there are no divisions, no landmarks which have any significance” (Ibid.).

This is an important perspective to remember in the sections on Time, Process Eschatology and Computer Time.  Time was not necessarily conceived as progressing on time lines, but rather on time circles, where the end of one cycle became the beginning of the next.

There was also a mystical logic of permeability in the reality of the natural world, particularly from mystical and eremitic traditions.  In this context, permeability meant there were, as Jean Clottes said, “no barriers, so to speak, between the world where we are and the world of spirits” (Savigny, 2014, p. 59).  Sound was often interpreted as the song of the spirit of place.  The idea that listening to the voice of dramatic, beautiful, and solitary places in order to reflect upon the world has had a major impact on my thinking reminiscent of Schaeffer’s World Soundscape Project.  For example, the Life of St. Anthony is filled with intensely imaginative accounts of the voices of demons inhabiting in tombs

, caves, ruins and  mountains, and the desert.  In one example, St. Anthony hears evil and temptation in the soundscape of the Egyptian desert.  He tells the other hermits: “Great is their [the demons] number in the air [invisible, in sound] around us , and they are not far from us…. the inroad and the display of the evil spirits is fraught with confusion, with din, with sounds and crying” (Life of St. Anthony).  In the Life of Aelred of Rievaulx, the sound of place is heard with less suspicion, but just as imaginatively.  St. Aelred speaks of the spirit of place singing peacefully “when the branches of lovely trees rustle and sing together and the leaves flutter gently to the earth, the happy listener is filled increasingly with a glad jubilee of harmonious sound” (Dutton, 98).  This appreciation of the benevolent sound of place is also reflected in medieval Irish ascetics where the listeners revel in the song of the world: “I hear the soughing of the pine-trees and pay no money; I am richer far through Christ, my Lord, than ever you were.” (Bieler, Ireland, Harbinger of the Middle Ages).  The medieval soundscape was steeped with intentionality and imagination, and I try to use this in my work.

There was also a form of mysticism that reveres the experience of the imagined past— or a part of the world that has left.  This mystical account of an imagined past event is linked in my practice with sounds that seem old, such as old recordings or historical music. This particular “mysticism of the historical event” is a practice in which “one recalls a significant event in the past, enters into its drama and draws from it spiritual energy” and “eventually mov[es] beyond the event towards union with God” (Sorrell, 1988, p. 84).  When working within memory and the “textualized traces” (Hutcheon, 2003, p. 89) of a past event, there is a liminal space in which pieces of the event “remains in our memory as a whole, in the form of a central idea or emotion… as a disconnected series of images, of peaks, of visionary icebergs” (Eco, 1985, p. 4). The past and the events within reside in a  realm distinct from the present, but moments of the past can be accessed through mystical effort and reflection on these icebergs. For example, the three dissertation project pieces are derived from a past sonic experience driven by a process that was recorded and re-transcribed. The codex is derived from recorded sounds and symbols. The realizations of each piece are based on whole number ratios, ancient tonal systems, and temperaments. While not being explicitly ‘old’ sounding (yet), these recordings are the apotheosis of a moment.

There is also a great deal of inspiration lurking within the idea of the past and the mysticism of the Medieval era as an historical event. Many composers, writers, and artists are almost mystically inspired by the past, Umberto Eco being one of  the most well known among them:

There are magic moments, involving great physical fatigue and intense motor excitement, that produce visions of people known in the past. As I learned later from the delightful little book of the Abbé de Bucquoy, there are also visions of books as yet unwritten. (Eco, 1998, p. 9)

Ancient Gaps

Many composers and artists feel a kindred spirit to the Middle Ages and their philosophies, and it must be stressed that these philosophies are distinct from the classical notions on the role of art. J. M. Martel bases his manifesto on the ascetic seriousness in Medieval art philosophies of Medieval art. According to Martel, his work is “derived from the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas and the Medieval Scholastics… the most fundamental power of art is to reveal the quidditas or ‘suchness’ of things” (Martel, 2015, p. 27). The conjuring or imagination of spirits, the mystical in sound and sound practice, Medieval timelessness and strangeness—these are the threads that come together in my work.

I wish to acknowledge the philosophical and inspirational gaps that might give some readers pause. For example, some readers will notice that discussion centered on the unknowable in art includes no mention of Immanuel Kant. Others may notice that my analysis  of mystical number emphasizes the doctrine of harmonics without discussing composers like Scriabin. These are  intentional omissions, as the history and prehistory that motivated this project are based on philosophies that lie outside many concepts of philosophy developed in the past 600 years.  One reason for this is that:

For Kant and modern rationalism, beauty really is in the eye of the beholder. For Aquinas, Joyce, and Wilde, it is the other way around: beauty exists as a fundamental reality that we, as beholders, can come to witness as something larger than us… There is a beauty that rests on conditioned judgment, and one that opens onto truth.  (Martel, 2015, p. 42)

This perspective on history in art is reminiscent of Harry Partch’s decision to view “the whole trend of music since Gregorian chant as a tangent to the main historic stream” (Partch & McGeary, 2000, p. 163). I do not consider the past with such disregard, but Enlightenment philosophies do not play a large role in my work. Some of the only philosophical concepts of the classical compositional tradition that I am aligned with are 1) I consider my practice a matter of choice rather than tradition, 2) I create and define musical systems, 3)  I call myself a composer.

Conjuring, Magic, and Divination: Definitions and Context

…[P]hysical matter of the cosmos’ is filled with meaning, nothing follows more naturally than the belief that ‘[g]estures and rituals might somehow or other lead to physical effects of material transformation’ (Adams et al., 2013, p. 2)

Conjuring and Divination come up often in discussions on the mystical in music and contemporary music. In this short section, the concepts of conjuring, presence, magic, liminality, occult, and divination will be defined and I will  attempt to contextualize them in contemporary work. In my own work, these concepts are of significant importance. I often think of my process (and my uses of process) as similar to conjuring or divination. After meeting (and sometimes recording) a sonic stranger, I try to recapture and “conjure” the meeting or environment through sonic imagery, systems or processes. My systems, in a way, can be understood as tools for conjuring the mystical experience of a meeting or locale that made an impression on me. The reasons as to why this require some introduction to basic concepts of magic and mysticism.

Composition using systems, controllers, or any performance system where the exact physical mechanism of sound generation is hidden can be seen as an occult practice. The occult is generally defined to refer to any process thought to lie beyond the range of ordinary knowledge or experience (Krinsky, 2012, p. 30). The word is also used to refer to information whose true source is interpreted as somehow concealed or hidden, or to refer to a practice where the mechanism of it efficacy is secret to the uninitiated.

Liminality is the state of being ‘in-between’ two distinct states, such as being between a dream and reality, as in lucid dreaming, or between dead and alive as a ghost. In ritual, liminality “refers to an ambiguity arising from everyday tasks being reinterpreted as symbolic activities.” (Burtner, 2005, p. 5). Similar to the human search for meaning in the natural world, liminality describes the attribution of supernatural import to human action. When repeated, these symbolic tasks become rituals.

Rituals are “the collectively patterned performance forms through which processes of cultural or sacred signification are integrated into consciousness and social practices” (Tomaselli, 1996, p. 81). The link between performance and ritual is direct, as the ritual of musical performance can conjure magic.

Magic is defined as “the attempt to bring about tangible effects by means of actions invoking occult powers whose efficacy is thought to depend upon their form” (Dawes, 2013, p. 36). The belief in magic in some form is almost universal throughout human history and across cultures, and it arises from the human mind trying to understand an ambiguous situation. Anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann has conducted extensive research on magical culture, and he has identified its basis as the following fundamental beliefs and habits of mind:

1)The subjective and the objective are conflated (Luhrmann, 1991, p. 165)

2)The world is patterned and meaningful.  Chance is replaced with meaningful occurrence (Luhrmann, 1991, p. 168)

3) The belief that Analogy has inferential validity.  Metaphor as a way of conceptualizing the unknowable  (Luhrmann, 1991, p. 171)

Through this use of metaphor, and the concept of fluidity which implies that “the categories that we have… can shift. A tree may speak” (Savigny, 2014, p. 59), aspects of the world can change into other things. This transformative process is called “interpretive drift” (Luhrmann, 1991, p. 307) and Luhrmann explains two kinds of additional “intellectual habits” that deepen this interpretation of the mystical. There is a change in what is considered acceptable evidence this permits the perceiver to see connections where one previously saw coincidence (Luhrmann, 1991, p. 316). The second is that the perceiver is given the proper mode of occult practice (practice where the exact means of development remain hidden or do not exist). This provides the perceiver with a template to contextualize what is happening around her.

Fluidity also lends a voice and personality to spaces and objects. This personality is the audible soul of the space or acoustic ‘presence’. Objects communicate by the sounds that they make (or are made to make), but spaces communicate using the reverberant. Reverb, using the logic of fluidity, “can be understood as listening to the voice of the spirit of a thing or space. The reverberating sound of a cavern then becomes the voice of the cave spirit. Voice becomes the means by which a spirit, whether near or far, talks to us” (Blesser & Salter, 2009, p. 87). Presences are intangible and “felt” or heard (through the ears and skin) as disturbance in the vibrations of space. Sound and music are perceived and interpreted using similar mechanisms.

Divination is a type of ritual practice that involves the use of certain kinds of objects and materials to gain mystical insight. Some examples of this are “Geomancy, taking pricks in the sand,  Hydromance, in water; Piromance, in fire… and Nigromance” (Heather, 1954, p. 19). Nigromance is another word for black magic, or the conjuring of demons for mystical purposes.

Conjuring is the practice of calling “upon a spirit or ghost using a magical ritual,” but can also mean to “make (something) appear unexpectedly or seemingly from nowhere” (Stevenson, 2010, p. 369). This spirit is often felt as a presence, or presence itself. It is similar to summoning. In the imagination, conjuring is the act of making things appear from the use of an obscure, occult, or hidden source.  An evocative musical example of this conjuring is the tone produced from perfect intervals during Sardinian chanting.  This 5th ‘voice’ is interpreted as the Virgin Mary.

Presence refers to an impression of sentience emanating from within an object or place. This will be discussed in the section focused on shimmer. Often this presence is felt as having the potential for communication, but other times a presence can seem to loom over an area, or to spectate. Generally, presence is sensed by a discrepancy between what is expected to be present and what is felt to be present. An example of this is an empty room that seems occupied. This notion is thought to be fueled by the human mind’s “innate capacities for social intelligence” (M. Winkelman & Baker, 2015, p. 174) and the human desire and social need to communicate and ascertain the inner emotional states of other creatures: “The universality of spiritual beliefs reflects this adaptive tendency … populating nature with spirit beings who operated with the same features as humans” (Michael Winkelman, 2015, Imitation of Animals in Shamanism). An example of this is the “angry” red pepper in Illustration 1:

Illustration 1: Angry Red Pepper

Magic In Contemporary Art

The people who first stretched a gut over two bridges, or found tones in wood suspended at the nodes, discovered magic, just as certainly as the people who found tones in electronic tubes. Then, through art, they plunged intuitively toward an insight into the greater universe. (Partch & McGeary, 2000, p. 184)

The ritual of mathematically dividing a string produces, as if by magic, harmonic sound.  As will be discussed in the next section, the religious belief that the world was created by the division of larger objects has the effect of priming the listener (through specialist knowledge) to hear this real effect of string harmonics as evidence of the mystical within the world. The metaphor of division, through inferential validity, shows that just as numbers can be divided, so can objects in the world (using fluidity/interpretive drift). The liminal act of performing division, or counting, transforms the division of the string into ritual, and the fact that the results of this experiment are incorporeal, renders the cause occult and therefore supernatural. Expectation plays a large part in the appreciation of art magic, and leads to the impression of special meaning in the result.

In composition and performance, the source or mechanism of the sound is considered to be hidden if it is not directly mapped or visible. This definition of occult is important for the discussion of sonification and emergence. Sound—especially recorded sound with no source—is inherently occult in many ways and has been treated as such.  An example of this is Radulescu’s phantom instrument séance:

This music sets out to create a state of trance close to that of a spiritual séance, through which one can evoke the presence of one’s “alter ego” or “higher self”. The very descent into the subconscious register facilitates the arrival of this psycho-acoustic phantom (Gilmore, 2003, p. 113).

This will be explored in the section on ineffability and emergence. The mechanism of the effect of music (its ‘spell’) is also somewhat obtuse to the perceiver, and is also hidden.

Divination and ritual are complex concepts in modern art, with popular examples of its use in art implementing the I-Ching, as is the case with works by John Cage. The role of practice, performance, symbolic gesture and communication all figure significantly in contemporary electronic, cybernetic, and telematic art practice. Roy Ascott labels this kind of art Behaviorist Art:

Process culture and behaviourist art need not mean the end of the object, as long as it means the beginning of new values for art. Maybe the behaviourist art object will come to be read like the palm of your hand. Instead of figuration—prefiguration: the delineation of futuribles. Pictomancy—the palmistry of paintings—divination of possible futures by structural analysis. Art as apparition? Parapsychology as a Courtauld credit?  (Ascott & Shanken, 2003, p. 158)

In his essay, Errormancy: Glitch as Divination, Kim Cascone suggests that the supernatural may be attempting to communicate through small glitches in technology and digital error such as a flickering screen. This flickering, a Morse Code or semaphore language, hints at communication from another world. The “cluster of glitches” form “an outline,” define an “area,” and trace “a route through uncharted space.”  This space is virtual, invisible, an “n-dimensional ‘potential space,’” and this error can be used to “navigate this space,” with the intent of seeking “unexpected patterns, chance juxtapositions,” and “subliminal content” (Cascone, 2011). The glitches and flicker are like the shimmering signals of the ancestral beings that will be discussed later.

In modern times, technology is used for magic. One famous example of this is Luigi Galvani’s “re-animation” of the dead through electric shock and EVP, among other means. In modern electronic art, the role of technology is also the role of the magician. Like Pepper’s Ghost, audio effects, spatial effects, special effects, or any complex process that seems to go beyond the frame of reality fuel this historical mindset that believes in magic. Performance, practice, and process are all rituals in their own right, and performers are notoriously superstitious in regard to their creative setup and perform many rituals to guarantee a good show.

Conjuring is an important topic in electronic sound, telematic, virtual, and immersive art. Sounds and visions are divorced from their sources and are reproduced using hidden means. The immersive work is often viewed as  “conjuring up a sense of surrounding atmosphere” (Morton, 2007, p. 22) that will furtively vanish as soon as the work is over. This performative action can be found in Susan Kozel’s Dreaming the Telematic Body, where touch and presence are conjured in participants.  She discusses her experiences in Spacemaking: Experiences of a Virtual Body:

The famous claim associated with virtual technology is that the body is futile, replaced by an infinitely enhanced electronic construct. If this is so, then why did nastiness or violence enacted upon my image hurt? How could the body be futile yet still exert a basic visceral control over my movement? (Kozel, 1994)

The compositional process bears resemblance to divination. Sonification can be divination, which will be discussed in the mystical sonification chapter. Composing a work can feel like divination (especially in a process piece if the process is working smoothly). Inspiration from these concepts and their modern counterparts such as glitch divination, conjuring, and mystical communication through recording and sound can be found throughout my work.

In the following chapter I will review in more detail the relevant historical, philosophical, and musical background that has impacted my work, and in the chapter thereafter I will analyze the works that specifically comprise the Dissertation Project itself.


(end of excerpt)

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