Friday, September 28, 2012

Alchemy: Led Into Gold (Part 1)

…all went into the melting pot...  ~ Jimmy Page, Interview Musician Magazine November 1990

The Alchemist in Search of the Philosopher's Stone, 
by Joseph Wright, 1771
Mage Music 22
From saints to scientists, some of the world’s most brilliant thinkers also studied alchemy, including St Thomas Aquinas, Pope Innocent VIII, Martin Luther, philosopher and Franciscan friar Roger Bacon, and Sir Isaac Newton. Philosophers, scientists, physicians, religious theorists and occultists round the world have studied and practiced the art and science for thousands of years. 

From chemistry, medicine and nuclear physics to psychology and the arts, alchemical-like research still goes on today. The goal of transmutation (changing of the form, appearance, or nature of something, especially to a higher form) is all, in a sense, the search for a Philosopher’s Stone, an object (or some other, depending on who’s answering the question) that can turn base metals into silver or gold.

Why Bother?
You would think with all those great minds invested in alchemy, there would have to be more to it than just making expensive metals. After all, you have more likelihood of success with panning for gold in a stream than you do creating it using Magick. Even the gold produced by physicists who have converted platinum atoms via nuclear reaction has only lasted for a few seconds: A lot of effort for not much result.

Of course, true Magickal alchemy is not really about gold, but rather is about something very different. Like with so many of the other Magickal traditions (shamanism, Kabbalah, Thelema, Wicca, divination, etc.), when practiced by the most advanced Mages, what you think you are seeing of the Magickal alchemy is not what is really happening.

More than just the transmutation of lead into gold, alchemy’s core is spiritual. The Magick is in the personal transmutation of the human soul to a higher, more perfect and enlightened state.

The Philosopher’s Stone is not unlike the Grail and other transformational objects, such as the Cup of Jamshid, in that they all represent hidden spiritual truth or power that enables the Mage to change not just the outer world, but the inner. The difference between the Philosopher’s Stone and the Grail or Cup, however, is that the alchemist has to discover how to create the Stone - and that, too, is hidden knowledge, just as the locations of the Grail and Cup are.

While there have always been those alchemists who just wanted to create a Stone that would enable them to transmute gold from base metal, the great thinkers understood the terminology and apparatus of alchemy to be symbolic of the higher quest, a way of talking about the search for knowledge and enlightenment without sharing the information with the rest of the world.

Remember the lesson of Lucifer: Throughout human history people have been broken on the rack and burned at the stake for using Magick openly. Being secretive has often been the safest bet for the brilliant.

The Alchemy of Music
Many of the arts have used the quest for the Philosopher’s Stone as a basis for their work, as subject and plot devices as well as a Magickal alchemical process of transmutation. Painters and other visual artists have incorporated alchemical thought and symbols in their work. Music, too, has been influenced by alchemy. In fact, of all the arts, music is perhaps the most suitable for transmutation of the soul.  That is why, in the hands of a Mage, music can be such powerful Magick.

Kimiya-yi sa'ādat (The Alchemy of Happiness)
a text on Islamic philosophy and spiritual alchemy
by Al-Ghazālī (1058–1111).
A masterful selection of the components of any substance and the artistic touch in combining the components is part of the task of the alchemist. The alchemy of any group of people – such as in a band, and yes, I’m talking about Led Zeppelin – is such that if there is the right selection of people and an artistic touch in combining their musical output, the music can be transformed from pitch, volume, tone, rhythm and all the other acoustic factors into something much greater. In the vision of a Mage, alchemical process transmutes sound into Magick.

Although he was talking about the rapport between a bass player and a drummer, when John Paul Jones said it was “…quite uncanny sometimes; we would both pick an off-the-wall phrase and put it in at exactly the same time and it would end up totally in synch….”, he was talking about successful alchemy (Musician Magazine interview, November 1990). We know that Robert Plant, John Bonham and John Paul Jones were extraordinary musicians as part of Led Zeppelin, however it was the Mage Musician in the form of the guitarist Jimmy Page, who selected and mixed using his vision and his art, that created a musical Philosopher’s Stone of their music.

Rather than provide my own playlist, here the first ten of a playlist recommended by Dave Lewis in his book, Led Zeppelin: A Celebration (Omnibus Press, 1991). Mr. Lewis selected these songs “…to demonstrate the achievements of Jimmy Page as a guitar player.” These selections are meant to provide examples of Jimmy Page’s work spanning every stage of his career. “You will discover an aural history of a guitar master and his art,” wrote Mr. Lewis.  This first half of the playlist provides the search for the components. The second half of the playlist will appear in this blog next week and will contain the artistic touch that creates the Philosopher’s Stone.

Don’t listen to lyrics, don’t listen to style - don’t listen to anything but the guitar to get a glimpse into the evolution of this alchemist’s Mage Music. All of it went into the alchemical melting pot.

Future posts:
Led Into Gold (Part 2), with more of David Lewis’s History of Guitar Master list
The Chicken/Egg quandary (the neurophysics of music)

YouTube Playlist - Led Into Gold (Part 1)

Individual songs (URLs)

1963 "Your Mamma's Out Of Town", Carter Lewis and The Southerners.  Dave says:  "…young Jimmy can be heard subtly undercutting the innocent pop beat of the day with some clever acoustic picking."

1963 "Money Honey", Mickie Most.  Dave says:  "…an early and aggressive flexing of the Gibson Les Paul custom guitar Page used during his session days…"

1964 "I Just Can't Go To Sleep", The Sneekers.  Dave says:  "…Page's early deployment of guitar effects.  Fuzz, distortion and wah-wah…"

1964 "Once In A While", The Brooks.  Dave says:  "…Jimmy injects a series of sizzling runs culminating in a brief but quite brilliant solo that is years ahead of its time."

1965 "She Just Satisfies", Jimmy Page.  Dave says:  "… early example of Page's ability to manipulate a simple guitar riff and stretch it over the framework of an entire song. "  Jimmy Page plays all the instruments on this song except drums, and it appears that he sings as well.

1966 "Happenings 10 Years Time Ago", The Yardbirds. Jimmy Page sharing guitar duty with Jeff Beck.  Dave says:  "…largely responsible for the song's arrangement [Page] takes credit for the jerky rhythmic chording and the eerie police siren effects…"  The solo is Jeff Beck.  Dave further says:  "… a yardstick for some of the adventurous and unorthodox guitar arrangements that were to follow…"  John Paul Jones, bass.

1967 "Little Games", The Yardbirds. Dave says:  "…represents the subtle beginnings of the Page/Jones guitar/stricg section interplay that would manifest itself years later and to much great effect on their composition, 'Kashmir'."  Also, "On the fade-out Page, by now using a Fender Telecaster, plays a beautifully sustained note that echoes above the strings."

1967 "Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor", The Yardbirds.  Dave says:  "…concentrate on the slashing simmering guitar chordings that drive the song along.  It's very similar to the layered effect on Zeppelin's own 'The Song Remains The Same'".  Note the use of the bow to produce "… the atmospheric, almost majestic, sound that was to become the highlight of almost every live Zeppelin concert during 'Dazed And Confused'".

1967 "White Summer", The Yardbirds.  Dave says:  "…the first flowering of Jimmy's flirtation with a finger-picked acoustic guitar," and "…the first master-stroke on a trilogy of Page studio performances that would continue with 'Black Mountain Side' and climax with 'Kashmir'".

1968 "Think About It", The Yardbirds.  Dave says "…a stepping-off point from which Jimmy Page was able to transfer his musical identity and relocate it within the framework that was to become Led Zeppelin's first album."

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