Paramusic - Listening of the Third Kind
A radio show commissioned by SWR2 "JetztMusik".
Paramusic is a twilight zone where the boundaries between the heard and unheard, the seen and unseen, the tangible and ethereal, blur. This radio show delves into scientifically unexplainable sources of music, occult composition techniques, Derrida's concept of hauntology, the ghostly quality of music as an art form and the quest for spiritual experiences through music. It reflects on the fear of a blunting of the senses in a "dark age" of music's commercialization and counter-strategies of contemporary music practice with the composer in the role of a mystical guide. It explores the transformative power of listening as well as the channeling of paranormal experiences through the spontaneous fusion of heightened sensitivity and virtuosic mastery between audience, composition and interpretation in musical live performance. Ultimately, it invites us to embrace the enigmatic and transcend the ordinary, as the elusive nature of music itself becomes a conduit for exploring the depths of our existence.
What is Paramusic?
Paramusic is a formula that allows me to approach a phenomenon that inherently defies definition. Paramusic is ghost music.
I am afraid of frightening the ghostly essence of Paramusic by attempting to grasp it through a definition. "Paramusic" is a phantom that forms the center of an experimental field of research. The purpose of circling this field is not to solidify it into a confinement that captures a new concept of music. Ghosts are immaterial; they pass through walls. The attempt to define and enclose would likely result in nothing more than an empty, useless structure without windows and doors, where, in the worst case, only the researchers themselves would remain trapped. The research field surrounding Paramusic is intended as an invocation circle, a magical circle. In its center, the perception of those who enter becomes sensitized, their attention sharpens, and they become receptive to musical manifestations of the third kind.
Admittedly, I only superficially searched for existing definitions of "Paramusic" when choosing the title, which is why I picked the term because there were hardly any definitions available.
First, I'll do a Google search for "Paramusic." The very first result is the announcement on the SWR website for this radio show that I'm currently doing. That's a good sign. A nice, self-referential loop.
The next result is a SoundCloud account of a rapper named "Para" from Dortmund. He has 7 tracks and 9 followers. His last upload is from 2012.
[Music example: Para "16 Bars Exclusive 2011"]
Para raps about "To be or not to be" and "Footstep sound." These are certainly relevant terms for ghost hunting. I scroll further.
The next result is a record store in Toronto called "Paramusic Records." I message them on Instagram and ask what Paramusic means to them.
They reply that "para" is a synonym for "beside, near, abnormal, beyond." I already knew that, of course. "Para" comes from Greek and is attached to words to place concepts side by side, distinguish them, or even complement them. The parallel, the parable, the parasympathetic, the paramilitary, the paranoia. Paramusic stands beside music. It sets itself apart from music while remaining connected to it and possibly even complementing it.
I inquire further with Paramusic Records about what the term means to them personally and their selection of music. They reply: "everything related to music." Fair enough. On their website, they have LPs and CDs from artists like David Bowie, Eminem, Cat Stevens, Alicia Keys, Disney soundtracks, and so on. Basically, anything related to music. But what makes it "beside" music?
I also find... a Japanese app that allows you to isolate individual voices and instruments from well-known songs... and an American record label called "Para Music Group." Their motto is "We Deliver Hits. Period."
The Para Music Group offers a selection of their releases for sampling. I click through them.
The music sounds like a potpourri of contemporary pop music. Besides the label name, I don't find any indications of something that feels "paramusical." They probably just like the name. Just like Para from Dortmund... and me.
[Music example: Songs from the Para Music Group website]
But then I become attentive. Here, a certain Yana Blinder actually sings, "I've been haunted by the memories of something I couldn't even hide."
She is haunted by the memories of something that she couldn't even hide? I'm not sure if I understand what it means.
I continue searching. On Bandcamp, I find a piece titled "Paramusic," composed by someone named James. In the description, it says: "Para as a prefix to the word music represents alternative musical rules." I wonder what could be meant by musical rules. Chorale writing, functional harmony, twelve-tone technique, conceptual sorting methods... I sense that it could be challenging to find rules that differentiate "paramusic" from "music," considering there are already countless definitions for the rules of "music."
[Music example: James - Paramusic]
I also come across an album named "Paramusic" on Bandcamp, initially released in 1975 by the trio "Red Square" and remastered and reissued in 2021 by their saxophonist.
[Music example: Red Square - "Paramusic 8"]
I'm not sure if this is more or less "para" than the rapper "Para" or the music from the "Para Music Group."
I find another link to a video on Dailymotion. It shows the "Formatia ParaMusic," a duo from Romania.
[Music example: Formatia ParaMusic]
A boy and a girl, both around 12 years old, stand in front of a keyboard. They smile at the camera. The girl plays fast runs with her right hand, while her left hand presses individual keys that control the auto-accompaniment function of the keyboard. According to the description, the two are siblings Andrada and Vlad Dinca. They only divert their gaze from the camera for a fraction of a second and never forget to smile. Now, the boy takes over the fast runs with his right hand. Behind them, on a wall-mounted shelf, are the five satellite speakers of a 5.1 surround system placed side by side. On a shelf next to it is the accompanying subwoofer. The sounds of the keyboard remind me of a snake charmer. Suddenly, I feel eerie. Something changes in the spatial fabric surrounding me, my laptop, and the approximately ten-year-old video of the Romanian keyboard duo. It's as if something opens up within it, through which something "other" reaches me, a ghostly aura. The frozen smiles on the faces of the two children and their lightning-fast hands, controlled as if by an external force... I think of children possessed by demons and exorcists. And indeed, I find myself listening to recordings of Anneliese Michel.
[Sound example: Anneliese Michel]
Anneliese Michel was a student who was believed to be possessed by the devil. Her mother had her exorcised multiple times by a priest before she died in 1976 due to neglect and malnutrition. In her tragic fate, people still search for evidence of the existence of paranormal phenomena such as demonic possession.
[Background sound: Monstercall - Monstersound]
As I write, I have to resist the urge to scratch my neck, chest, and shoulders. Two days ago, I went swimming in Lake Tegel to place an underwater speaker that plays musical calls into the lake. They are dedicated to the lake monster "Tegli." Many swimmers and divers claim to hear the monster itself in the musical calls. We perform at the lakeshore and play music in honor of the monster. "Tegli" doesn't have to appear to make us feel its presence. The existence of beings we don't know, that we can't see, living beneath us and interacting with us, is not only probable, it is undeniable. I feel the itch again. I was infested with so-called cercariae in the shallow water. Their larvae penetrated my skin, causing a temporary dermatitis. I am a mishost, not the one they originally intended to infest. Their true target was ducks. In one or two weeks, they will die, and the rash will subside.
The idea that foreign organisms use my body to incubate their offspring, at the expense of my energy, doesn't seem far-fetched from the notion of a deceased composer taking possession of me, using me as a medium to bring their music from the afterlife into the world of the living.
Rosemary Brown from Wimbledon was such a medium. She was not a professional musician and rather an average pianist, but one day, she started composing. Her ideas came directly from the afterlife, from deceased composers. She received and simply wrote along. Rosemary's ghostwriters were none other than Franz Liszt, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Johann Sebastian Bach.
[Audio example: Rosemary Brown "Grubelei"]
We hear "Grubelei," transmitted from the afterlife by Franz Liszt in 1969, transcribed and played by Rosemary Brown.
I wonder if Rosemary Brown also received requests from unknown composers from the afterlife who hoped for posthumous fame? She probably just brushed off such requests.
Florian Steininger is a pianist from Stuttgart. We studied in Karlsruhe at the same time. He was one of the few piano students who didn't brush us composition students off. Unlike most others who focused on the works of already deceased composers, Florian also played the pieces of the composition class students. About fifteen years ago, he developed a fascination for the English composer Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji. And Sorabji, if I remember correctly, had a certain occult inclination. I give Florian Steininger a call.
Sorabji did indeed delve into the occult. There were several reasons for this. Perhaps it's important to note that Sorabji was an English composer with a father who came from India and had Persian ancestry, belonging to a religious community settled in India. His mother was English. This migratory background made Sorabji, especially in his younger years, somewhat of an outsider during that time, being born in 1892. And when he, as a young adult, started reflecting on his roots, he also changed his name. He was born as Leon Dudley and then renamed himself as Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji through his exploration of his name. He apparently had an interest in the occult and the mystical. He also read numerous magazines like the "Occult Review," which focused on paranormal phenomena and perhaps attempted to explore them scientifically, as well as in connection with psychological phenomena - it was still a young discipline at that time. In this context, he sought out a circle of friends or a social environment and came into contact with individuals who were engaged in and wrote about these topics. Thus, his interest and engagement with this subject matter grew. His musical influences included Busoni, Scriabin, among others, particularly in his early years, who are known for the mystical and occult elements in their music.
How does the occult find its way into Sorabji's music?
There are several works that openly deal with these occult themes. For example, there is a work that is not preserved but was planned: a black Mass. Certainly, this is also influenced by Scriabin's ninth piano sonata, known as the "Black Mass."
We hear the finale from Alexander Scriabin's ninth piano sonata, also known as the "Black Mass," performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy.
Then we have a major piano work, the Opus Archimagicum, which is connected to Tarot cards, which are supposed to predict the future. We also have settings of ghost stories. And there is a "Tantric Symphony." So, the exploration of the occult, the otherworldly, or, as the prefix "para-" suggests, everything that is "beside" or "beyond," has always been a subject of Sorabji's personal and artistic engagement.
Especially when I think about the role as a performing artist, as a reproducing artist, as a performer - there is always some form of communication, an intangible element in play when interacting with the audience, the listener. So, perhaps one should look beyond the physical realm to make the intangible tangible.
What sets live performance apart from a recording or a mere sheet of music is the fascination of virtuosity. And by virtuosity, I don't just mean speed or manual dexterity, but also mastery of the instrument, even in the softest passages, having control. These aspects can be summarized under "virtuosity." And I believe that's where the fascination lies in a live performance, witnessing what a human can achieve. This interplay between composition, creativity, inspiration, and the performer, I see it as a way to make the intangible tangible.
The music also has an introspective quality throughout significant parts. The difficulty here is never an end in itself. This piece is the fifth movement from the "Toccata quarta," completed in 1967. The "Toccata quarta" lasts approximately 2 hours and 45 minutes.
This fifth movement bears the programmatic title "Of a Neophyte and how the black art was revealed to him." The title refers to an illustration by Aubrey Beardsley.
Performed by Florian Steininger.
[Music example: Kaikhosru Sorabji "Toccata quarta [5. Intermezzo secondo]"]
Dr. Dr. Melvyn Willin is an expert in the field of paranormal music. He holds a doctorate in musicology and another doctorate in paranormal research.
[Interview Melvyn Willin]
His research encompasses music that comes from unidentifiable sources, music received by mediums in contact with deceased composers like Rosemary Brown, and music transmitted telepathically. I ask him how the music associated with paranormal activity sounds.
He speaks of angelic choirs that people with a Christian background hear during near-death experiences, bagpipes playing in abandoned Scottish castles, and bar pianos heard in the corner of a pub where a piano used to be. Generally, he says, the music usually corresponds to what one would expect at a particular location.
I'm not entirely satisfied with that. I had hoped to hear what music sounds like coming from spirits. And of course, I had hoped it would sound different - not how one would expect it to sound! But it seems, at least according to the findings of paranormal research, that there are no clearly definable musical characteristics.
Melvyn emphasizes the intangibility of music itself. But is music truly intangible? I recall what Florian Steininger said: making the intangible tangible. Here is a pianist who perceives the supposedly intangible with his fingertips and then grasps it. The tangibility of the intangible in music seems to manifest in the moment of performance.
Melvyn also emphasizes the importance of "spontaneity" in performance.
I meet with Julián Galay, a composer from Argentina living in Berlin. He tells me about a book titled "Handbook of Parapsychology," written in 1978 by Uruguayan author Mario Levrero. The book is still only available in Spanish to this day.
Two weeks ago, Julián premiered his piece "Hyperesthesia" for tuning forks, electromagnets, transducers, and snare drum. The title refers to a phenomenon described by Levrero in his "Handbook of Parapsychology." With "Hyperesthesia," he describes a state of heightened sensitivity and enhanced sensory perception. In a hypnotic trance, Levrero believes it is possible for extremely subtle sensory stimuli that are normally only unconsciously perceived to become conscious.
The performance with the tuning forks and the electromagnet requires great delicacy. To produce the desired sound, Julián must enter a particular state himself. He focuses on the sound while having a sensitive touch in his fingertips. When he achieves the perfect distance between the vibrating tuning fork and the electromagnet, the transducers are set in motion, moving across the snare drum. For Julián Galay, this is a poetic translation of the idea of telekinesis, the contactless movement of objects.
We hear "Hyperesthesia" by Julián Galay, performed by himself.
There is a difference between what Dr. Willin investigates and what Florian and Julián describe. Dr. Willin primarily examines musical experiences and reports from individuals that cannot be explained. Florian and Julián, on the other hand, seek to make musical experiences tangible through their practice, experiences that go beyond explanation. For them, the performance becomes a kind of summoning ritual in which something unexplainable is meant to manifest.
From the earliest beginnings of music to the present day, there has been a tendency towards the materialization of music. While music in its early oral tradition existed only in the moment of performance, the development of musical notation led to the written fixation of music. With the invention of mechanical musical instruments and later recording and playback technology, music became reproducible on physical media and permanently accessible. The digitization of music ultimately enabled a quasi-immaterial form of music, stored as binary data and distributed via the internet. Although music can no longer be located in physical space, it gives the impression of being available everywhere.
Dr. Melvyn Willin mentioned unlocatable sound sources as one of the areas of investigation in paranormal music. When streaming, the music manifests itself seemingly out of nowhere, from thin air. FM, AM, DAB, 3G, 4G, 5G. Electromagnetic waves, invisible, encrypted, everywhere. The Ghostbusters' ghost detector would go off. Scooby-Doo would start barking.
[Background music: The Caretaker - F7 - Libet delay]
When the internet connection drops or one can no longer afford the Spotify subscription, suddenly everything is gone. The illusion of omnipresence fades. Someone pulls the sheet off the ghost. The music fades in memory.
Of course, you can find all kinds of music on the popular streaming platforms nowadays. However, the transmission towers were not erected to bring Lachenmann or Japanoise to the people but to do business with music that everyone wants to listen to.
By materializing music into an ectoplasmic, consumable, purchasable, standardized medium, have we banished the spirits of music?
In the late 1990s, a music genre emerged that explicitly sought to materialize the ghostly within itself: hauntology. And it appeared in the form of produced albums.
We hear the track "F7 - Libet delay" from the overall six-and-a-half-hour cycle "Everywhere at the End of Time" by The Caretaker.
The term "hauntology," first appeared in Jacques Derrida's text "Spectres of Marx." It is a portmanteau of the English word "haunting," referring to ghosts or specters, and the word "ontology," the branch of philosophy that deals with the fundamental questions of being and existence. When pronounced in French, "hauntologie" sounds almost identical to "ontologie," the French pronunciation of "ontology." In this way, hauntology replaces its nearly identical-sounding ontology and shifts the focus from being and presence to the figure of the ghost as something that is neither present nor absent, neither dead nor alive, as Colin Davis describes it in his text "Hauntology, spectres and phantoms."
[Example: William Basinski - The Disintegration Loops]
The principle of haunting our present through past musical spheres is, in a sense, translated into sound in the music genre of hauntology. The "past" in music is sonically represented through the recourse to old music, not in the sense of Renaissance music, but rather in the sense of old recordings, especially from the 1930s and 1940s. The age of the medium is highlighted in hauntology music: the crackling of the vinyl needle, the warbling of the tape. In comparison to Derrida's complex idea of haunting our present, the spirit of hauntology music somewhat fades behind the obvious attempt to evoke nostalgia. It seems as if one is summoning a ghost by throwing a sheet over their head and cutting two holes for eyes. However, perhaps this sheet is a necessary evil for the ghost to become visible at all. William Basinski's "The Disintegration Loops" exemplifies a principle: the gradual dissolution of sound looping, showcasing the listeners' own memory, the current auditory experience, and the anticipation of what is to come.
[Example: William Basinski - The Disintegration Loops]
"Neither present nor absent, neither dead nor alive." Doesn't that apply to listening itself and thus to every music? Music arises in its passing. In the moment it is heard, it becomes part of the past again. It defies a fixed location in space and time.
Derrida does not limit the idea of hauntology to the realm of ghosts and the supernatural or paranormal, but rather sees it as a fundamental aspect of human experience, culture, and language. He states that every society is constantly haunted by its past, which disrupts and challenges the present.
Derrida says it: There are ghosts. They are among us. They are the cause of the inherent instability of language, thought, and culture. Our reality is ambiguous and fragile, and every concept and idea undergoes constant transformation.
Music is the medium that allows the ghostly nature, the ambiguity and instability of our world to be experienced so directly like no other. Listening to music means being haunted by the immediate past, its echo, one's own personal memory, the cultural past, the anticipation of what is to come, and the already faded projections of the future.
[Music example: Busoni "Doktor Faustus"]
We listened to an excerpt from the second prologue titled "Die Sanduhr zeigt die Mitternacht" (The Hourglass Strikes Midnight) from "Doktor Faustus," the opus magnum of Italian composer Ferruccio Busoni. He worked on it until his death, never completing it.
In order to attain supernatural abilities, Doctor Faustus summons spirits and demons. Through a pact with the devil, embodied by Mephistopheles, he hopes to gain access to forbidden knowledge that will enable him to achieve his goals. Not only Doctor Faustus, the protagonist of the opera, but also Busoni himself worked with occult methods.
Judith Crispin writes about Busoni: "For the Italian-born virtuoso pianist and composer Ferruccio Busoni, composing music was, in the truest sense of the word, an occult practice, analogous to the invocations and summonings of ritual magic. There is much to suggest that his knowledge of occult and arcane subjects was at least as extensive as his knowledge of music."
Nearly forty percent of his extensive library consisted of rare editions of esoteric and occult texts, such as Joris-Karl Huysmans' "Là-Bas" (translated as "Down There"), including the first published complete description of a Satanic black mass, essays by Johann Caspar Lavater on physiognomy and magic titled "Reflections on the Destroyed Magical Art," commentaries by Joséphin Péladan on "deviant magic," and Sir Walter Scott's "Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft."
Like his contemporary Jean Cocteau, Busoni believed that art was not a pastime but a priesthood. For him, composing was akin to a mystical journey, with the composer-priest illuminating the path for others. The concept of the musical priest manifested in Busoni's artistic practice in two ways: first, in the composition of works that could only be understood through a mystical vision; second, he assumed or acknowledged that the average person was not spiritually capable of such understanding. As Busoni grew older, he increasingly expressed fear of an impending dark age. He began encrypting his compositions with complex symbolism inspired by Kabbalistic models. He provided the solution to the puzzle: In Doktor Faustus, numerous clues can be found to decipher the work. Busoni viewed Doktor Faustus as a legacy to the generations of composers who would follow him. They should be initiated into the circle to continue their art in secret circles, protected from evil forces.
In a letter to Bruno Goetz, Busoni wrote, "The handful of people who are like us will probably continue to be the only ones who truly know what is going on for a long time. The world looks very bleak. Perhaps one day we will have to live like a secret order again, in order to create while we wait. This deeply contradicts my conviction and poses a terrible danger. It can too easily turn into something puritanical, full of vanity and darkness, produced in an unrepentant atmosphere. I never liked the elite and preferred to live in a world that was free and open in every respect. But what good is it if the world is no longer open? We must be even more vigilant and not succumb to this danger. Ultimately, someone must preserve and pass on what is essential. I believe in the future. I am optimistic, but no longer for myself."
Busoni used the term "dark age" in his writings to express his fear that the mass production of music, the neglect of artistic education, and the commercialization of the music industry could lead to a devaluation of music. Through occult composition techniques, he wanted to protect what was important to him about music from the evil forces of the "uncanny apparatus."
A peculiar image comes to mind: composers, draped in black robes, performing cryptic works for each other in secret circles. Outside, hungry demons roam the streets. They manifest themselves in the form of a new kind of music heard on every corner. It is the lyre of capitalism. It permeates people's consciousness, creates artificial needs, torments them with illusory satisfactions, and manipulates their consumer habits.
And indeed, to protect themselves and their music, composers formed private societies, associations, and foundations, performing their music in small circles. The GEMA even granted their music its own, more advantageous remuneration category. Instead of black robes, the composers gladly wore gray C&A suits and attended the Darmstadt Summer Courses for New Music. Their music changed, their attire changed, to some extent, new formats and media were introduced, but one thing remained unchanged: their music was never particularly accessible.
People seeking spiritual sonic experiences often try meditation music first. However, they often find themselves as lost, thoughtless lumps in a sauce of monotonous, contourless, and bassless pentatonic sounds.
To gain access to the occult sect of composers, one does not need to run into a wall at Platform Nine and Three-Quarters. In fact, novices who want to explore the arcane art of contemporary music just need to listen. Because what the music of this guild typically does is make the listeners aware of their own act of listening. The composition itself is like a guide to listening. The solution lies within the puzzle, as Busoni once said about Mozart. The secret circle of contemporary music is actually quite accessible. Tickets are cheap and rarely sold out. The people are quite nice and enjoy a drink.
So, is this paramusic? New music? Contemporary music? No! Paramusic is a musical experience that goes beyond the ordinary. Paramusic requires a higher level of consciousness. Listening on a lower level of consciousness is always possible. Listening on an elevated level of consciousness is not particularly difficult either. As Dr. Melvyn said, it requires drugs, drinks, a near-death experience, haunting spirits, or telepathic contact with the beyond. Best to have them all together. Florian and Julián seek the supernatural in the heightened sensitivity of their performances, in a spontaneous moment of sensual virtuosity. The compositions of New Music, the arcane guild of contemporary sound enchanters and tone magicians, are invitations to the act of listening, to reach a higher state of consciousness. Rituals and special places can be an important part of such experiences. Where special rituals become everyday routines, new ones can emerge.
Paramusic is in the air. Every music is ghostly, truly every music. Especially the one that doesn't seem to be music at all.
︎︎︎ Paramusic Playlist on YouTube