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Begeisterung

Your guitar is not really a guitar. Your guitar is a divining rod. Use it to find spirits in the other world and bring them over. A guitar is also a fishing rod. If you’re good, you’ll land a big one.

This is Captain Beefheart’s second commandment of guitar playing.



A musical instrument couldn’t be reduced to its material, functional reality; it bears an innate promise of transcendence. It is a divining rod, an Ouija board, and a crystal ball. A magical object containing a certain spiritual void yearning to be filled. It’s especially true in improvisational music, where an instrument is the improviser’s partner, whose material reality and aura influence the musician’s decisions, and the improviser becomes a neo-romantic subject. The improvisation itself is imbued with enchantment and enigma that eludes our complete comprehension. It materialises before us in the present moment, shrouded in an aura of mystery.


At times it’s almost shamanistic. And as David Toop writes in the ‘Ocean of Sound’ on the shamanism of Yanomami, a group of indigenous people who live in the Amazon rainforest on the border between Venezuela and Brazil:


The necessity for a shaman to maintain dangerous spirits within his own body, subdued yet ready to be unleashed, has an obvious psychological interpretation. The world is coherent but precarious, and for human society to remain in balance with the rest of the cosmos, the shamanic specialists must confront and absorb images of chaos, terror, disgust, wonder, fear, violence and fierce beauty.

Here’s a fragment from Yanomami Shamanising ritual captured by David Toop:


Toop’s words resonate in Captain Beefheart’s fourth commandment:


Old Delta blues players referred to guitar amplifiers as the ‘devil box’. And they were right. You have to be an equal opportunity employer in terms of who you’re bringing over from the other side. Electricity attracts devils and demons. Other instruments attract other spirits. An acoustic guitar attracts Casper. A mandolin attracts Wendy. But an electric guitar attracts Beelzebub

And if an electric guitar is a Beelzebub attractor, what is a modular synthesiser? What kind of spirits does it attract? These machines are electric and often built module by module, each having its set of functions, each chosen from thousands of commercially available or DIY kits on the market. These machines can achieve a substantial amount of complexity resulting in algorithmic or generative music systems, that is, the systems that compose and perform music by themselves, with optional human involvement, built out of intricate webs of functions and feedback loops.


Heinali's modular system
Heinali's modular system

I’ve been working with such a machine since 2017, an instrument that I set up informed by artistic research that enables me to improvise polyphony and monophony, borrowing techniques and ideas from medieval composers & theorists.

The German language has a wonderful word, ‘die Begeisterung’. It is usually translated as being enthusiastic. However, I find its literal sense more compelling: being possessed by a spirit or ‘der Geist’, that is, a ghost, but with a more neutral connotation than the English word ‘haunting’ carries along. And it is this ‘begeisterung’ that I often experience when working with my machine. And this liminal space between Providence and Contingency, ‘the necessary’ and ‘the possible’, the relationship between which concerned medieval thought of the polyphonic era, and for which structured modular improvisations are a fitting metaphor, exploring the boundaries between what is predetermined and what is free to unfold, possesses the same flickering quality of television snow or radio static, porous and ephemeral enough to be permeated by ghosts. A patch, the way a synthesiser is set up, generative and complex to a certain extent, combined with the unreliability of my body, seems to introduce just enough uncertainty to produce this Limbo or Purgatory, as noted by one of the listeners attending my shows.



While in Vienna, in a small underground club eerily reminiscent of Ukraine’s early 00s electronic music scene, my ear and the machine are acting up. The ear, weary after partial hearing loss years ago; the potentiometers, weary after years of use. The mood swings of the machine are becoming hard to predict. It behaves as it’s supposed to, and then, as the show goes on, suddenly out of tune and full of Contingency. The cold digital impartiality of the tuner tells me everything is surgically correct. But I hear the bass is off, and I can’t explain it. Same with the way melodies and counterpoints behave. Another time, it’s a slight microtonal distance between voices that wouldn’t go away. And yet another time, everything is as it’s supposed to be. As if it is the machine’s will to perform one way and not another, and there is nothing I can do but submit. The machine and I are moving into the liminal, ambiguous, obscure. The machine’s ways become unpredictable, and I, as my sense becomes unreliable. I wonder, however, whether what I’m considering as Contingent is, in reality, an eloquent testimony to a thinly veiled Providence.

This haunting is, however, nothing new in music.


This ephemeral quality of an inferior ‘sister of painting’ Leonardo da Vinci noticed in his ‘Thoughts on Art and Life’:


Music should be given no other name than the sister of painting, inasmuch as it is subject to the hearing,—a sense inferior to the eye,—and it produces harmony by the unison of its proportioned parts, which are brought into operation at the same moment and are constrained to come to life and die in one or more harmonic times; and time is, as it were, the circumference of the parts which constitute the harmony, in the same way as the outline constitutes the circumference of limbs whence human beauty emanates. But painting excels and lords over music because it does not die as soon as it is born, as occurs with music, the less fortunate; on the contrary, it continues to exist and reveals itself to be what it is, a single surface.

This is so different from the physicality of a painting hanging in a gallery and suggests that the body of music was explicitly conceived for being possessed. In the same text, Leonardo comes surprisingly close to the mysterious and ominous nature of sound, which is firmly entrenched in contemporary sound studies and musicology discourses:


The eye in its given distances and by its given means deceives itself in the performance of its functions less than any other sense, because it sees in straight lines which form a cone, the base of which is the object it perceives, and transmits it to the eye, as I intend to prove. But the ear greatly deceives itself as to the position and distance of the objects it apprehends, because the sonorous waves do not reach it in straight lines, like those of the eye, but by tortuous and reflex lines, and often the most remote seem to be nearest, owing to the peregrinations of such waves, although the voice of the echo is transmitted to the sense by straight lines only.

In his Gresham College lectures, Christopher Page mentions how listeners of medieval polyphony heard the voices of angels joining the choir in the long reverberation of the stone churches. Medieval monophony, a musical texture with a single melody, had enough room to accommodate a choir of angels. It’s almost as if monophony was an intentional choice to accommodate supernatural beings. And, since the angels could be heard singing, Christopher Page continues,


If one listened very hard, joining their angelic voices to those in the choir, it was possible for those heavenly beings to teach new chants to earthly singers. Here is an example, from the Life of bishop Hariolf of Langres, who died in 722: The following should be inserted, which is reported as having been seen on the vigil of Christmas Day. [Hariolf] saw a heavenly light filling the peoples’ church, and having stood there for a long while with his eyes cast downwards to the ground, he stood up, and saw the most beautiful form of St. Mary sitting upon the altar, contemplating the little saviour of all that she had in her lap. And there he first learned, through angelic melody, the antiphon Quem vidistis pastores, dicite etc, which he afterwards sang very often.

Heavenly light bears importance to our story. More on it later. But, for now, Let’s listen to a Gregorian chant Salve Regina recorded in 1930 by the monks of Solesmes Abbey, responsible for the Gregorian chant revival at the beginning of the XX century.



They believed Pope Gregory wrote the chant, and they tried to reconstruct it in the XIX century from the earliest sources available (instead of sticking with the ‘corrupted’ XVII century sources). It’s not a music record per se—they don’t sing these chants as music; they sing them as prayers, an audial religious practice, as it was in the middle ages, and we, well, most of us, can’t help but listen as if they were music — something medieval people had a quite different understanding of. Another thing that makes this record interesting is the distance in time it manages to capture. It’s a mono recording from the early era of sound recording, with all its imperfections, surface noises, modulations, and artefacts resounding the grain of time passed. It almost sounds medieval, bringing forth, resounding, the compression of time, of our past. Sometimes it feels like we’re standing at the same distance from the people of the tenth century as from the people of the first century. And maybe, the same uncanny proportion could hold for the XX and X centuries?


Angels joining the choir remind me of a dialogue between Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson. Jones said to Jackson,


If a song needs strings, it will tell you. Get out of the way and leave room so that God can walk in.

He later rephrased this to:


You’ve got to leave space for God to walk through the room.

In Bonn, in a catholic church built in the 1950s and now no longer in use, after a rare show when the synthesiser miraculously weaved everything the way it should, Anna, one of the organisers, tells me that despite it being used as a concert hall, the church was never desacralised. She tells me Protestants believe that God is present when the people are gathered during the service. However, in Catholic churches, God is always there, notwithstanding secular concerts. His presence fills the emptiness and silences in the absence of people.


Sometimes the machine knows best.


Resonance


In a jazz club in Berlin, Chad, the club owner, beckons me over during my soundcheck to check a particular location near the bar. I go, and there’s a standing wave, a specific resonance amplified by the location’s interior architecture. I tell him it’s 110 cycles. I know the exact frequency because my bass oscillator is tuned to 110, and its sub-oscillator generates 55, an octave lower. I tell him that the tuning was an intentional flirt of mine with archeoacoustics, as according to Paul Devereux’s work, an archaeo-acoustician professor from Cambridge who studied the megalithic archaeological sites all over the world through their sound and acoustic characteristics, 110 cycles is the resonant frequency of most megalithic chambers. And I quote his study:


Rudimentary acoustical measurements performed inside six diverse ancient structures revealed that each sustained a strong resonance at a frequency between 95 and 120 Hz, despite major differences in chamber shapes and sizes. Since the resonance frequencies are well within the adult male voice range, one may speculate that some forms of human chanting, enhanced by the cavity resonance, were invoked for ritual purposes.

Hypogeum of Ħal Saflieni
The Hypogeum, photograph by Richard Ellis, before 1910

The Hypogeum of Malta is a temple built between 3500-2500 BCE and discovered in 1902. Studies pointed the Oracle Chamber in the Hypogeum resonates at a similar frequency, 111 Hz, like the ones found by Paul Devereux. And this frequency area seems helpful in inducing a specific mental state. I quote the findings of a 2008 study by Ian Cook, Sarah Pajot and Andrew Leucther:


Previous archaeoacoustic investigations of prehistoric, megalithic structures have identified acoustic resonances at frequencies of 95-120 Hz, particularly near 110-12 Hz, all representing pitches in the human vocal range. These chambers may have served as centers for social or spiritual events, and the resonances of the chamber cavities might have been intended to support human ritual chanting. We evaluated the possibility that tones at these frequencies might specifically affect regional brain activity. In a pilot project, 30 healthy adults listened to tones at 90, 100, 110, 120, and 130 Hz while brain activity was monitored with electroencephalography (EEG). Activity in the left temporal region was found to be significantly lower at 110 Hz than at other frequencies. Additionally, the pattern of asymmetric activity over the prefrontal cortex shifted from one of higher activity on the left at most frequencies to rightsided dominance at 110 Hz. These findings are compatible with relative deactivation of language centers and a shift in prefrontal activity that may be related to emotional processing. These intriguing pilot findings suggest that the acoustic properties of ancient structures may influence human brain function, and suggest that a wider study of these interactions should be undertaken.

A small jazz club in an XXI century Berlin and an XXI century megalith, the former CE, the latter BCE, share the same resonance of 110 cycles. And perhaps a similar function as well.


Later, Chad tells me a story of another, this time literary resonance. He tells me about a sci-fi novel, the name of which I didn’t remember. There was a massive apocalyptic extinction event when humanity nearly ceased to exist. And years after this event, monks from a religious order uncover archaeological artefacts—electrical circuit schemes that they think are some sort of encrypted spiritual writing. One of the monks then realises that these writings are diagrams and proceeds to build a device from one of them. He then comes up with an analogue oscillator.


Organum


Organum is a time machine.


And has (probably) nothing to do with organs, with these enormous sonic marvels flexing the most advanced technology their age could offer (and unimaginable wealth and power, of course). The earliest organ at Notre-Dame was built in 1403, more than two centuries after the supposed lives of Leonin, optimus organista, that is, the best composer of organa, according to an anonymous visiting English student (sadly, now forever known in history as Anonymous 4) and Perotin, quoniam optimus discantor erat (ibid) that is, the best composer of discants (roughly speaking, a type of organum). The term organum has more to do with the human voice as an organ, referring to vocal music. Both Leonin and Perotin (as well as probably numerous other composers we know nothing of since they had a pretty different view on authorship in the middle ages) were faced with the challenge of writing contemporary new music—the beautiful and virtuosic compositions that could attract people to the new recently consecrated cathedral under construction (completed in 1345). What were they up against? Why, the parties! Popular festivals in the city kept people away from the church. They went kind of out of hand with Parisians merrily indulging themselves with all the alcohol, devilish dances, and all the other stuff that happens during the wildest parties you can imagine.

Imagine facing the task of composing liturgical music that could compete with that.


But they succeeded.


They were based on the fragments of well-known plainchants, called tenors and time-stretched, sung nearly ten times slower, holding every note. At the same time, the newly composed rapid upper voice melodies ran swiftly and virtuosically, with all the embellishments, bells and whistles imaginable. These are mystical machines, as the plainchants employed in tenors were well known to the audiences. Not just melodies but holy texts referencing particular religious meanings, senses and ideas. Stretching these plainchants in time relative to the newly composed upper voices has the effect of witnessing an object nearing an event horizon of a Black Hole. Or, vice versa, if we take the perspective of the time-stretched plainchant, we are about to enter singularity, with all the light forever caught in the last photon orbit.


Alleluia Nativitas organum by Perotin, a page from a medieval manuscript
Alleluia Nativitas organum by Perotin

Leonin and Perotin composed organa for human voices, the most timeless of all instruments. The human voice existed for as long as we existed, was our first musical instrument (organ), and presumably will be our last. There’s nothing like it in electronic music, where any timbre lives a secret double life of a semantic fly trap—promptly and deadly, it glues itself to the cultural context around it. Just how much easier it is to name the decade when a certain song was recorded just by hearing the electronic or electric timbres employed in it: overdriven guitar in the heavy metal of the 80s, hoover bass in the 90s jungle, etc. But I believe the nearest one could get to the timelessness of the human voice is by sticking to the basic waveforms, building blocks of synthesis, the closest to timelessly neutral of all electronic timbres: triangles, saws, and squares. And then passing them through a filter, a shroud, balancing the amount of energy, or light, to pass through.


Light



St. Augustine built on St. John the Evangelist’s characterisation of Christ as the “true Light” by making philosophical distinctions between physical and spiritual light. Neo-Platonic thought argued an ontological connection between physical light and the “essence” of light. In the sixth century, Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy connected light with spiritual wisdom and Heavenly knowledge. Marsilino Ficino, the Italian Neo-Platonist, correlated the experience of God directly with light: “Beauty is a kind of force or light, shining from Him through everything … the single light of God illumines the Mind, Soul, Nature, and Matter. Anyone seeing the light in these four elements sees a beam of the sun, and through this beam is directed to the perception of the supreme light of the sun itself. In the same way, whoever sees and loves the beauty in these four, Mind, Soul, Nature, and Body, seeing the glow of God in these, through this kind of glow sees and loves God Himself.” Given these philosophical underpinnings, it is easier to understand why light “was perceived as an attribute of divinity” and therefore “was believed to have mystical qualities.” The desire to “see” the truths of the Faith and sacred mysteries taking place in the church became much more than visual curiosity but a kind of participation in the truths being visually presented. Abbot Suger best summarises this mystical participation through sight with respect to viewing stained glass windows: “The great church windows are the Divine writings that let the light of the true Sun—that is to say, God—into the church—that is to say, the hearts of the faithful”

In contrast to the popular view of Gothic architecture, cathedrals were the places of light. Medieval people went out of their way, employing cutting-edge technological innovation, unimaginable budgets and work hours to build actual cathedrals of light. The innovative flying buttresses and external braces that supported the pillars upon which the arches of the vault rested decreased weight from the walls between the pillars, allowing them to be thin or even replaced by windows altogether. In the mid-12th century, the abbot Suger oversaw the reconstruction of the Church of Saint-Denis, which marked the beginning of the age of cathedrals. Suger embraced this new architectural style to fill the church with light, allowing worshippers to connect with God through large, colourful windows. Suger believed that the light from the windows could illuminate the hearts of those inside, much like scripture illuminated their souls. This is why illuminated Bibles were often found in medieval churches, with their pages covered in gold to reflect the light of God.


Cologne Cathedral interior
Cologne Cathedral

And polyphonic music performed in these cathedrals during the high middle ages could be described as a multimedia show featuring sound and scent (aroma of candles and incense) and a remarkable light show of sunlight coming through the stained glass windows.


Light is energy; in sound, it is the amount of energy its spectrum has. Using an analogue filter, I choose how much power, how much of the light, should be allowed to enter, starting from the complete darkness of a fundamental frequency and ending, by opening the filter and adding more and more harmonics, in a whole spectre of a waveform, in a space filled with light.









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