Inpsired by John Zorn's most recent volume of his Arcana series, Musicians on Music, Magic & Mysticism, I present the first in a series of interviews with musicians on the intersection of music, esotericism, and creativity.
Alka (Bryan Michael) is an electronic music composer who imbues his music with echoes of an analog past. It's ambient music you could almost dance to, the psychedelic dreams of a circuit bender. I corresponded with Alka by email about how magical symbols work in the context of his compositions.
What is it about esotericism and the occult that seem to attract
I think on a very superficial level, musicians may be attracted to the often misunderstood imagery of the occult, and the mild fear or excitement they believe this association will create in the minds of their fans and listeners. For me, it is about inspiration. It is about looking beyond the known senses and alchemically transforming gathered perceptions from an archetypal realm into a physically audible creation.
What role do these kind of symbols and emblems have on shaping your music?
I suppose it's a form of musical notation in itself. Many symbols associated with the esoteric, tarot for example, have musical note correspondences which can be used by the composer deliberately or, oftentimes, subconsciously in music to project higher philosophies, or on a more base level, emotions. I believe that digital electronic music is even more conducive to transmitting the occult, as it can easily be reduced to a numerical base. Something I have been experimenting with in my own music is taking words or phrases of some importance, reducing them to their numerical equivalency via gematria, and then inputting these symbolically-representing digits into tonal parameters or step sequencers.
[Listen to the track "Nether," inspired by gematria]
Can making music be a kind of magical practice?
Absolutely. Even composers completely unaware of the deeper connections underlying all things, intentionally choose various musical keys and particular instruments to convey a set of feelings or moods across multiple listeners. They are ultimately projecting a rather abstract form of expression, effecting a change in the audience's physical body chemistry, psychological state and possibly, philosophical state.
There has always been a tension within occult circles on the distinction between magic and mysticism. How do you make sense of that distinction for yourself?
This seems to be a current issue within academic circles; does magic(k) imply religion, merely compliment it, or is it something independent altogether? I think this is largely left up to the minds of the individual practitioner and how they define their beliefs. Of course certain religious dogmas through defined preset doctrines, discourage personal will, or even interest in Hermetic philosophies in general, but I believe that magic can compliment faith or stand completely on its own as needed. It all depends on what particular form and level of practice you want to involve yourself in.
Do you think that music can actually alter consciousness, either the making of it or the listening to it, or does it merely reflect consciousness?
I believe that music can potentially aid in the altering of consciousness, but is dependent on a number of factors, such as the listener's mood, environment and will. More accurately, music, I think, reflects the subconciousness, which in turn, can then be used to effect the consciousness.
In a recent interview with Erik Davis, Alan Moore explained that he does not believe magic can change the laws of the physical universe (whew!) but can absolutely change consciousness.
Well, I suppose it depends on what path of physics you choose to define the physical universe. Quantum Mechanics, for example, suggests that thought can directly alter the physical realm. This is referred to as consciousness-correlated physical phenomena and is something that is repeatedly popping up in related scientific studies. The essay, "Change the Rules!" by Robert G. Jahn and Brenda J. Dunne of the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research, documents this nicely.
Which is more powerful, art or magic, in this regard?
I feel that the two can be one in the same. Magic when approached correctly is an art; and art, in general, has the potential for magic.
Given that electronics can do so much, do you impose any limitations on yourself? Are there lines you won't cross?
Electronic musicians have sound palettes ranging into the inaudible, and therefore some control must be exercised. That is not to say that my personal audio limitations do not shift from track to track, but I do have a loose guideline as to what music released under the alka moniker should feel like. Some electronic musicians prefer to work in a pre-defined style-palette, so that they can be easily identified with a proven subgenre. I find this practice extremely limiting and will always choose tones that reflect mood over popularity.
What about in this regard spiritually?
If you are referring to limitations on personal spiritual beliefs, I would say that it is inevitable for anyone who considers themselves spiritual, to exact some sort of, shall we say, "belief parameters". That is not to say that I would EVER impose personal parameters on others.
Are there any musicians/artists who you feel embody this notion of art as magic?
I would say W.B. Yeats, Jhonn Balance (of Coil), and William Blake, but of course there are countless others, some we are not yet aware of. Most importantly, art as magic is not limited to any one artistic medium, or even sub-genre within a medium. When art is infused with a magical property, the distinction lies not merely on the resulting work but in something that emanates a little differently from it.