In Search of the Musical Occult

By · Title Image The Temple of Music, Robert Fludd (1574–1637) · Date 5/24/2018

“It hasn’t got any FLAPS!”

A man in a pinstriped suit shouts at a customer trying to sell him a limited edition John & Yoko box set. I am in a very niche shop of cultural ephemera in Cecil Court, near Leicester Square, and the proprietor is not amused. Situationist posters sit next to first pressing Neu! records next to early editions of Aleister Crowley books.

This is not the shop that I want to be in. The shop that I want to be in is next door. The shop next door is Watkins bookshop, an esoteric bookshop opened in 1893. I want to enter this bookshop because around nine months ago the possibility occurred to me that music could be a form of magic. Allow me to explain.

I had been living in a cave in the back of a bookshop in Spain at the time, where I found a book called Music, Mysticism, and Magic by Jocelyn Godwin. The book is an anthology of writings from composers, artists, and philosophers who wrote about the strange phenomenon of music being able to change human consciousness and mood. It made sense to me—there is music to make you dance, there is music that encourages you to buy things, and TFL even use classical music as a form of subtle mind control. So why not? I’m in. And with Plato, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Gerard Nerval (who famously used to walk a lobster on a leash around 19th century Paris) by my side, my thoughts were in good company.

An etching by Félix Bracquemond Photo NYPL (Public Domain)
An etching by Félix Bracquemond Photo NYPL (Public Domain)

Nine months down the line however, and I suddenly felt disconnected from the thinkers of the past. I wanted to find contemporary groups and musical shamans, and after asking a number of people, they all recommended me to the same shop—Watkins Books in Cecil Court.

Cecil Court is an odd place squeezed into what is a now intolerable district of London that encompasses Leicester Square and Trafalgar Square. In between thoroughfares bloated with confused tourists, polyester suits and endless fast food brands, is a tiny Victorian alley of specialist shops selling books, music, and art prints. The kind of shops you think don’t exist in central London, but occasionally do.

A siege mentality is in the air of Cecil Court. This is confirmed by the blue plaque at number 11, which states that Mozart stayed in the building during his Grand Tour of Europe in 1764. This is a good sign—Mozart was no stranger to the esoteric, his operas “The Marriage of Figaro” and “The Magic Flute” being littered with masonic references.

Entering Watkins bookshop, I approach a commanding man wearing a yellow fez, who is conducting a conversation about Tarot readings with a customer.

In many ways, “the occult” is a meaningless term—it refers to hidden knowledge, or phenomena unexplained by contemporary science. How to ask about what does not exist. I have questions, so many questions, but they are difficult to formulate.

The man in the yellow fez is called Hugh, and when I introduce myself he presents me with a series of books about harmonic structure, while telling me about the influence of Pythagoras on musical and occult theory.

A woodcut of Pythagoras exploring harmony and ratio, by Franchinus Gaffurius Photo NYPL (Public Domain)
A woodcut of Pythagoras exploring harmony and ratio, by Franchinus Gaffurius Photo NYPL (Public Domain)

Some 2,500 years ago in ancient Greece, Pythagoras was listening to the chimes of hammers outside a blacksmith’s shop—these were the days before Spotify—when he realized that the varying weights of different hammers created different tones. From this he created some of the first known harmonic structures, and came to the conclusion that all nature consisted of harmony based on numbers.

The idea that numbers and sound correspond to the secret principles that underpin the design of the universe grew and grew, and influenced much of the history of classical music.

In pre-Enlightenment thinking there were often crossovers between scientific researchers and what we would now call occult theorists. Hugh shows me a diagram called “The Divine Monochord,” which seeks to explain the way in which the structure of music underpins the fabric of the universe.

A monochord and its relationship to the universe Photo Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
A monochord and its relationship to the universe Photo Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

At this point another bookseller introduces himself as Karl. Karl is not wearing a yellow fez. I tell Hugh and Karl that I’ve had enough of theory, and I that want to find out about contemporary shamans who use music.

Their eyes meet under raised eyebrows.  

“Well… there is always the group Coil from the ‘90s…”

Karl’s back noticeably straightens.

“Coil are amazing.”

Hugh runs downstairs to get what turns out to be a really quite big book about the group Coil and the occult. Coil are a hard-to-define British band that started in 1982, who—depending on who you talk to—are pioneers of electronic, post-punk, and industrial music, or all three. While Hugh is fetching the book, Karl feverishly tells me about their use of occult imagery and harmonic structures, and their fetishism of William Burroughs.

Here is a quote from their 1983 manifesto:

COIL know how to destroy angels. How to paralyze. Imagine the world in a bottle. We take the bottle, smash it, and open your throat with it. I warn you we are murderous. We massacre the logical revolts. We know everything! We know one thing only. Absolute existence, absolute motion, absolute direction, absolute Truth. NOW, HERE, US.

But what about shamans Karl, what about the now, what about the non-European tradition?

Well, there is of course the more vocal trance of religions such as Umbanda, and Quimbanda which originate from Brazil, and also Hoodoo from Haiti. In many of these religions from indigenous cultures, music is used to channel God, particularly through the voice, while the creation of trance music helps psychic mediums to concentrate and communicate between the physical and spiritual world. Perhaps there are similar groups in London.

I believed Karl—scratch beneath the surface of any major international city and you can find people looking for answers. I have my own history when it comes to this, hours spent meditating and chanting in Sanskrit, pouring yoghurt over a framed photograph of a holy lady’s feet in a warehouse filled with incense smoke and plastic flowers. When I left the warehouse that day and stepped out into the city I remember feeling higher than any drug has ever made me feel, and a knee injury of two years that originated when I fell out of the roof of a pub had been miraculously healed by the experience. If a placebo works, does it count as medicine?

A production of “The Marriage of Figaro” Photo NYPL (Public Domain)
A production of “The Marriage of Figaro” Photo NYPL (Public Domain)

Back in the bookshop, I think of the time a friend and I went into a trance while listening to Philip Glass’s eight-hour modernist opera “Einstein on the Beach” in full. I feel overwhelmed, and have to leave the bookshop to re-enter the 21st century in all its glorious, disposable simulacra.

I end up politely declining the big volume about the group Coil, and buying a beautiful little illustrated book about the shapes that harmonic structures create. I leave with more questions than answers, but then, perhaps that is why bookshops continue to exist. ¶