on ‘Sex Magic’ (2020) for contrabass flute, electronics & kinetic percussion

[image of pre-Columbian Nariño ocarina, Met Museum New York, public domain]

Sex Magic is a 45-minute piece for contrabass flute (with alto ocarina, Aztec ‘death whistle’, bell, pedal bass drum), live electronics and installation of kinetic percussion written for & dedicated to Claire Chase.

The work was commissioned by Claire Chase to be Part Vii of her extraordinary 23 year commissioning project, Density 2036, with funds from Harvard University. A creative development in September 2019 with Claire and electronics whizz, composer Levy Lorenzo took place at The New School in New York supported by Sydney University’s ‘Harvard Mobility Fund’. The premiere was originally to have taken place in mid-May 2020 as part of The Kitchen’s season at the high-vaulting warehouse space of Queenslab in New York and has now been postponed to a later date.

Programme note

This is a work about the sacred erotic in women’s history. 

This is a work about an alternative cultural logic of women’s power as connected to cycles of the womb – the life-making powers of childbirth, the ‘skin-changing’, world-synchronising temporalities of the body, and the womb centre as a site of divinatory wisdom and utterance. 

The music was very much prompted by Claire’s connection to her contrabass flute named ‘Bertha’ which then suggested kinships to particular blown instruments, to drums and other percussion. The work is dedicated to Claire and to the voices, sentience and wisdom energies of these instruments. The work is divided into four major stages (with part 2 divided into 6 subsections – see glossary below):

  1. Pythoness [6’]
  2. Oracles [18′ total]       
     i.   Salutations to the cowrie shells [4’]
    ii.   Womb-bell [3’]
    iii.  Vermillion – on Rage (for contrabass flute, pedal bass drum, Aztec ‘death whistle’) [2′]
    iv.  Throat Song (for ocarina & voice) [3’]
    v.   Moss – on the Sacred Erotic [5’]
    vi.  Telepathy (silent meditation)  [1’]
  3. Skin Changing  [12’]
  4. The Slow Moon Climbs [9’]

The figure of the Pythoness is invoked: the flute and flutist become channels for oracular utterance. Flute becomes drum through a feedback system of multiple transducer speakers on membranes activated by the percussive capacities of the breath and keys played in dialogue with kinetic rotary percussion instruments.

Glossary

Pythoness
Relates to the Pythia, Ancient Greek name for the high priestess of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, also known as the Oracle of Delphi. At this seat of prophecy, the pythoness or priestess entered a trance in order to channel the voice of the Divinity. More generally, a ‘woman with the power of prophecy.’                           

Oracles
Oracle, (Latin oraculum from orare, ‘to pray’, or ‘to speak); divine communication delivered in response to a petitioner’s request. Oracles were a branch of divination but differed from the casual pronouncements of augurs by being associated with a definite person or place.

Cowrie shells
Cowrie shells have been widely circulated as a form of currency, particularly in the Arabic and African worlds taking on a raft of symbolic meanings including associations with fertility and pregnancy. Amongst their many uses, cowries have been employed in rituals for increase, for divination and healing, as amulets to ward off the evil eye, to pay for the passage of the dead, in dowries and love magic.

Womb-bell                                                     
The womb chakra – creation energy of the Divine Mother.

Vermillion
(usually spelled ‘vermilion’ but this more uncommon spelling is used to emphasise a sense of an outpouring of innumerable forces)

Deep scarlet-orange colour originally made from the powdered mineral cinnabar (mercury sulphide). Costly and highly toxic due to the mercury content, it has been widely used in the decorative arts in Ancient Rome and in India, in European mediaeval illuminated manuscripts and Renaissance paintings and in the art and lacquerware of China. In Chinese culture, this intense red is associated with blood, life force and eternity.

Rage
Connected to the pure primal power of the great destroyer Goddess, Kali.

Aztec ‘death whistle’
Double-chambered skull-shaped clay whistle that produces a howling or screaming sound. Archaeological studies associate the instrument with Aztec sacrificial, death and war rituals.

Throat
Seat of communication, creativity and truth-telling.

Ocarina
‘Vessel flute’ often made of clay used in both Mesoamerican and Chinese cultures. 

Moss
The ‘amphibians of the plant world’, ‘mosses and other small beings issue an invitation to dwell for a time right at the limits of ordinary perception’. True intimacy involves an intertwining cross-modal sensory exchange. See: Robin Wall Kimmerer. Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses. Oregon State Uni. Press, 2003. 

Sacred Erotic                        
Connected to Tantric practice in which sexual energy is cultivated as a pathway to the Sacred.

Telepathy
Direct communication between people involving extrasensory perception.

Metta
Taught as a component of Vipassana (‘insight’) mediation, Metta is a practice of opening up a capacity for loving kindness, directing this love to ourselves and radiating it to others.

For instructions for this meditation, see: https://www.mettainstitute.org/mettameditation.html

Skin Changing
I was intrigued to read various ‘myths of matriarchy’ which tell of the original usurpation of women’s power by men. Women’s power in these stories is not primarily focussed on their life-giving role as mothers but rather, on menstruation and women’s ability to synchronise their cycles with each other and with the moon. Stephen Hugh-Jones in his ethnography of the Barasana of northwest Amazonia says, ‘women are semi-immortal: through menstruation, they continually renew their bodies by an internal shedding of skin’ (1979). During menstruation and childbirth, women come into the most intimate contact with the mysterious ‘skin-changing’, season-changing, rain-making and life-making cosmic powers.      

The Slow Moon Climbs                                                                    
A line from Tennyson’s Ulysses and the title of a book which looks at the science, history and cultural meanings of menopause. The book examines the ‘grandmother hypothesis’ which asserts the importance of post-reproductive women and female wisdom to human evolution. See: Susan Mattern. The Slow Moon Climbs. Princeton Uni. Press, 2019.