Transformation and the Celtic Aesthetic
_Every exit is an entry somewhere else. – Tom Stoppard _
I’ve been spending a lot of time with beats DJs lately, and watching and listening to them spin. There is a magical moment between each track, where the two are mixed in such a way that the listener experiences a transcendental experience akin to an orgasm, or more precisely the quality of an orgasm that makes the French call it the petit mort; the little death. It inspired me to think of the same magic that takes place in that moment before a funky beat finally drops, or within a segue between two songs, or any moment of true improvisational beauty where your stomach flops and your brain stops. You know that moment, where you lean over and hold your stomach, or make a face at your friends to reflect your complete physical stupefaction at what has just transpired musically. You have just been in a no-man’s land, that place that is betwixt-and-between.
Appropriately for the season, this experience corresponds to the ancient festival that is now Halloween. Halloween is actually an ancient European festival of transformation and change. It’s the third of the Celtic Harvest festivals [the first two are Lughnasa on August 1, and the second is the Autumn Equinox]. The Wheel of the New Year was considered to start on this day, known as Samhain, the Celtic Festival of the Dead. At this time the veil between the world of men and the world of the spirits was considered to be at its thinnest. The overarching theme of this day was transcendence and shifting of states, and the perception of the New Year was not of an ending followed afterward by a separate beginning, but rather a seamless transitional event. The new wheel turns anew from the old, with new ornamentation added to it. It is like the Death Card in the Tarot, the signifier of transformation and rebirth. The secret of immortality lies in seeing death as an integral part of the cycle of life, where every death brings new life directly from it. Every ending is simultaneous with a new beginning.
The Death card is wrongly attributed as the most fearsome card in the Tarot; it is probably the most misunderstood card. While it can mean a physical death, this is a rare occurrence. It does mean change, sometimes forced change, and that can be cause for fear and apprehension. The only constant in the universe is change, and the Celtic world is full of references to how the world is in constant flux. The stateless state of change and the magic moment between each state – the "space between" – is a defining Celtic metaphor. Transformations of all kinds occur everywhere in Celtic literature. Physical transformative places are key to the defining moments of Celtic legends and myths, and magic or key moments typically take place in physical locations that are themselves threshold spaces. These spaces include mountain tops, where the earth and the sky meet, or beaches, where the earth meets the sea, or along riverbanks or in caves. Most of the Celtic mythical and magical events, including shape shifting from mortal forms into faery forms, also take place at the threshold times of day, dusk and dawn.
Variation is central to Celtic music and the use of variation further varies from one style to the next. For example, Welsh harping relies heavily upon pre-planned variation, whereas Irish harping is largely improvised. The use of ornaments in each new round, especially rolls and slurring, in Irish traditional fiddling is common. Irish musicologist Sean O’Riada, founder of the Chieftains, compared Irish music with its newly rounded ornaments to a female orgasm [or series of female orgasms]. On the other hand, he compared continental European counterpart of classical musical, consisting of variations on one major crescendo and climax, to the male orgasm. This is where the male typically goes out with a big bang and then falls asleep immediately afterwards. The ideal of the female orgasm, which corresponds to Celtic musical style and the turning wheel, is evocative of the cyclical nature of Mother Earth.
Musical improvisation and transformation are inextricably linked, because in the threshold state we don’t know what is going to happen next. The "ceili session" is the jamming workshop for Celtic musicians, especially Irish traditional players. It is here that players share and elaborate upon tunes. Here the living tradition takes stock of and fertilizes itself; it grows and evolves in a variety of unpredictable circumstances. Again the theme is one of new wheels evolving out from old ones, and new ornamentation taking place upon each successive round. The bluegrass improvisational tradition was born from this type of jamming.
Transitional spaces between jamming songs leave me with that same gut feeling of joy and wonder, as new rounds are newly built and embellished out of the old. The crossing of boundaries between genres further evokes the weird wonder of change and transformation, as do shows and festivals that take place outdoors in the mountains, or on beaches or ampitheatres set on bodies of water. Simply the act of touring across state or international lines does it for me as well. When I face these experiences with a group of friends or fans, either on tour or at a festival, what takes place is what psychedelic researcher Terence McKenna refers to as "archaic revival". People feel a sense of community and connectedness that is related to earth rituals. Experiencing rhythms and transitional spaces together connects us to native and ancient European rituals that involved the Earth itself, and opens up a sense of wholeness that pre-dates scientific rationalism.
Events of massive change, and rites of passage in my personal life are opportunities for me to meditate on this ideal. Moving one’s home, achieving some sort of enlightenment, marrying or falling in love, divorcing and breaking up with someone, starting a new job, giving birth, and most powerfully the death and birth experiences, are the underscoring events that place us in this magical paradox; the threshold between what was and what will be. The Celts knew this and this is why they looked for any earthly or timely reason to see the transformational in the otherwise mundane. Transitions of both time and space can be both extremely frightening and extremely liberating at the same time. The fear of the unknown combined with the exhilaration of adventure creates an intoxicating potion of power and fear.
This fall over the course of the harvest season I went through more than my share of transitional experiences. Last month I fell in love, and then while writing my column one afternoon last month, I had a fire and lost my apartment and most of my personal belongings. Consequently, within weeks, I lost in love and had my heart broken. All of these experiences drove me again and again into the concept of the transformative experience. The sense of loss and of simultaneous personal discovery has never been far from my mind.
The fall was punctuated with weekend festivals and dance parties that corresponded with each transitional moment, as well as exposure to DJs in my life spinning trance and house tracks before me, concentrating all their attention on the marriage of one track to another, only to turn their attention immediately to the next track. When the DJ mixed the tracks properly a collective "ah" seemed to hit the dance floor. The same could be said for the breaks and spaces of silence that hit and knocked me breathless, only to create sweet tension and anticipation of the beat to come. The sweet silence was powerful because of what was implied in its immediate future and the immediate past.
A series of aesthetic wheels were opened again in me in my mind’s eye, each indicative of an entire universe of possibilities, parallel universes that seemed to open up in the crux of each transformative moment, like the wormholes in Donnie Darko. The act of letting go of the known can be a painful experience. The implications of change and the Death Card is that once these things are released, pure liberation follows. I had a revelation; a voice said change is constant, ride the wave.
Katie Holloway has a B.A. in Celtic Studies from the University of Toronto, and is a shameless fan of traditional Irish music.