by Joshua Levin and Michael Wall
When we go to the Native sweat lodge, the Santerian bembe, or the Catholic church, we observe the customs of the lodge or the ceremony. When participating in the AlchemiFire Ritual, please extend the same measure of honor and respect to this, our own sacred way of illumination.
In order to participate and provide musical support for the AlchemiFire Ritual, celebrants benefit from a shared understanding of the intentions and methods that we use to play together. It’s fun, easy, and illuminating to join in the alchemy of rhythm for this unique experience. Regardless of skill level, anyone who wishes to be a part of the music is welcome.
Please be aware that all who might drum during the AlchemiFire ritual must:
- attend one of the Alchemical Rhythmatism Initiations offered during the event, and;
- agree to play within this format.
ALCHEMICAL RHYTHMATISM (A.R.) IS EASY
You learn it by doing it, and once you get the basic idea, it can be applied in many different ways.
This unique method of collaborative improvisation guides musicians towards deep engagement with each other, service to the circle as a whole, and conscious identification with the psychological and emotional implications of their own artistic process. A.R. is a middle-road between free form jamming and regimented ensemble play. It is fun, easy, and includes valuable ways for everyone to participate. Dancers, chanters, spoken word artists and ritualists are also empowered to use A.R. cues (see below) to shape sonic environments which serve their own magical offerings.
KEY FEATURES OF ALCHEMICAL RHYTHMATISM
- FURNACE – a semi-circle of musicians. (Where music gets cooked). The number of seats is optimized for the size of the gathering, and music makers take turns in the available spots. There will be clearly marked reserved seats for bell, clave and dundun players.
- GROOVE – the single rhythmic phrase referenced by all musicians. It serves as the foundation for all the music in the circle.
- LINES – The groove contains high and low “Lines.” The High Line is defined by the key high pitched tones of the groove, and the Low Line is defined by the bass tones in the groove. When these separate Lines are played by differently tuned instruments, the result is surprisingly complex and tasty.
- ROLES – A.R. has clearly defined musical roles with different ways of serving the overall musical composition:
- Groove Guide (Celestial Child) – sets and sustains the Groove (Hand Drum)
- Mirrors (Mercury/Soul) – match the groove, preserving its distinct rhythmic shape (Hand Drum)
- Pulse (Sulfur/Spirit) – keeps the beat like a metronome, by playing on the whole, half, or quarter note. (Shekere)
- High Line (Sulfur/Spirit) – matches only the groove’s high tones. (Bell, High Bass Drum)
- Low Line (Sulfur/Spirit) – matches only the groove’s low tones. (Wood Block, Low Bass Drum)
- Soloists (Peacock’s Tail) – play complementary rhythms and improvisations. (Any instrument, even voice)
Anyone can play any of these roles, but please remember to balance your participation. If you have been soloing, make space to support others and hold the groove. If you have been in a supportive position, maybe it’s time for you to lead a groove. We’re almost always focused and aware of what we’re doing, but let’s make sure that we take the time to care about what others are doing. Look, listen, and feel for what the furnace “needs” to achieve maximum illumination.
- VARIATIONS – Some roles play variations on the groove. (High Line, Low Line and Soloist). Variations on the individual lines are produced by adding or dropping the sixteenth note immediately before or after the key beats. (Sometimes by dropping one key beat entirely.) This approach sustains the structure of the rhythm. More complex ways of varying the lines for these and other roles can be learned in advanced A.R. workshops.
- CHANGING ROLES – Everyone has a chance to rotate through the various roles. People can switch roles at anytime, including the middle of a piece. If you want to play a certain role, make eye contact, and gesture to the person currently in that seat. They can either give up the spot or shake their head (meaning “please wait, I’m in the middle of something”). You can also gesture to invite someone else to take your place, so you can sit out for a while.
- THE GRATITUDE ZONE is the open area in the center of the Furnace where dancers can interact very directly with the music makers.
- THE SACRED SOUNDS TABLE behind the chairs is for delicate instruments used during non-rhythmic, ambient passages. These fragile instruments are generally not used during percussion grooves. Please bring your singing bowls!
- CHAOS AND COSMOS – Alchemical Rhythmatism fluctuates between free-form explorations (“Uncontrolled Burn”) and the structured play described above. Anyone can make the switch with the call, “Match Me” (“Controlled Burn”).
- VERBAL CUES – A.R. is all about the power of connecting, and connecting is all about communication. Verbal cues can be used to invite the entire music-dance-chant collective to move in a given musical direction. Anyone in the ensemble can make these verbal cues. This includes singers and dancers. To make a cue, get people’s attention by stepping into the Gratitude Zone or just calling “HEP”, which means, “Listen up! Something is happening.”Some common verbal cues:
‘match me’ – copy the core rhythmic structure I am playing. Focus first on getting the bass notes in the right place in time.
‘hep’ or ‘listen up’ – something is about to happen.
‘level up’ or ‘level down‘ – bring the volume up or down.
‘sup’ or ‘slowit’ – speed up or slow down.
‘steady’ – keep the volume or the tempo at its current level.
‘tighten up’ – simplify and reconnect with the core groove.
‘sail in’ or ‘sail out’ – slowly fade in or out.
‘shine on ___’ – invites someone to solo, everyone else lowers volume.
‘show me One‘ – show me the beginning of the groove.
- INTERACTION and SUPPORT – people are encouraged to guide each other. If you hear someone having trouble finding their part or place in the music, please offer help. If you are having trouble, look to your playmates for support. Please be gracious in offering and receiving help. Approach the challenges of getting “it” and sharing “it,” by having fun with “it.”
- SILENCE – the music is always in service to the Circle. The majority of people at the Circle are engaging in other portals or paths besides drumming. This means that one of the most important things the musicians can do is provide sufficient space for other offerings and kinds of engagement. Sometimes that means actively creating a silence, even total silence. Be aware of the dancers, singers, spoken word offerings and general energy around the fire. Active listening is a vital skill here.A much more elaborate and detailed discussion of these principles is available here:The Practice: Alchemical RhythmatismAlchemical Rhythmatism offers a unique opportunity for you to share your rhythmic ideas as an offering in the circle. Please bring your favorite grooves and take us all on an adventure. You can be sure that you will have lots of support from a loving fellowship of musicians who want nothing more than to see you succeed brilliantly!
…we are in part, what we sound like when we’re together…