Sunday, May 31, 2015

Blackbirds and Fox Bones – Notes from an imaginal pilgrimage

By David Metcalfe

We that walk at nights, looking after our sheep, see many strange sights, while other men sleep, (from the 2nd Shepherd’s Play, Wakefield Cycle)

Surprise and excitement accompanied a note I received from Phil Legard mentioning that Hawthonn was ready for release.  As a collection of music that he and his wife Layla recorded in honor of Jhonn Balance, a creative soul who has long been a personal inspiration, I’d been eagerly awaiting the album. As a topic of conversation between my roommate and I just minutes before Legard’s email arrived I was surprised that the first digital release of the collection had come at such a coincidental and timely interval. Yet, so it goes when one walks the borderlands of reality and imagination.

With the song of blackbirds and rattle of fox bones Hawthonn opens an invitation to journey through the imaginal landscape of Jhonn Balance’s post-mortem pilgrimage from Worlebury Hill in Weston-Super-Mare to where his ashes were scattered by his lover beneath a Hawthorn tree which sits on the grounds of St. Bega’s church overlooking an inland lake at Bassenthwaite. Ethereal atmospheres of sound and voice draw the listener to the edge of that summerland beyond the veil, where spirit supplants flesh and all time comes together – a place well walked by Balance long before his transition.
If you kill me, I'd have to live forever,
(Jhonn Balance in response to an audience member at a concert in 2004)
Best known for his experimental sound work with Peter Christopherson under the moniker of Coil, Balance is one of the premier visionary artists of the late 20th century.  As a testament to their vision – Coil’s multiphasic amorphous musical assemblage continues as one of the most challenging, primal, and beautiful examples of contemporary sound experimentation by way of “pop music,” despite the passing of both Balance in 2004, and Christopherson in 2010. Hawthonn’s success as a conceptual album can be seen in its eerie evocation of Coil’s underlying themes – ghostly sketches of possibility emerge from these sonic landscapes, a peculiar and specific spirit hovers over the work. Using what can in some sense be described as musical necromancy the Legards have created a series of sound evocations that allow the listener to embark on a mythopoetic voyage beyond the waking world. Diving deeply into the album’s compositional techniques one begins to understand the delicate process which lead to this effective evocation of Balance’s spirit.
Don't believe AE, see for yourself the summer fields. See for yourself the summer fields, before the tractor comes and wakes you, before the cereal is sown, (Beestings, lyrics by Jhonn Balance)

She Thought It Was a Bird (Notes on subjective engagement)

I’ve had some strange experiences with Coil in the past.  Jhonn Balance’s death was particularly moving to me, an inexplicable reaction that I’ve not had with many people who I only know through their creative work. However, it was when Peter Christopherson passed beyond the veil that I experienced one of the odder coincidental occurrences in my life – occurrences which now seem to continue as I engage with the Legards’ haunting Hawthonn recordings.

2010 - It’s mid-afternoon and I am at the computer doing some research. Word of Christopherson’s passing is just making the rounds, and I am overcome with a strange feeling, a sort of potent dizziness. While I am looking for more information, my roommate walks into the kitchen behind me to begin boiling water for tea. She turns the dial on the electric stove and without warning the coil inexplicably explodes, sparks flying 4 feet across the room. There’s no damage outside of some burn marks on the stovetop.

“That’s a bit odd…” I murmur out loud.

“What is?” she inquired.

“That coil exploded a few moments after I read that Peter Christopherson from Coil died in his sleep.”


One of the original inspirations for the Hawthonn recordings lies in Ian Johnstone’s written memorial which recounts a coincidence that occurred after Balance’s ashes were scattered beneath the hawthorn tree.  Balance promised a sign from beyond the veil when he passed, and upon returning home Johnstone found a male black bird dead near his front door, a female black bird dead in the backyard. Black birds were an important part of Balance’s personal mythology, making the appearance of these two a strange and significant reminder of the thin lines between dream and reality.

Is there any surprise then that when I began to explore Hawthonn, curious coincidences were soon to follow?

2015 – I am on the porch thinking about Ben Chasny’s Hexadic system for composing music and have a strange feeling. At the cabin we have no stable web access, and I have no cell phone, so I ask my roommate to borrow her phone to check email. Sure enough, I’ve received an email from Ben at the same time the odd feeling came over me. Mentioning this to my roommate I feel compelled to discuss Legard’s musical experiments as well – Legard is one of the composers experimenting with Chasny’s system - moments later I see that I have an email from Phil. Hawthonn has been released in a limited edition digital format.

The next day I wake up and walk out onto the porch to discover a bloody bit of something that the cat caught the night before. My roommate sees where my eyes are set and says, “The cat caught a bird…” but upon closer inspection I realize that the bird is actually a bat. Facing west, the porch is flooded with light from the rising sun. Immediately I hear Jhonn’s voice in my head singing lines from Coil’s Batwings (Limnal Hymn):
And batwings, and batwings, and batwings sing this limnal hymn…
It takes a bit of maneuvering, but later in the day I’m able to download Hawthonn. I’m standing in front of the main house down the way from the cabin we are renting, listening to the first strains of Foxglove beneath a towering oak when a blue black butterfly catches my attention. It hovers in front of me and I think of the butterfly’s association as a psychopomp, a symbol of the soul itself or of a guide for the soul in the underworld. As I reflect on this the butterfly begins to circle my head.  I am reminded of some lines from a poem that Balance wrote when he was 13:

At the dawn of time
The Lord Peacock
Drank the elixir of butterflies
And his drab, limp tail
Drew up
And reached for the heavens

And caught the colours of the rainbow
In its feathers

And they've remained unequalled
For ever...

The next day I go down to help my neighbor with the communal garden. While we are finishing up planting some potatoes the landowner stops by to chat.  Something got into the coop at the main house and killed all of the chickens, the landowner says it was probably a raccoon, but begins talking of foxes.  My neighbor mentions that he and his wife often hear foxes calling out from the granite outcrop near the cabins.

Having spent time with the Hawthonn release at this point I think of an entry from the booklet included in initial digital release:

July 11, 2014: A Journeying

Something brought us a fox and left it in the garden – 
badly decomposed, just a skull and spine. 
Or perhaps it offered itself?

And the haunting lyrics of the first song on the album:

“Follow the fox
Through tangled time
Through the clouds of ash
And the copper moon
To the palace of birds
To a shadow garden
Where the hawthorn grow.”

Association is a beautiful tool, and as these coincidences pile up I begin entering deeper into Hawthonn’s imaginal pilgrimage – however, it’s the day following the mention of foxes that truly set the scene.

This time I am walking back from the main house with the same neighbor, we are coming up the dirt road to the cabins when, off to the side of the path, he spots a blueberry bush in full bloom. Walking over to it he casually mentions the hawthorn growing beside it.

“What did you just say?” I ask

“These bushes by the blueberry are hawthorn.”  He answers.


“Yep, hawthorn. See, they’re fruiting. Hawthorn berries are edible too.”

Last night my roommate and I went out to a granite outcrop near the cabin to enjoy the stars. As we sat immersed in visions of the sky we heard a scuffling sound in the woods nearby – followed by the hoarse coughing bark of foxes.

Imaginal Landscapes

I would be remiss if I let you assume that in the aforementioned encounters I’m making a case for the spiritual efficacy of synchronicity. In discussing these occurrences I’ve been very careful to use the word ‘coincidence’ – these are events whose subjective interpretation runs parallel with each other, yet to propose meaning we would have to recognize that it is only in this subjective relationship that the meaning emerges.  To use the term ‘synchronicity’ in a technical sense would be fine, but to load the word with the kind of careless assumptions that surround it in popular culture damages the potential power we can find in these liminal encounters. We are dealing with ‘mysteries’ in a very real way here, and easy answers degrade our ability to truly appreciate just how potent these areas of experience really are.

For my roommate, the landowner and my neighbor nothing out of the ordinary happened.  For me this is one of the exciting aspects of the kind of ‘speculative’ methodologies that composers like Legard use in crafting their work, and it is a testament to the power of such methodologies that immediately upon engagement with Hawthonn the imaginal landscape evoked in the recordings became so immanent and accessible.

Within an imaginal landscape the geography is mapped through associative meaning rather than physical landmarks. While those around me continue to exist in their own perceived web of meaning, by allowing myself the freedom of associative thinking I can actively realign my own representational references and enter into a meaningful conversation with the symbols that encircle the album and its creation. We see through a glass darkly, and techniques such as those employed in the conception of this album provide a lens to adjust our vision.

Describing his approach to composing music in The Many-Coloured Earth: Visionary Creativity, Imaginal Landscapes and the Hermeneutic Imagination, a paper  presented at the Alchemical Landscape conference at  Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, Legard says:

“I tend to use acts of contemplation, directed listening (in conjunction with field recording) and musical improvisation (within the field) as ways to stimulate the imagination and to create materials that can be used as further contemplative foci, as well as sources for constructing musical works. It might almost be said that the musical work is actually the by-product of a process of imaginal involvement with the landscape and derivative materials: (…) the experiential aspect of engagement is most important, and from this all the other work emerges.”

These techniques are further focused on this album in order to bring the listener into a state of resonance with Hawthonn’s thematic goals:

Hawthonn itself was posited from the outset as an imaginal pilgrimage to the
memory of Jhonn Balance, with specified temporal and geographical endpoints, but
with the waypoints between subordinated to emergent intuitions and visions arising
from the holophonic engagement.


For the initial limited release of Hawthonn, the Legard’s have included the ‘holophone’ soundscapes they fashioned and used for inducing visionary states during the album’s formation. These are described quite aptly in the accompanying booklet as “not music. A tool. A sonic scrying machine,” and are based on the pioneering sound work of Kim Cascone, whose ‘subtle listening’ methodology was adapted by the Legards for this album. These ‘tools’ when used with the proper mind state provide a means to access imaginal landscapes – if one allows the active mind to settle, the subtle influence of these sonic beds gives way to a vibrant panoply of free-associative mental imagery emerging unbidden as the listener relaxes into the experience.

Legard describes the use of these ‘holophones’ further along in the paper:
In the early stages of the project, sounds were specifically composed as objects for speculation and observation intended to stimulate an imaginal engagement with the geographical themes of the album, focusing on Worlebury Hill (near Balance’s home in Weston-Super-Mare) and Bassenthwaite as poles mediating between the worlds of the living and of the dead. These compositions were called ‘holophones’, in reference to their intention to stimulate ‘holistic’ imaginal engagement through sound. They exploited devices such as the psychological phenomenon of phantom words and binaural entrainment: one example illustrated here is a form of exegetic alchemy, in which the geographically literal (the distances between landmarks at Bassenthwaite) were transferred into a more ‘allegorical’ domain (as proportions on a hypothetical monochord) to form a sonic object with some relation to the place of study, yet existing in an abstracted domain in order to stimulate less literal, more subjective imaginal explorations of an interior counterpart landscape.
Hawthonn not only evokes these visionary states, but also explicitly investigates the techniques necessary for achieving them. As both a musicologist and performer, Legard is able to explore these areas with an attention to detail and process. More than music, these pieces speak to an active form of listening and engagement with sound that opens up to the deepest levels of personal experience.

Stepping through the hedge

A work such as Hawthonn acts as a cryptographic key for investigating the innumerable combinations possible with the symbolism that enfolds the main themes. The collection is a focal point that both begins the imaginal pilgrimage and defines the signs that lead one from point to point on the path.  Even the name itself, which speaks to both the hawthorn and Jhonn Balance, provides a trail through the boundary of waking reality and into the imaginal realm of dream and vision.

We’ve discussed Jhonn, but what of the plant? The hawthorn is traditionally used for hedges meant to keep predators and hungry herbivores out of gardens and fields. With its sharp thorns it is also traditionally associated with protecting against more ephemeral foes, such as malefic spirits and ill intended witchcraft.

According to Clare Goodricke Clarke in her book Alchemical Medicine for the 21st Century:
In Greek, kratos means “hard,” oxus means “sharp,” and akantha means“thorn. “Haw” is an old English name for “hedge,” and Hagedorn, the German name for Crataegus oxyacanthoides, means “hedgethorn,” so this plant has a long association with boundaries. The Greek name is accurate: the wood is hard and the thorns are long and sharp; it is not a hedge you can brush past. Hawthorn was planted to ward off sickness and evil. It is also known as May blossom for the time of its flowering. The white flowers give a very bridal air to the countryside when the hedges are in flower and a very distinct scent fills the air.
She goes on to detail one of the legends associated with the plant, saying that, “the thorn associated with Joseph of Arimathea that flowers at Glastonbury, in England, is a specimen of hawthorn. By tradition, the hawthorn is a holy plant associated with suffering: legend makes it the source of Christ’s crown of thorns.” In Arthurian lore the hawthorn is sometimes said to have been what held Merlin in bondage after the nymph, Nimue or Vivaine, seduced him into revealing the inner secrets of the magical arts.  Merlin’s last instructions to Arthur after his imprisonment come in the form of a vision had by Galahad, which spurs the quest for the Holy Grail.

With its sharp thorns and relation to boundaries the hawthorn is a perfect symbol for the pain of initiation and the sacrifice necessary to step into the imaginal world. As a protective barrier it also acts as a symbol of a guarded journey, where the hazards of such a passage are held at bay. It is a complex and commanding symbol, perfectly matched to the delicate complexities found in Hawthonn. As a work that brings listener in tune with the spirit journey of Jhonn Balance after his passing, Hawthonn is a powerful vision of the pain and potency of Balance’s life and vision.

Music, a mirror

In a future article I hope to write in more depth regarding the nature of speculative music, focusing on the contemporary work of the Legards, Kim Cascone, Ben Chasny and others who are currently exploring this territory with renewed vigor.  The word speculative comes from speculum, or mirror, and with speculative music the goal is to mirror the hidden processes of nature in sound. With Coil, Balance and Christopherson were eager participants in bringing these techniques to bear on popular music, and it is heartening to see others continuing to pull these powerful methods out of the obscurity of avant-garde experimentalism and into practical use.

When I took up the task of writing on Hawthonn I had no idea that it would become such an intimate journey through my own imaginal mytho-poesis. The multi-faceted mirror found in these recordings continues to cast new reflections, and if I don’t leave off writing I fear running the risk of weaving a web of words with no end – a true pilgrimage leads far beyond a lifetime. For now, I simply invite you to spend some time with the recordings, “see for yourself the summer fields” and discover what happens when you “follow the fox…to a shadow garden where the hawthorn grow.”

For more information on Phil Legard’s work CLICK HERE to visit his Larkfall website.

All It Takes Is The Right Story. Mythos Media

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