ALCHEMICAL MUSIC of SETH OSBURN
Seven: The Seven Stages of Alchemical Transformation
More than two years have passed since I began this work, and yet I still find myself struggling to define the great tradition known as Alchemy. While it is possibly our most divine legacy (whose tenets have influenced almost every world religion), it has survived in virtual obscurity, driven underground by misunderstanding and persecution. Its origin is nebulous, lost in legends dating back over 10,000 years. The more conservative theory suggests that it began in ancient Egypt, while many occult historians suggest a connection to the dawn of time, Atlantis, or even extraterrestrials. The core principles of alchemy are derived from a single ancient artifact -- a molded piece of emerald or green crystal with raised lettering -- known as the Emerald Tablet.
According to one account, the Emerald Tablet was written by the Egyptian god Thoth, sealed inside a pillar, and later discovered by Alexander the Great. The tablet was translated by Alexandrian scholars, and reportedly put on display in Egypt in 330 BC. Hebrew mystics, however, attribute authorship to Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve. It was supposedly taken aboard the ark by Noah, and later found by Sarah, the wife of Abraham.
Although the text of the Emerald Tablet is seemingly simple, alchemists throughout history have meditated on its deeper, hidden meaning. When approached on the physical, psychological, and spiritual levels simultaneously, the Tablet is believed to contain the most secret and powerful of all teachings. From this Arcanum, or secret knowledge, the alchemists constructed the Seven Stages of Alchemical Transformation, a process by which they attempted to change the "lead" of their lives into "gold" -- to separate the "Subtle from the Gross." As they were scientists as we'll as spiritual adepts, they believed it was essential to perform the Seven Stages in both the physical and spiritual realms simultaneously. In the Below (the alchemist's laboratory), the goal was the transformation of physical matter -- changing lead into gold. In the Above (the spiritual realm), the goal was more a profound: the transmutation of the soul into a higher form.
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The first stage of transformation, CALCINATION, relates to the element fire, and also to the metal lead. Lead symbolizes our condition prior to Calcination -- heavy, stubborn, egotistical -- imprisoned by rigid belief systems and slaves to appearances and material possessions: The alchemist's fire is needed to burn this lead to ash. In this movement, I've composed a dance of flame -- relentless; assaulting; knocking us off balance with its jagged time signature. As the Fire envelopes us, we suddenly encounter an unpredictable, demonic beast. This is the Adversary, symbolized in Egyptian myth as Set, the god of opposition, or in Judeo Christian belief as Satan. He is one moment hidden, and the next, snarling in our face. We are helpless against his power, and our ego and its defenses are unsympathetically destroyed.
Calcination has reduced us to ash, but the process has only just begun. Further purification is necessary to reclaim the Prima Materia, or First Matter within us. Simply stated, this East Matter is the seed of divinity or the direct connection to the source of Creation, which lies dormant in all of us. In DISSOLUTION, the ashes left from Calcination are dissolved in Water, and it is this element I focus on primarily here. It begins with just dew drops -- these drops multiply, and gradually a tentative stream develop. This is analogous to the tears that flow from the released emotions we experience during this dreamy, introspective, feminine processes. The stream becomes a river, and finally a flood, as our most deeply hidden wounds are exposed. Dissolution is undoubtedly a sad period, but it is a beautiful sadness.
In SEPARATION, the Spirit of Air lifts us playfully out of the Water. It carries us high and low, near and far, and reminds us of our lightness and sense of humor. But this process also requires a Warrior (perhaps the ironclad Mars), and it is these two alternating images -- Air and Warrior -- that animate this movement. Separation is a conscious, masculine operation, in which we undertake the task of separating what remains from the first two stages -- deciding what should be reintegrated, and what must be discarded. This can be an exhausting battle, requiring a great deal of energy, determination, and a keen awareness of the opposites within. The result, however, is a newfound freedom from the self‑inflicted restraints of our past.
After the flight of Separation, we are returned to Earth and brought to CONJUNCTION. Conjunction occurs in the Heart, and it is here that we glimpse the Beloved. We are entranced, enraptured. But we are also crucified by this love, drawn into the Earth and enveloped by the great Serpent, the eternal symbol of primordial power and creation. Next we hear the themes of first the feminine and then the masculine archetypal energies within us, followed by the passionate lovemaking of these two forces. This coming to together of the masculine and feminine is the Sacred Marriage, the Mysterium Coniunctionis, about which C.G. Jung devotes an entire volume. It is often symbolized as the marriage of the King and Queen, the Sun and Moon, or Spirit and Soul. Finally, we hear the Beloved theme return in a new form to consecrate the union. The child of Conjunction, known as the Lesser Stone or Crude Hermaphrodite, is born.
This fragile child begins to grow and flourish. Suddenly, he is swept into darkness, depression, and ultimately death. This is Putrefaction, the necessary prologue to FERMENTATION. The death is essential, as all the remaining traces of ego must be expunged before Fermentation can continue. Fermentation is an initiatory process, a living inspiration from an archetypal for or god, which is totally beyond us. The alchemist knew this god most commonly by his Greek name -- Hermes. But true to his character, he appears in many forms. To the Egyptians, he was Thoth. To the Romans, the eternal youth Mercury. In the tarot, he is the Magus or Magician. He has been called the Christ, the Messenger, and the Logos (the word of God incarnate). This virile, unpredictable trickster represents all possible contradictions, all sets of opposites. He is both masculine and feminine, good and evil, material and spiritual, heavenly and obscene. As the guide between the Above and the Below, Hermes arrives to take us on a journey in order to breathe new life into us, to show us a new reality. He emerges from the silence, drawing inevitably closer. His fanfare (which encompasses all keys, all colors of the spectrum) intensifies and finally explodes in an ecstatic dance, which rhythmically pits three against five. Three symbolizes the heavenly qualities of Hermes, the Trinity, and the three higher elements of alchemical transformation – Sulfur, Mercury, and Salt. Five symbolizes the more devilish qualities of Hermes, the material world, and the process of Fermentation itself. Various motives interlace, and we soar to the Above and dive to the Below almost simultaneously. Then, we are in the eye of the storm, as Hermes throws away veil after veil, conducting us into the narrow region where ether becomes matter, and matter becomes ether.
From this develops a "celestial fugue" which first descends, then ascends, catapulting us far into space, gracefully releasing us to the next stage of transformation, DISTILLATION. We are now floating, unattached -- viewing our former earthly nature as in a dream. In the alchemist's laboratory, Distillation is the boiling and condensation of the fermented solution, to ensure that no impurities are incorporated into the final stage. It raises the contents of the psyche to the highest possible level, free from sentimentality and emotions, even one's personal identity. This is a period of divine simplicity. Common symbols of this stage are the lotus flower, rose petals; the feather, the unicorn, and the white dove.
At the close of Distillation, we are suspended in nothingness, ready for the seventh and final stage of transformation, COAGULATION. This highest and most absolute rebirth begins in the Abyss. Out of a darkness emerges the Cosmic Egg, and coiled around it, the Serpent. The egg symbolizes the primal, embryonic form of the Creation, while the serpent represents the Great Mystery, the catalyst that brings it to fruition. The serpent strikes, the shell is broken, and we begin our return to earthly manifestation. This evolution of form begins with the Circle, the symbol of unity and eternity, but it quickly morphs into the Line, representing motion in two opposite directions. A third point is added to balance the oppositional forces, and the Triangle emerges, representing Deity, or consciousness. When the fourth point is added, we hear the Cross, representing the balance of opposites and crucifixion. The Cross ascends and descends the keyboard based on the theme of Conjunction. Finally, from the depths emerges a ''determined, ascending motive, which is based on the Fire theme of Calcination, and utilizes the so‑called "Prometheus chord" (attributed to Scriabin). This is a nod to Prometheus, the Titan who stole Fire from the gods for the sake of man.
At the top of this climb, we arrive at Seven, thus symbolizing the complete alchemical process -- the ultimate union of Spirit and Matter (the three heavenly elements Above with the four earthly elements Below). Seven is also the number of notes in the diatonic scale, and at this point we hear a cascade of seven chords, each consisting of the seven parts of its respective scale, pulsing seven times each. This vibrant, heavenly matter descends, collects mass, takes on gravity, and bursts forcefully into earthy matter. Above and Below merge, and the Philosopher's Stone, the goal of the alchemical opus, is formed. Often symbolized as Gold, the Sun, or the Phoenix, this is the exalted state of Nirvana or Union with God. What follows is unbridled celebration – numerous restatements of the Coagulation mote, underpinned by countless patterns of seven. This is the anthem of the Divine Androgyne, the symbolic representation of primordial man in his original perfection -- all opposites contained within a higher, unified form.
Within this anthem I've integrated the harmonies of the overtone series, an ascending series of tones that evolves naturally from a lower, primary tone. This concept, based on the laws of vibration, dates back to Pythagoras in the 6th century BC. It is where sound meets physics -- the sonic model of Nature. Mystics have long considered it a "musical matrix" of Creation -- the bridge between the macrocosm (the universe outside) and the microcosm (the universe within). As we near the end of our journey, the simple Coagulation theme chimes triumphantly. We are riding the wave of pure Creation, which ultimately disappears into the Mystery, where we begin again.
© 2002 Seth Osburn. All Rights Reserved. To contact the composer, email firstname.lastname@example.org
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Review from the Alchemy Journal, Vol.3 No.3.
"This remarkable work by composer/pianist Seth Osburn has been receiving standing ovations at live performances from Kansas City to Los Angeles. Members in the audience at a recent performance at the Philosophical Research Society in Los Angeles hailed it as "breakthrough metaphysical music" and compared it to the "transformative music of the spheres." In the Renaissance, composers such as Bach and Mozart attempted to write music that when listened to would "perfect" the soul and spirit of the listener. In that same esoteric tradition, Seth Osburn has created an imposing opus based on the seven stages of transformation as revealed in the ancient Emerald Tablet. The composition ranges from shocking to soothing, from the initial cacophonic intensity of Calcination to the broad and deep harmonies of the final Coagulation. Seth is a complete master of the piano. He plays with such a physical and emotional intensity that the piano produces deep resonating sounds that most people would have never have expected from the ubiquitous instrument. These powerful chords carry the vibrational energy of alchemical transformation, the archetypal signatures of the pattern of change embedded in the universe. This young composer has obviously lived these processes and has successfully translated them into the popular vernacular of music. Just listening to this remarkable recording is a soul-shattering and spirit-raising experience. Whether used for intensive meditation or just transformative background music, simply listening to this work will elevate you. Wherever and whenever it is played, this musical Philosopher's Stone will turn the lead of everyday life into gold. Highly recommended!"
Seven: The Seven Stages of Alchemical Transformation
This remarkable recording by composer/pianist Seth Osburn captures both the spirit and esoteric "pattern" of the operations of alchemy as revealed in the ancient and revered Emerald Tablet. Ideal for meditative work, each movement of the 40-minute composition is designed to resonate within the listener in tune with these ancient archetypes of transformation. Includes liner notes with five-page explanation of the processes and a copy of the Emerald Tablet. Item #266. $15.95
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