Musica Speculativa – Occult Roots in Sound and Vision (Part 1)

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David Metcalfe will show you how to make sacred geometry’s elegant insights an essential part of your daily experience in the Evolver live interactive video course,Sacred Geometry Applied: A Practical Approach to the Harmonies of Light, Sound, and Vision.” You can also catch David in the upcoming Visionary Dialog,Is the Contemporary Occult Different than Occult Era’s Past?along with Gary Lachman, Mitch Horowitz, and Pam Grossman, which starts on November 17.


“Speculative music,” derived from the medieval category musica speculativa, denotes that part of music theory that has nothing to do with practice, but is concerned with identifying the principles of music. It is the esoteric part of music theory, and as such readily absorbs ideas from theosophy, Hermeticism, and the occult sciences. The topics treated in speculative music include the harmonies of the angelic orders, the zodiac and planetary spheres, the elements, the soul, and the human body; the hidden correspondences of nature; the secrets of number; the power of sound; and the moral responsibilities of a music that wields this power.” – Josceyln Godwin, Music and the Occult: French Musical Philosophies 1750-1950

“The question of whether or not the supernatural is real is irrelevant. The occult doesn’t need arcane forces to give it reality. It only needs a means of transmission and a willing audience. “ – Peter Bebergal, Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll

Bright green leaves adorn a towering tree trunk, obscuring sunset’s golden embers and absorbing them into a lavish corona of foliage. This vibrant crown shades a mouldering bed of autumnal undergrowth and vegetative detritus lying beneath it on the forest floor. Along the ground a vine grows, barely visible above the dirt, its presence marked by small stemmed saplings with spear shaped leaves. Pulling up just one part begins to reveal a woven wrangle of gray, woody tendrils, leading to the realization that the entire area around the tree has become enmeshed in wisteria. Following the trail further, the vine has obviously made inroads into the tree as well.

A parasitic invasive, wisteria will strangle out any tree it comes across. Riding up the trunk and wrapping around each limb, it will cover the tree with its own foliage until the host dies and becomes no more than scaffolding for the wisteria’s outward expansion. If allowed to continue growing it will even begin to strangle itself, suffocating the first vines with new growth as it creates a tangled mass above and below the earth. Along with it, advantage-seeking analogues, such as green briar, poison ivy and English ivy will join in turning the open, airy atmosphere of the woods into a dark and tangled net of thorns, irritant oils and mordant roots.

As I cut out the grounded vines I’m led closer to the tree itself until finally I’m cutting those pieces that have grown up its trunk, tugging down the shoots that have gone beyond the reach of my blade – when the job is finished the sun shines through a bare- branched tree, dead, the lush green foliage that had shortly before blocked the light is now revealed, not as the sign of a healthy tree, but a sign that the parasitic plant had already completed its work. The book of nature offers a surprising image of existence, often at odds with the pastoral picture evoked when we rely on a superficial glance to uphold our cherished beliefs of good and evil. A lush green tree standing out as a sign of health, while the leaves on those around it turn red and gold in the autumn sun, is revealed as a murdered host to a vine that will eventually overtake the entire area in its virulent quest for being. Life and death essentially entwined no less than the vine and tree.

Occult Secrets and the Book of Nature

It is from the secret pages of the ‘Book of Nature’ that the original meaning of the ‘occult’ was first drawn. As lovely as one finds the careful curve of a daimonic sigil, the cunning craft of a cautiously cut wand, or the potent poesis evoked by a proper turn of mantric phrase, these are but aesthetic adornments lavished on deeper essential elements and serious students of the mysteries must realize what Wouter Hannegraaf, chair of Hermetic studies at the University of Amsterdam, points out in his essay The Notion of “Occult Sciences” in the Wake of the Enlightenment:

In the wake of the Platonic revival, the original concept of magia naturalis was expanded and transformed into a much more all-encompassing and explicitly religious prisca magia, with Agrippa’s great compendium (De occulta philosophia) as the paradigmatic example. From that perspective, magic was understood as neither demonic nor purely natural, but as the ancient religious wisdom that he been proclaimed by its inventor Zoroaster. Furthermore, particularly under the influence of Pico della Mirandola and his Christian kabbalah, references to secrecy and concealment became increasingly prominent within the same discourse of ancient wisdom, culminating, again, in Agrippa’s notion occulta philosophia: the hidden philosophy of the ancients, now revealed to the Christian world. And finally, Pico was at the origin of a strong Renaissance revival of ‘correlative thinking’, focusing on the notion of hidden non-causal correspondences between all parts of reality. It was practically inevitable that the traditional notion of mysterioius ‘hidden’ powers that are somehow ‘secretly’ at work in nature would now be expanded and transformed, together with the original notion of magia naturalis, so that from the black box of scholastic naturalism, the ‘occult qualities’ became the privileged sancturary of divine mystery in the world. 

Magia naturalis, natural magic, the subtle secrets of nature lie within the humble abode of the world around us, invisible, occluded, occult, not by some esoteric law, but by our own arrogant assumption to know more than we know before we have truly done the work of seeing with wisdom what lies open before us. We are blind to what is through a self-induced hallucination of what seems to be. The quest begins not with the magician, upheld by knowledge, but with the fool, teetering on tip-toe at the edge of the abyssal truth, not with 10 nor even 01, but 0. Within this empty egg infinite potentials intermix, and it is here that the heights of Hermetic speculation meet with the daily realities of life in the world.

Like the wisteria vine, what we understand today as ‘occult’ and ‘esoteric’ is often nothing more than a parasitic growth that has come to strangle out the tree of wisdom which once stood in these green gnosemic gardens. We are intoxicated by the alluring aesthetic traps of charlatans and charismatics who have emerged throughout the centuries to entice us with commercially and politically expedient fare whose outward fruit shines while carrying vapidness or poison beneath its serpentine skin. In the past century, as mass media has allowed us to expand the reach and influence or our errant whims, industrialized music production has become one of the most able carriers of this aesthetic gloss – from the artificially induced nationalist visions of wartime folk revivals to the consumer consciousness evoked by pop music, the power of sound to induce visions has been a ready tool of illusion for those who need such devices. Yet, while the parasitic vine may kill the tree, it still leaves the branching silhouette to speak of what once was, is and will be.

Signs in Silhouette

“The explainable is always inherent in the unexplainable mysterious, and the unexplainable mysterious is always inherent in the explainable.” – Thinley Norbu Rinpoche, Magic Dance: The Display of the Self-Nature of the Five Wisdom Dakinis

Peter Bebergal’s new book Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll  (Click Here for more information on the book) provides us with a perfect opportunity to see the shadowed branches of a once noble Art revealed in the familiar face of popular music. Uncovering the esoteric underpinnings of recording industry darlings such as Elvis Presley, the Beatles, David Bowie and more fringe favorites such as Hawkwind, Psychic TV and Coil, he gives us a glimpse of how the symbol set of contemporary music still holds hints of the hidden potency of musical expression. This book places Bebergal firmly among the group of contemporary esoteric scholars such as Gary Lachman, Mitch Horowitz, and Ronnie Pontiac who are uncovering the occult roots of popular culture with accessible introductions to areas obscured by the ‘official’ historic narrative.

While pop groups may not readily evoke the categories of speculative music given in the opening quote from Joscelyn Godwin, the areas of “the harmonies of the angelic orders, zodiac and planetary spheres, the elements, the soul, and the human body; and the hidden correspondences of nature…” are reachable if we follow the trail Bebergal uncovers and look more deeply into the influences which have become mostly aesthetic symbol sets in contemporary art and music. Just as Horowitz and Lachman have done with their work, this book gives a broad overview of often unnoticed influences, providing the reader with enough material to delve deeper into specific areas of interest.

One of the benefits of an examination such as this is that it provides a way in which to see how traditional ideas are transmitted over time. In covering artists such as Genesis P-Orridge, the book gives us hints at how to avoid the allure of archaic forms in order to keep an effective outlook in applying ‘occult philosophy’ and practical ‘magic’ to artistic expression. As a savvy transmedia provocateur P-Orridge is a perfect example of a contemporary ‘hunter of souls,’ to use Giordano Bruno’s phrase for a magician skilled in the art of social manipulation.

Through insights garnered from conversations with Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs, and by utilizing more pop elements in their music than P-Orridge had previously, Psychic TV decided to infect the system from within: “We used the idea of the rock band to prevent as much as we could from the establishment realizing what we were really doing was very urgently saying to be people you can change your behavior, you can be as creative as you choose no matter what your original skills if you wished it.” To this end, Psychic TV called upon fans to create a magical collective, a virtual secret society with its own language, passcodes, and rituals. Instead of a traditional fan club, Psychic TV would create what P-Orridge calls “a very laissez-faire libertarian occult network.” They called themselves the Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth (TOPY) a magical youth culture, one part sex, one part drugs, and a huge dose of magical energy borrowed from the nineteenth-century British artist Austin Osman Spare, who had developed a technique known as sigil magic. It is a sign of the efficacy of this infiltration that Psychic TV was able to seduce a car company into using one of their songs in a television commercial, something that for any other band might signify a sign of decadence, for P-TV this hijacking of the cultural mainline allowed for a direct injection of seriously subversive ideas to be slipped into the zeitgeist.

The scholar Joscelyn Godwin notes in his treatise on occult philosophies in French music that:

The occult philosophy holds that the universe is articulated by a network of correspondences, “occulted” or invisible to the senses. Agrippa’s various types of magic exploit these correspondences, using objects in the lower realms of existence (e.g., words, metals, herbs) to draw down the influences of their higher counterparts (e.g., angels, planets).

This doctrine of correspondences is exactly what P-Orridge learned to fully integrate into contemporary art through a close reading of Gysin and Burroughs’ work. In the essay Electronic Revolution, Burroughs highlights and expands upon how contemporary recording and media techniques can be used in light of sympathetic correspondences to induce changes in reality. In effect the essay, and Burroughs’s work as a whole, is a technologically savvy grimoire updating traditional cunning craft for the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Behind a facade of avant-garde novels Burroughs hid the true nature of his work, just as P-TV used the veil of a ‘rock band’ to hide theirs, creating effective blinds to subvert the innate censorship of the popular milieu which would reject the insertion of meanings that might threaten its existence.

The Survival of Tradition

The connections to traditional magic dug up in Seasons of the Witch are at times very direct. For example, while doing some extended reading in the field of folk magic I discovered that P-Orridge is quoted in ‘Robert Laremy’s’ book Spiritual Cleansing and Psychic Defenses. Published by Original Publications, the book is printed by one of the last remaining publishing houses, along with Jaguar Books, to continue in the long standing tradition of companies putting out the works of 20th century figures like Henri Gamache and Lewis de Claremont, authors who were seminal in the development of practical magic traditions such as Hoodoo. As one of the publishers that still influences folk magic practices beyond their popularization in the New Age genre this is a unswerving link to still living traditions.

Bebergal uncovers another surprising survival in the career of Arthur Brown. Known for his popular late 60’s hit, “Fire” which includes the unforgettably brazen intro line – “I am the god of hellfire…” Brown’s most recent activities find him in the role of musical therapist crafting songs to help his patients deal with psychological stress:

After Kingdom Come broke up, Brown traveled to Turkey to study Sufism and eventually landed in Austin, Texas. It was here he was inspired to pursue music as a means of psychic transformation through less bombastic methods. Brown received his master’s in counseling psychology and started a music therapy practice. The patient would talk about their phobias or fears, and Brown would then compose a song on the fly with a guitar in hand, the lyrics drawn from the patient’s own words. The patient would take a tape of the song home and listen whenever the anxiety or depression set in. 

A similar technique was employed by the famed translator of the Hermetic Corpus, Marsilio Ficino, in the 15th century. Based on his understanding of Orphic hymns in light of Neo-Platonic theurgy, Ficino used harmonics and music to draw down sublime and healthful celestial influences in order to bring about healing. While Bebergal quotes Brown as seeing his roll in terms of a ‘shaman,’ if we strip away the popularization of that term we can see a contemporary example which hints at one of the more practical uses for the ‘occult philosophy’ found in traditional examples of speculative music.

With Seasons of the Witch focusing on ‘occult’ influences that lean towards more outward understandings, much of the material is based on musicians’ relationships with practical magic, popular mysticism or purely aesthetic concerns. The examples given rarely embrace a truly initiatory understanding as it relates to higher spheres of wisdom. In Music and the Occult: French Musical Philosophies 1750-1950, however, Joscelyn Godwin suggests that there exists enlightened ground within these fields and that, “music, besides being entertainment, self-expression, and communication, can become an instrument of knowledge. (We can) find in it a key, or a lever, that gives access to regions of knowledge denied to (and hence denied by) the reductionist mentality. After all, the very fact that music exists is astonishing enough. No outsider to the human condition would suspect that proportional vibrations would affect us as we know they do. There is every reason to question this extraordinary phenomenon, and to learn something of the world-views that purport to shed some light on it.

“It is possible to hold an open mind on these matters without tumbling headlong into occultism; possible to admit that music may be a stranger thing than we can ever grasp, and that in some way it may actually be larger than ourselves, just as physics and biology are larger than our bodily organisms. If this is so, the efforts of speculative music theory are not in vain, but are part of the history of science in the broadest sense. They are efforts to seek out the principles and meaning behind one of the most enigmatic and marvelous of human activities.”

Using Bebergal’s exploration as a jumping off point we can begin to regain a sense for the power of music even within the radio friendly domain of the mass media. Delving deeper into the original contexts of harmonic correspondences and ‘magia naturalis’ we are given an opportunity to discover areas that have yet to be fully embraced by contemporary musical culture.

Subtle Listening

“For a listener, music can become a profound mystical practice. Ordinarily, it seems as though sounds are projected in external space and perceived in internal space, as if through a permeable barrier. What then is space itself?” – David Chaim Smith, A Silence That Speaks (Arkana Vol. 5)

Like Horowitz and Lachman, Bebergal’s work shows that occult symbolism is much more prevalent than many suspect, being truly ‘hidden in plain sight.’ What does remain hidden, however, is the subtle essence that was the original subject of ‘occult philosophy.’ This essence is and always will be veiled and occluded within the heart of nature itself. Returning to wisteria’s lesson and pulling back the enmeshing layer of gross substance that veils this essence in aesthetics and symbology we can discover the hidden principles that true speculative music gives access to.

In the second part of this two part series we’ll peal back the overgrowth of cultural vinage and look at some of the ways that musicians are applying the techniques of speculative music to explore the hidden side of nature.  In the meantime you can Click Here and enjoy some contemporary sound experiments courtesy of The Message. 


Image by anne arnould, courtesy of Creative Commons license.


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