Psychic Jams

August 2014

Kasper Opstrup cracks open the Third Mind and gets into the vibe with William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, Matmos, Jennifer Walshe, Tomomi Adachi, Kouhei Matsunaga and more

As a kid I used to spend the long days of summer staring intensely at a glass placed in front of me across the table. In my mind's eye, the glass would move back and forth across the tabletop, fly through the room and smash against the wall, as if poltergeists had descended upon the house. But it wouldn’t be poltergeists at play. It would be me, unlocking my hidden telekinetic potential. Inspired partly by the film and partly by one too many Stephen King novels from the local library, I wanted to develop my ability to change the world by will alone – the occult power par excellence – in the hope of escaping boredom. Soon, I imagined, I would succeed in transmuting my mind into a short wave radio of grey matter, enabling me to participate in a community of fellow enthusiasts through the ether. Only later did I realise that these acts, had they been successful, would be indistinguishable from magic or some other very advanced technology.

We live in an age where the algorithmic feedback systems we surround ourselves with have reached a level of complexity beyond our understanding. Since the wild utopian hopes for the age of the internet are now in retreat, this unfathomable, technological structure that surrounds us, yet is invisible, adds to the general mystification of the world. This might add to why an interest in the occult and the psychedelic has seen a pronounced increase in recent years. Not only are MDMA, LSD and other drugs regaining a foothold in the psychiatric communities, but Fortean topics have also been embraced by publishers such as Strange Attractor Press in the UK or Edda in Sweden.

This tendency was clear at the recent Here To Go 2014 symposium on art, counter-culture and the esoteric in Trondheim, Norway (which ran for the second time from 30–31 May as a thread at the Meta.Morf biennale). Consisting of a day of performances plus a day of talks, it brought together artists and writers like Z'EV, Vicki Bennett and Carl Abrahamsson, all of whom have connections with the occultural underground of the 1980s. The various juxtapositions of sounds, performances and talks during the event examined the growing intersection between modern art and contemporary esotericism while drawing the outline of a contemporary occultural movement, standing with one foot in the world of electronic music and one foot in the shadows.

Cultural experiments with psi powers and ESP have a long cultural history passed down to us from the 1960s and conspiratorial projects such as MK Ultra where occult methods became the object of military research and psychedelic investigations. A fairly recent example from the world of electronic music is Matmos’s 2012 EP The Ganzfeld Experiments. This saw them delve into a psychic territory already partly mapped by a string of psychonauts reaching back beyond the occult revival of the 1960s with its mixture of religion and sexuality to an anti-tradition that arguably can be traced to the Marquis de Sade, the heresies of the Brethren of the Free Spirit and beyond. One of the threads running through these histories is a quest for total, untrammelled freedom and, at its most extreme, to transgress even one's bodily confines.

This anti-tradition includes a string of iconoclasts (like Alexander Trocchi, William S Burroughs, the surrealists, the dadaists and Alfred Jarry) who wanted to expand the limits of freedom by exploring and expanding the human mind. This was seen as a first step towards a revolution in the head that would – by creating a new type of wo/man – result in a total overthrow of society. Their revolution would be an inner insurrection against past conditioning that would create new social relations; a way of relating to the world that would generate new ways of living.

Due to their efforts to bring all information into the open, the emancipation of wo/mankind from all limitations was as much an occult quest as it was political. Instead of turning the world upside down, these psychonauts wanted to turn it inside out. Thus, they chose culture as their battleground. Their weapons were absurd poetry, cut-ups, détournements, sound and media experiments carried out across the traditional genres of music, film, art, literature, and so on. Instead of the old occult dictum of 'as above, so below', theirs could more fittingly have been 'as inside, so outside'. Often, this inner freedom corresponded to a type of undogmatic anarcho-communism with mystic overtones, reminiscent of the early church. “Do as you will/this world's a fiction/and is made up of contradiction”, as William Blake wrote in “The Everlasting Gospel”.

A ganzfeld experiment is a way to expand consciousness in a non-chemical way. The subject of the experiment places half a ping-pong ball over each eye and stares into a red light, wearing headphones blasting static and white noise. The idea is that you enter a receptive state resembling hypnagogia, where experiments of a telepathic nature can take place. Matmos used the experiment to attempt to project the concept of their album into the mind of volunteers whose experiences and visions were recorded and used as scores, as literal directions, or as found sounds.

As such, the experiment is a type of empirical research into altered states of consciousness, similar to, for example, John C Lilly's sensory deprivation tanks, iconically used by a young William Hurt in Ken Russell's film Altered States (1980), or the dreamachine as made for Brion Gysin by Ian Sommerville. Both Gysin and his longtime friend and collaborator William Burroughs fit easily into the trajectory of the occult revival of the 1960s. Involving cut-ups and scrying methods, their psychic experiments with tape recorders were intimately connected to attempts at making a mind revolution meant to provoke a step forward in human evolution. It was a way of hacking the brain and changing the code. Using the dreamachine, a variety of symbols, crosses and spirals appears on the eyelid after a few minutes, as the light interruptions – at a rate of 8–13 flicks per second – synch with the brain's alpha rhythms. The pulsating light stimulates the optic nerve and alters the brain's electrical oscillations. In effect, it makes us dream while we are awake, causing individuals to see colours, visions or even entire three-dimensional landscapes with their eyes closed, enabling us to empirically experience what can be perceived as psychic phenomena, whether it is a matter of faulty source monitoring (like the sense of déjà vu) or not.

The following Matmos album, 2013’s The Marriage Of True Minds, delved even deeper into this territory where the occult becomes a system to explain the inexplicable and know the unknowable. The title hints at a wedding not unlike what Burroughs and Gysin referred to as a “third mind”. During their most intense period of collaboration, they wanted to liberate thoughts from linear sentence structures and create new modes of expression by cutting into the present to let the future leak out. In their coauthored book, The Third Mind (1965), they claimed that no two minds ever come together without creating a third, intangible force, which may be likened to a superior mind. This psychic symbiosis makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Another example is the telepathic concerts made in 2013 by vocalist and composer Jennifer Walshe, who collaborated with the sound poet Tomomi Adachi under the moniker The People's United Telepathic Improvisation Front (PUTIF). Their method was to improvise from an agreed start and end time and then afterwards mix the recordings, opening it up for aleatory sound clashes, counterpoints and harmonies.

Ideas about a third, collaborative mind greatly influenced the trajectory of industrial music and the barrage of groups who consumed William Burroughs's seminal essay, “Electronic Revolution”, from Throbbing Gristle, Coil, Psychic TV, Current 93 and so on, up to contemporary descendants like Cyclobe, Raagnagrok and English Heretic. The ideas also found a certain resonance on the free improv and jazz scenes. Several of the musicians bassist William Parker interviewed in his 2011 book Conversations talk about their music in profoundly mystical terms: they talk about “the creator” who might manifest in improvisation, about collective intelligence and the magical moment where a musician becomes a medium channelling energies of ecstatic enthusiasm, embodying one of Aleister Crowley's definitions of magic(k). It can be argued that by stepping outside one self, one makes space for the god within, and that sound is a key instrument for this displacement. This idea of a creator fits with some of Burroughs's wilder tape recorder theories (as discussed in his 1975 book of expanded interviews, The Job) where a third tape recorder becomes indistinguishable from God.

In Burroughs's analysis, control is a virus consisting of words and images. These help to condition our behaviour, but they can also be turned against themselves. Burroughs's techniques of cut-up and playback, famously used to shut down the Moka Bar in London, were ways of organising already existing materials so they became laden with new meaning. To give an example about the use of playback, a first tape recorder plays recordings of the target and/or the immediate environment. A second tape player portrays a kind of transgression, something inadmissible or inaccessible, involving the target who is being cut into the recording while a third recording reacts to the second recording in a regulating way. An edited mix of the three recordings played together is then played back to the target(s) who will react unconsciously due to what Burroughs called “waking suggestion”, a term borrowed from occult writer Dion Fortune's classic Psychic Self-Defense.

What Gysin and Burroughs made was a magical-activist system. Systemic thoughts drawn from Western esotericism and its use of the Qabalah are also conspicuous in, for example, the output of John Zorn, who writes in his anthology on music, magic and mysticism, Arcana V, that taking on and tapping in to the challenge of the unknowable might be the only way to retain our inner born humanity. Indeed, a historical study shows that music is and has been a powerful agent for self-transformation, the healing of body and soul and awakening the spirit. But as much as it empowers, it can enslave and force people to conform. The relation between music, matter and the mind oscillates between the collective and the individual: it seeds a homogenising tendency where the many become one; simultaneously, music encourages a new type of diversification where the individual feels strengthened.

In this semi-mystical worldview, everything is vibrational and interconnected; the whole universe is one single quantum waveform. Not only does this align concrete matter with sounds, frequencies, and rhythms; it also, essentially, turns music into a technology. Like all technologies, it is double-edged: it is part of matter but it holds a promise about an escape from matter. Playing the right frequencies or hitting the right rhythm become acts of magic able to manipulate matter in subtle ways by working directly on molecular structures while they, simultaneously, as a virus or meme, can carry certain types of behaviour or mutations or provide an out-of-body experience. In this perspective, sounds, rhythms and movements become systems for communicating directly with the invisible.

The same ideas about music's connectedness to not only the world of the mind unleashed, but also to the type of imagined communities regardless of location I longed for as a child, can be found in the self-described psychic jams captured by Kouhei Matsunaga on his Flying Swimming label. These jams form part of a network that taps into experiments with telepathy, mind expansion and the creation of a third mind. An example can be taken from the forthcoming third album in his Compositions series. Some of these jams are made by recording simultaneously with collaborators across the world, each performing in their respective studio. This makes it possible to create, in the words of Kouhei Matsunaga, “tiny, delicate, dense movements on tiny objects” and microdrum together with Rashad Becker in Berlin or with Ghédalia Tazàrtes in Paris in another type of time-space continuum, a third mindspace where it is no longer necessary to come together.

Exactly this type of creative occultism drives the hidden current in much experimental music: sound is treated not only as a powerful vessel for the proliferation of ideas and enthusiasms but as a concrete matter that can be part of psychedelic experiments to expand and make the mind manifest. Since the occult is preoccupied with creation, transformation, mutation and evolution while being haunted by ghostly apparitions from the past, it is connected to a political dreaming; but it is a politics based on revelation. Fundamentally, it is connected to a messianic feeling of living in the End Times and standing at a crossroads: one direction leads to mass extinction and the other towards an unknown future where music might help catapult us out of our bodies, or heighten our psionic powers to make the impossible possible.

It ties into old dreams about leaving the planet and the body behind in order to go “Astro Travellin” like Quasimoto. Just as the popular imaginary since the 1960s has been haunted by fantasies about space flight, there is an imaginary in this type of music that is interested in creating trances and other altered states. These are supposed to enable us to become bodies of light, capable of migrating through space, an idea that recurs in the collaborations between Gysin and Burroughs and can be traced back to the common task (space migration) postulated by Nikolai Fedorov and the Russian Cosmists in the early 20th century. We are truly “here to go” and these type of affects can be found abundantly in a whole range of musics, from The Sun Ra Arkestra to Hawkwind, Stockhausen or Drexciya.

The construction of these vibratory ecologies can be construed as being, in part, an attempt at cultural engineering concerned with the production of both a new age and a new wo/man to inhabit it. It tries to inject occult ideas haunting the intersection between free improvisation and electronics/mutant techno/bass music into the mainstream to create new affects to influence future behaviour. As such, it is gateway music. It wants to achieve an expanded consciousness, uniting not only the performers themselves but also performers and their audience through an awareness, a third mind that will prepare us for the experimental exploration of inner and outer space. It is a promise, that we are not necessarily doomed to suffer planetary disaster and ecological catastrophe; we might yet leave our problems behind instead of solving them.

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Psychic Jams

Kasper Opstrup cracks open the Third Mind and gets into the vibe with William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, Matmos, Jennifer Walshe, Tomomi Adachi, Kouhei Matsunaga and more