On Digital Mysticism

Hayden Thorpe talks how songwriting has made him “somewhat of a mystic.”

Writing about mysticism can be treacherous, so let me be clear, there were no crystals on my desk or incense burned during the writing of this piece. I would, however, regard myself as someone who is giving more time to the possibility that there are other realms of existence outside of our own consciousness that coexist alongside the one that we perceive. But, hey, I’m neither scientist nor philosopher. I am a singer though, so I’ll stick to the tunes and tell of what they have awoken in me. 

Perhaps writing songs has made me somewhat of a mystic. By believing that music is hanging in the air waiting to be plucked from dangling branches of frequencies, I am psychologically preparing myself for the interplay between the chaos of nature and self-summoned creation. Ultimately, I only have at my disposal those frequencies that can be humanly perceived, just as blue light merges into an undetectable ultraviolet light, both fully present but only one can be seen. The ability to interpret emotion, the nuance of a story, and complex sonic information with the processing power required to form music in the mind is exclusive to human beings. Perhaps these are the higher levels of consciousness that lead us to wonder and ask questions of higher meaning. If you think about it, rhythms and melodies only work because we are able to simultaneously remember what auditory pattern has just gone, understand it, and then anticipate what is to come all at the same time—we remember the future. When we look at the constellations of stars in the night sky we place upon them shape and meaning, when we listen to music the mind is assembling the sensory information it is receiving according to understood patterns both learned and hard wired. We are experiencing the very nature of consciousness. Seen like this it is fair to say music is in our nature, the form of the music is in our nurture. 

As a 13 year old, with the arrival of the internet in my family home came Napster. Listening to music was no longer the result of an interaction with a physical object like a CD but was instead dialed in from some mysterious source with terrifying threats of imprisonment for federal crimes if caught. Music stopped being a product of the material world and instead arrived from a collective consciousness in the ether. It could be argued that this is in some ways a return to more fundamental principles of how music is experienced where societies didn’t so greatly distinguish musicians or artists and it was a collective practice in which each individual in the group would contribute. I often think of Gregorio Allegri’s masterpiece Miserere, composed around 1638, and how it was banned from transcription or performance outside of the Sistine Chapel. In fact the Vatican even closely guarded the techniques and musical ornamentation that led to its inception. What this tells us is that music is power. With its transcendental quality comes the ability to affect people, to have capital on their thoughts and therefore on their behaviour. In listening to music we are receiving and taking another into ourselves, a transplant of the mind. It’s no wonder Freud was said to have very rarely listened to music. He claimed that it made him “irrational.” I myself have changed the course of my life several times on the assurance of a song. Even without sonic information, to simply think of a song is to summon the neural circuitry in your mind and therefore perhaps the alignment of thoughts needed to take action. Before the invention of clocks, Galileo would sing songs back to himself when timing experiments, so assured was he in their reliability. 

Since those primitive dial-up days, the digital world has expanded into a normalized realm of reality. Yet I can’t escape the sense that entangled within these technological dimensions are evolving aspects of that which is harder to quantify, that which somehow makes tangible the more spiritual aspects of life. What the internet provides is a mirror for what lies beyond our perceived reality. Each of us exists across boundaries of space and time. The outpourings of our hearts and minds are transmitted into outer space, bounced off satellites and sent back as signals. The received information elicits a chemical response within our minds and bodies. A molecular relay race, the giver melded into the receiver. Our perception of consciousness in this sense is like satellite TV, we flick from station to station, characters and locations jumping between a multitude of concurrent narratives. We are the TV, the TV is us. What we deem to be the real self is not only the physical sense of flesh, but also a metaphysical sense of what exists beyond of our own form — that is the idea of spirit. It is interesting to note that perhaps with the Arab spring, the change in music and analogue modes of receiving information, it might be possible the the internet will bring in a new era in the ideas of spirituality, that is digital mysticism. 

Hayden Thorpe released five albums with his former band, the beloved British art rock act Wild Beasts, over the course of the last decade. After their final full-length LP, Boy King, in 2016, Hayden took some time off to travel the world, without the rigors of touring to contend with. Refreshed and inspired, he returned to the piano in 2018, to write his debut solo album, Diviner, which arrived on May 24 2019 via Domino.