When I am thinking up specific set of songs to play on my radio show, On the Way to the Peak of Normal, I like to come up with a theme for the show on a subject I have an interest or passion for, or a magical effect I would like to produce, and find songs and other audio material that correspond to the intention.. Not all of my radio shows are like this. Some are “completely” improvised in terms of what songs I am going to play, selecting more or less at random from what I like. What I like musically is as broad and eclectic as what turns me on magically. When I am do sets of live mixing of songs this is also a magical process. Some shows where I do a whole lot of mixing are none-the-less organized around a theme, for instance the recent spat of shows celebrating John Cage’s centennial. The theme acts as a locus of intention -even though the specific order of songs played, and how they got mixed together are left open to the play of the moment, and/or chance operations.
A specific playlist, created with intent can have a magical effect. I am of course not the first person to conceive of a playlist as having magical properties. This can be traced back at the very least to the work of Harry Smith and his Anthology of American Folk Music. DJ Spooky, in his essay In the Realms of the Imagination: Harry Smith, American Media Artists says of Smith, “I like to think of him as America’s original underground DJ.” At least with regards to pre-recorded music. Harry Smith was many things, among them a practicing magician. On the cover of the Anthology he put together in the 50′s you can see a divine hand tuning a monochord. This is part of the intentionality of his “tuning”.
Harry Smith made his Anthology all from 78 records made before the Great Depression. When it was released in 1952 it proceeded to have a huge influence on the Folk Revival that burgeoned in the 60′s through the likes of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez… hence his six record compilation can be seen from a magical point of view as having a continued influence on culture.
(Among his more traditional magical achievements he can be credited with another compilation, this a concordance of the Enochian language that he made with the help of Khem Caigan. He was also an Ecclesiastical member of the O.T.O and had been in contact with Frater Achad and Karl Germer in the 1940’s.)
While the anthology may be the first “magical playlist” of recorded music, the arrangement of a certain grouping of songs in a certain order can be traced back to Bardic traditions of the Celtic Isles and to the the traditional song and lore keepers of other lands. The order that they played and performed their repertoire was most likely done with deliberation. Because these poets and musicians were also part of the oral tradition this material was memorized. Thus a specific ballad, with all of its incantatory properties, could be summoned up at will for the proper effect.
It should be obvious that if you are also a musician, when you create an album, the arrangement and order of the songs can be done to create a specific magical effect. The same can be true if you are a poet when you arrange your poems into a certain order for a chapbook or to give a reading. In creating a magical playlist, first think of the overall intention behind the set. I have specific associations with certain types of music: noise, such as the work of Merzbow, to me has a “banishing” feel as does certain heavy metal. Folk songs and singer-songwriter type material where the focus is on the lyrics can be more invocational or evocational, drones are used for meditation or background music in ritual, etc. You’ll come up with your own associations and correspondences.
My first experiments with creating a magical set-list were most likely the ubiquitous cassette tapes of the 1990’s. No doubt my cunning was in the form of a love spell to get a cute girl to perhaps make out with me. Even though I wasn’t thinking of the tape in terms of a spell, I was still hoping to cast my influence and have my intentions felt through the choice of songs.
My most recent experiments with creating magical set lists were done in conjunction with other ritual activities based on and inspired by R.J. Stewart‘s excellent work The UnderWorld Initiation. In this fascinating book Stewart explores the way traditional ballads, many from Scotland such as the famous Tam Lin, are part of an oral tradition that nourishes the roots of the Western Mystery Tradition. Many of the ballads he explores in the book came over to America alongside the immigrants. Some, like The House Carpenter, ended up in Smith’s Anthology. Stewart also explicates on what he calls “the secret way across the abyss” through the UnderWorld. In putting my two programs together, Murder Ballads and Ghost Songs, and Ballads of the UnderWorld, I looked towards the knowledge Stewart provided in choosing particular pieces he wrote about, as well as others that I intuitively felt fit into the tradition.
Today’s digital nomad, equipped with an MP3 player and the entirety of the internet to use as a music catalog, can make a magical playlist to be used for many conceivable purposes. Even though I do radio and make podcasts of the original broadcast available online, pre-recorded music has its limitations. John Cage didn’t own a record collection. He felt that listening to recorded music often had a dogmatic effect. It made the listener want any live performance they heard to conform to the sound on the record. I’ve felt and seen this in myself when going to listen to bands or the symphony. As mentioned above, traditional musicians, and today’s practicing musicians require a vast amount of memory. Certainly a music fan can develop a sophisticated memory of bands, albums, and the like. It still makes me wonder if the memory is as good as the lore keepers who passed on the ballads from one generation to another. Albums do have their good points as well. I’ve been immeasurably enriched by many a Nurse With Wound album, and though Steve Stapleton has brought his take on audio surrealism out to live audiences more recently those performances have been far afield from my home. Recorded music, outside of composed pieces written down on staff paper, is still young. Even so, there is a lot of it to utilize. I try to balance the listening with long periods of not listening to recorded music and with practical methods for developing my own memory.