by Joshua S. Levin, Ph.D. and Michael Wall
“The Practice: Alchemical Rhythmatism” was completed for the Summer 2006 festival season. This article gave space and direction for the dialogue and experimentation that has followed. While many of the elements that were first identified in this article remain an embedded part of Alchemical Rhythmatism and continue to inform the mysteries and deep structure of the practice, this piece is now an essentially historical document chronicling our experimentation in the fire circle laboratory. In the years since this first written account of our work, the musical portal has evolved and refined along with the other elements of the fire circle. As of this writing, the essential practice of Alchemical Rhythmatism is much simpler to both do and communicate. There are no longer formal distinctions between controlled and uncontrolled burns, the optimal seating is more flexible, and concern with the “high-line” is reserved for those who are interested in pursuing these complexities. We thank all of you who have helped to test, refine, and grow this indigenous form of musical expression. Your assistance has helped to make Alchemical Rhythmatism a fun, accessible, and artful alternative to unstructured or over structured community music making. – Joshua Levin and Michael Wall
You are about to be initiated into a musical process designed specifically for the rhythmatists and music makers of the AlchemiFire Ritual. This treatise is divided into seven short passages:
- An Alchemy of Rhythmatism – introducing key foundations of alchemical philosophy and their connections with musical practice;
- Calibrating Alchemical Rhythmatism – examining the challenges to large ensemble play in the context of the Fire Circle;
- The Practice – describing the identity and role of the rhythmic ensemble in the Alchemical Fire Circle;
- The Rhythms of the Heat – explaining the cycles of structured and unstructured ensemble play throughout the seven stages of the alchemical process;
- Alchemical Rhythmatism – describing the organization and methods for playing together during the structured phases of the process;
- The Furnace – a visual diagram of our ensemble formation;
- The Alchemy of the Furnace – a practical and metaphorical overview of the alchemical correspondences between the various ensemble positions and their associated rhythmic practices.
With our ears turned to musical magic and the fruits of melodious living, we bid you welcome to another door within the infinite estate of rhythm.
An Alchemy of Rhythmatism:
To Align our Design with the Rhythm Divine
Alchemists strive to harmonize the rhythms of personal transformation with the cycles of natural change and growth. By identifying “the patterns” of transformation in nature, we are able to mindfully apply these insights to our own evolution and thereby align our personal design with the rhythms of life. The basic formula is simple: identify the pattern of change and apply that pattern to our own endeavors.
It is important to recognize that the seven stages of alchemy identify key phases in a distinctly progressive view of transformation. The alchemical process is different from other types of change in which there is no definite movement towards higher values. Fire changes wood to ash, but neither wood nor ash are inherently better than the other. Psychological and spiritual alchemy are all grounded in a principle of progress and the metaphorical expression of that principle through the transformation of lead, a lower substance, into gold, a higher more valuable substance. Similarly, alchemists are interested in making better lives by crafting progressively healthier relationships with self, society, and the environment. We wish to turn the gross unconscious patterns of toxic calcified relationship into a subtle flowing elixir of vibrant healthy connection.
“What all the myths have to deal with is transformation of consciousness; that you’re thinking in this way, and you have now to think in that way… The world is a wasteland. People have the notion of saving the world by shifting it around and changing the rules and so forth. No, any world is a living world if it’s alive. And the thing is to bring it to life. The way to bring it to life is to find, in your own case, where your life is, and be alive yourself…. ”
(Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth, the Hero’s Journey).
In accordance with Campbell’s distillation of mythic and ritual function, alchemical processes are intended to produce an expansion of consciousness that enables us to bring fresh new perspectives and choices to our lives. We are not attempting to escape from the world, but to live brilliantly within its fold.
Another way of conceptualizing this is that alchemists seek refinement in all areas of being. In the realm of our personal psychology, refinement means understanding gross unconscious patterns of toxic thought and behavior, and then transforming these patterns into more subtle healthy relationships based upon choice and vision. In the realm of spirituality, refinement means overcoming the limitations of numb, isolating, fear or hunger based consciousness, and then awakening to the inclusive secure transpersonal interconnectedness of all things. In the material realm, refinement means transforming rough disorganized energy into polished, carefully crafted expressions of will in the service of our highest imagination.
Essential to each of these refinements, is an encounter with our personal limitations: these are our blind spots, our emotional triggers, our hidden assumptions, desires, and needs. They are old unhealed wounds as well as ideas and beliefs that we still carry, but which no longer serve us. In order to refine, we must excavate these limitations, encounter them profoundly in body, mind, and spirit, and then use our creative imagination to transform the weight of this lead into golden new opportunities.
The seven stages of alchemy encourage this transformative process by identifying key aspects of the experience and helping us to articulate, embody, and apply the revelations that flow from our own attempts at growth. Practicing alchemy entails mastering and applying alchemical language, symbols, and techniques that focus consciousness as we move through the various cycles of transformation. The fact that all life is change, and that change has the potential to be progressive, means that almost any activity is suitable for alchemical experimentation and insight.
To this end, the Alchemical Fire Circle is a laboratory that has been specifically designed for experiments in material, psychological, and spiritual transformation. Each of the portals of service, voice, movement, and music, contain innumerable opportunities for practicing alchemy. Similarly, each of these paths offers different windows into life and different challenges to our calcinated expectations and ego based desires. Finally, each of these paths represents archetypes of human experience; they are microcosms of relationship that reverberate against the macrocosm of our daily lives
…as above, so below…
Calibrating Alchemical Rhythmatism
Formula for aligning the rhythm with the circle
and the circle with life
Prima materia (the challenge, the lead): as far as our cross-cultural studies have taken us, there is no known precedent for the expectation that large numbers of percussionists without shared knowledge, skills, or direction, can join together in an ensemble and produce refined musical expression. Those who have participated in the reawakening of the drum over the last thirty years have therefore embarked upon a whole new chapter in rhythmic creativity. It is encouraging to reflect on this simple observation, because it means that we are adventurers out at the edge of the known world. We are also reminded that our expectations for rhythmic music making are often learned in and for cultural contexts that are different from than the ones we are creating together. As alchemists, we will need to release these preconceptions in order to discover and embrace a new approach. After years of learning to play in one way, it can be very difficult to let go and dissolve into another.
The key elements that must be de-calcified, brought into dis-solution, and re-united within the alchemical furnace of the Fire Circle drum ensemble, include:
- sensitive rhythmic support for all other creative elements of the Fire Circle
- twenty or more percussionists at one time
- opportunities for hundreds of different individuals to participate in the 11pm to dawn sessions
- significant diversity in skill levels and rhythmic knowledge
- diversity in cultural backgrounds and associated musical assumptions
- inclusion of a wide variety of instrumentation
- co-creation rather than direction by one or a few persons
- minimal opportunities for pre-event teaching and direction
- diversity in personalities and preferences
Furthermore, the processes of musical creation in an alchemical ensemble must parallel the processes of creation in life itself. Ensemble play will contain “the pattern” of growth and transformation that is described by the seven stages of the alchemical process as well as the progressive assumptions of alchemical refinement. This means that individual drummers, and the ensemble as a whole, will have ample opportunities to:
- encounter and gain an understanding of the challenges of growth and change
- achieve psychological, physiological, spiritual, emotional and material refinement
- increase self-knowledge by testing and reflecting on personal and social limitations
- make substantive and inspiring connections with others
- be empowered and fed by the fellowship and support of family, friends, and mentors
- sample the fruits of diversity
- melt down barriers to personal achievement
- ride in ecstasy upon an ocean of deep entrained grooves
- leave a legacy and a way for future generations
The integration of all of these factors into a single rhythmic process around the Fire Circle requires a carefully calibrated, subtly timed mixture of elements and relationships. When this mixture is not mindfully prepared, as is often the case in community “drum circles,” the result is a stew of unrefined, undifferentiated energies with enormous potential, but little opportunity for realization.
In addition to many other tests and experiences, including the methods of New World Rhythmatism, the development of Alchemical Rhythmatism involved computer modeling to find a formula of parts and relationships that would maximize musicality while still meeting all of the preceding challenges. If you wish to have an even deeper appreciation for this adventure, you are encouraged develop your own model for integrating all of the preceding pieces into one rhythmic ensemble. Join in this alchemical experiment, and perhaps you will produce a golden formula for this new age. As we collectively seek harmonious ways to grow together, the lessons we learn from trying new things will help us to refine the rhythms of this sacred rite, and the legacy we leave to the next generation.
Rhythmic practices from the world’s highly developed rhythmic cultures have also provided important guidance in the development of Alchemical Rhythmatism. Several convergent themes related to successful music making have been particularly instructive. Chief among these is the idea that at any given moment, there is an agreed upon identifiable rhythm, composed of specific beats, and that this rhythm is understood, sustained, and empowered by all members of the ensemble. In addition, diverse skill levels are integrated by distributing parts in accordance with capability, and by making more complex parts available as skills improve.
This necessarily entails discernment between successful and unsuccessful attempts at playing one’s part. Cross-culturally, a percussionist is viewed to either be “on” or “off” the beat. Similarly, alchemy is not a perspective in which all things are good, but rather, it is an approach in which all things may be brought into harmonious alignment. The third, fifth, and sixth stages of alchemy, separation, fermentation, and distillation, all involve processes that are focused on making distinctions and separating higher from lower matter, mind, and spirit.
We also find that the rhythm cultures of the world harmonize their ensembles through unison playing and by layering instruments with different pitches and timbres. These two devices contribute to increased coherence and a stronger foundational groove, while also making room for the clear expression of intricate polyrhythmic relationships.
The Rhythm Binds and Sets Us Free
The identity and role of the Alchemical Fire Circle ensemble
Fire is the practical and metaphorical engine of alchemical processes. It is the energy that is added to matter to produce motion and change. In the context of the Alchemical Circle, there are many sources of this fire: the fire within each of us, the fire at the center of the circle – representing the divine fire of the cosmos, and the fire of rhythm through percussive music. It is this last element that concerns us here.
When placed in the context of a laboratory apparatus, the drummers’ area serves as an alchemical furnace. Historical alchemists used a wide variety of heating methods including a reverberatory furnace and a heating element. These tools shared metaphorical characteristics with modern day transformers, changing one state of energy into another, just as our Fire Circle furnace will serve as a trance-former that facilitates shifts in consciousness. We will use these terms to identify and describe the drummers’ role in the circle.
Nested within the microcosm of the furnace, there is a distinct alchemical process involving musical elements and relationships that are brought together to produce the controlled and uncontrolled burns that will drive the seven stages of the Alchemical Fire Circle. Different phases of the alchemical process, inherent in the dark to dawn circle, call for different kinds of fire and different levels of heat, order, and disorder.
The central governing rhythm of the Fire Circle is a balance of chaos and cosmos (structure). Natural growth is a combination of these two forces, as chance and spontaneity wind their way around structured methods and their resultant opportunities. In this regard, it is helpful to pause momentarily and reflect that while an infant may be free of any preconceptions and social constraints, she is also incapable of expressing the nuances of her experience without the tools and trappings of language. Similarly, the structures of our arts provide the means to liberate and connect us at the very same time that they hold us to agreed limitations. The rhythm binds and sets us free. When we engage in individual or shared practice, we are refining the skills necessary to propagate freedom within the constraints of life.
The uncontrolled burns represent specified times in which all of the celebrants are invited to play and participate in the Portal of Music according to their own intuitive design. The controlled burns, on the other hand, are periods where we will utilize a carefully crafted rhythmic methodology to structure our music and drive the associated stages of the process. The controlled burns will be symbolically marked by the closure of two filters (curtains) that enclose the core of the furnace. The specific methodology, Alchemical Rhythmatism, will be described in detail after the following overview of the burn cycles for the seven stages: Participation in the controlled burn periods of music making is reserved for those who attend the daily sessions of “The Practice.”
The Rhythms of the Heat
Controlled and uncontrolled burn cycles
for the seven stages of the alchemical process
Calcination (root chakra, Saturn, survival):
Drum Call/ Uncontrolled Burn– no filter, loud, aggressive, high energy drumming.
The elements are mixed together in the retort (the bottle), heat is applied and emotions are brought to motion. Inner and outer relationships are activated and energized. Transitional tensions are released.
Controlled Burn– the flame is modulated and filtered in order to begin the process of encountering personal limitations and possibilities. This application of structure encourages reflection upon inner and outer issues. Energies that were hidden by the brightness of the uncontrolled burn are now revealed by a more focused flame. Filtration produces a mindful encounter with inner resistance and the mysteries that await release.
Dissolution (sacral chakra, Jupiter, primal vision):
Uncontrolled Burn– the filters are removed, all willing hands return to the rhythm, and the hidden ideas, insights, and energies that were recovered during calcination are brought into solution.
“…issues are dissolved in the sea of personal and collective emotion. Through sweat and tears, salt is released from the physical body, as blocks begin to dissolve…”
Separation (solar plexus chakra, Mars, choice):
Controlled Burn– filtration is again applied to the process. Physical, emotional, intellectual, and perceptual slag is removed from the furnace. A confrontation with the challenges of separation invites further release of expectations and other ego based blocks. Resulting negativities sink, while the lighter elements of acceptance rise to produce new harmonies within the rhythmic flame.
“…A choice is made to separate or release from the “issue,” (energetic discharge, more tears, or intense physical movement), and in so doing separate from the things which isolate our individual egos from others and Self…”
Conjunction (heart chakra, Venus, creation):
Controlled Burn– Having removed some of the weight of fear, hunger, pain, and other ego based impurities, drummers find renewed strength and beauty in their collective integrated recreation. We become a true ensemble, one drum, guiding and magnifying the alchemical process, celebrating and supporting the interrelationships of all parts. Sonic space is shared. Players cycle smoothly through their parts, giving opportunities for all to add their heat and light to the furnace.
Fermentation (throat chakra, Mercury, truth and disilllusionment):
Controlled Burn– In the long hours of the night, truth and disillusionment mingle in a multicolored flame that is sometimes putrid or sickly sweet and sometimes sublime, divine, and complete. Aches in body, mind, and emotion rot away at the ecstasy of our creation, and we are challenged again by the real work of sustaining the sometimes awkward musical child of our conjunction. Meanwhile, the patient, steady burn of our furnace provides a nurturing light where diverse individual offerings find opportunities to root, experiment, explore, and play truth into the night.
Uncontrolled Burn– Having purified the mixture, all energies are easily integrated. Diversity is fully embraced as we move into the final stages of the work.
Distillation (third eye chakra, Moon, visionary rebirth):
Uncontrolled Burn – Finding unity in our multiplicity, the work of the evening is distilled in free flowing choices about the structure and rhythms of our relationships. The insights of the night’s process are reflected in our sacred soundscape.
“By contemplating the past, while being engaged in the present, we can now make informed choices about how to move and interact at the Fire, and out in the world in the future.”
Coagulation (crown chakra, Sun, illumination):
Uncontrolled Burn– Solar brilliance.
“We bring our fresh insights and knowledge into the world, moment by moment, remaining in the flow. We connect with our highest selves, connect with Divinity, and with the Earth. Also at this stage, we experience an accelerated rate of synchronicity.”
Fire is to dry tinder as practice is to human illumination
The methods of Alchemical Rhythmatism are easy to understand, and have nearly infinite application. The following points outline the key features that will calibrate the controlled burns in our alchemical furnace.
- Musical parts have clearly defined roles and positions in the architecture of the ensemble / furnace. The size of the ensemble is optimized at twenty one (see the diagram below).
- The positions / parts in the ensemble are initiatory, meaning that rhythmatists must successfully play in two supportive positions, sulfur (bell, wood block / clave, dundun / bass drum), or mercury (diverse hand drums), before they can move to the Groove Messenger or Peacock’s Tail (soloist) positions.
- All music is seeded from and developed around a single rhythmic phrase that is created, introduced, and gently modified by the two individuals who are serving as the “Groove Messengers” for the duration of a given piece.
- The single rhythmic phrase is divided into high and low “lines.” The low line is defined by the bass tones. The high line is defined by key accents in the rim, slap, or upper register open tones. Cultivation of these separate lines by differently tuned instruments produces an integrated and surprisingly complex polyrhythm.
- The low and high line parts are distributed according to pre-tuned instrumentation available for all to use. These instruments consist of low and high: wood blocks / clave, bells, and dundun / sangban (bass drums).
- Improvisations on the low and high lines are produced by adding or dropping a sixteenth note immediately before or after the key beats. This approach sustains the structure of the rhythm regardless of the wide ranging improvisational choices made by individuals in the moment.
- To the best of their ability, hand drummers match the precise rhythm that is played by the Groove Messengers. They take special care to sustain the key bass notes and high accents that give a distinct shape and identity to the rhythm.
- To help unify and align the ensemble, a single shekere position is maintained for an individual who keeps the whole, half, or quarter note divisions of the pulse.
- Rotation through the positions, or into the furnace from the Circle, is achieved when an ensemble member leaves, or when an individual requests a particular part. In order to request a part, you will first gently acquire the visual attention of the person who is playing. You will then indicate your desire by motioning with your hand from heart to forehead and out to the musician whose part you wish to play. Following this respectful gesture, the musician who is currently playing will either shake his head no, or mindfully end his part in the rhythm and relinquish his spot to you. Remember, an individual cannot take a lead or Groove Messenger part if they have not first played in two different supporting positions. If you have been playing for some time, or if you are having difficulty sustaining your part, you are expected to temporarily give up your spot in service to the collective interests and intentions of this great work.
- A small selection of verbal cues can be used to encourage and shape transitions in the furnace. These cues can be made by anyone in the ensemble. When it is necessary to get the attention of ensemble mates and give a cue, a rhythmatist will either make him/herself visible, stepping into the Gratitude Zone (the heart shaped space in front of the drummers), or will call “hep!” This means “listen up. Something’s happening here.” Once the ensemble is attentive, the individual may make any of the following calls:”level up,” or “level down” – bring the volume up or down.
“sup,” or “slowit” – speed up or slow down.
“tighten up” – reconnect with the groove and the fundamental compound rhythm.
“sail out” – slowly fade out.
“layer in,” or “layer out” – individuals slowly join or leave the ensemble one at a time.
- At any given time, individuals may choose to actively play the part of silence in order to listen and give space for other sounds, textures, and relationships.
- Everyone in the ensemble is a potential guide. If you are having difficulty finding or holding your part, you are encouraged to look to your playmates for help. There are many people whose experience will be enhanced by the opportunity to assist you in your process.If you are comfortably playing with the ensemble, please devote some of your awareness and energy to actively helping others find the rhythm.If you are having difficulty upholding your part, but are unaware or unwilling to ask, you can expect that someone will approach you. They may try to get your attention and help you to find your part. They may invite you to switch to another part in the ensemble. They may offer you the alchemist’s mantra, “Solve’,” as a reminder to dissolve into the rhythm at hand. Remember, alchemy is progressive; it is rooted in an intention to refine through making discernments.
If they find that you are unaware of the process (because you did not attend the daily sessions on The Practice and become familiar with the structure of this experiment), you will be asked to wait for the removal of the filters and the start of an uncontrolled burn.
- Music and drumming are in interactive harmonious relationship with, and in service to the Movement, Voice, and Service portals.
- All of these tools are calibrated to reinforce the five core agreements:
1. play only in the designated places provided
2. rotate out of the ensemble area, so others can play
3. transition into, and then fully embrace total silence
4. honor and empower the full range of musical expression and diverse instrumentation
5. learn and empower the root rhythm created by the current Groove Messengers
The Alchemy of the Furnace
The various positions in the furnace represent different aspects of the alchemical process. The successful integration of these elements in the Fire Circle has been known to produce the Philosopher’s Stone: a golden circle of spirited, imaginative, musical life. Our success is in our hands.
Salt (body)– the human vessels, capable of both dissolution and calcination. We are all the salt of the Earth- cultural, spiritual, psychological, musical alchemists who will employ the elements and the process to seek progressive transformation.
Hermes, Celestial Child, Androgyne, Conjunction – the free flowing union of spirit and soul, inspiration and imagination, will and creativity, structure and spontaneity.
Hermes, the messenger, must hold all these in balance. The ability to combine above and below is also the principle characteristic of the alchemical hero, the Celestial Child, as well as the Androgyne who has combined male and female in one body. Unity is the fruition of both the lesser and greater stones, and is further described by conjunction and coagulation, phases four and seven in the alchemical process.
Occupying the seat of Hermes, the “Groove Messengers” have retrieved the lesser stones of rhythm, and are prepared to do the hard work and sacred play of sharing them. On a hand drum of choice, they will manage the responsibility of wordlessly communicating the rhythm through careful articulation of the beats, sustaining the groove, and adding just the right creative modifications without losing the members of the ensemble who depend on them for the rhythmic template. Settle into the seat of Hermes and guide us to into the mystery.
Sulfur (spirit) The King– Will, passion, power.
Sulfur drives the engines of creation. Here is inspiration, a crystalline element with the power to ignite or corrode the most recalcitrant of materials. The passions reflected in these capabilities represent the energy and focus required to bring life to life and vision to reality.
The sulfur in the furnace of the Fire Circle energizes the revelations of Hermes. On shekere, bell, block, and bass drum, the rhythmatists pour their will, passion, and power into the distinct expression of a shared idea. They overcome resistance to the limitations of form through the transpersonal revelation of service to a higher vision. Bind your will to the lattice of rhythm, and stand among the nine Kings of the furnace. Here, you shall turn molten energy into the tools of trance-formation.
Mercury (soul) The Queen– Imagination, flexibility, fluidity, unconscious revelation.
Mercury is the shape shifter, the quick fluid reflection that adapts to changing circumstances. She is the moon Queen that shines through the darkness of night, revealing unfamiliar shapes across a landscape of familiar forms. He is the fun house mirror, applying the powers of creative imagination to reveal possibilities hidden within.
Mercurial rhythmatists reflect the Hermetic vision of the Groove Messenger in eight streams of reinforcing rhythmic sound. The Queen of the furnace brings the elements together, uniting the fiery Kings, the visionaries, and the celestial child, in one creative field of rhythm. On hand drums of diverse origin, she flows in and around the limitations, matching and ornamenting the seed rhythm, transcending and including through the powers of refined imagination. Join the eight mirrored Queens of Mercury and help focus the watery work of reflection.
Peacock’s Tail– the shout from the mountain, the revelation, the catharsis, the vision, the confession, the apology, and the celebration that arises when we are enduring or have overcome the “dark night of the soul.” The peacock’s tail is associated with fermentation, the fifth stage of the process, in which putrification and rot annihilate the final vestiges of ego and become a nursery for brilliant new insights, ideas, and creations.
The drummer in the peacock’s tail is ignited by an inner vision or an inner struggle. She is alert to the muse and prepared to take on the challenge of playing her truth to the world. Here, the solo, the duet, the dynamic exchange between drummers and dancers, and the melodic exposition, all have an honored supportive place. When the vision has begun to ferment, listen to your inspiration, face your fears, fan your peacock’s tail, and give form to your mystic vision.
The italicized quotes supporting the various stages outlined in The Rhythms of the Heat section were written by Jeff and Abigail Spinner McBride for the article Universal Fire Circle Alchemy. They are included here with their permission.