Noises From the Threshold: “Madness Rides”

Madness Rides is an experimental soundtrack for H. P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Music of Erich Zann” (first published in the National Amateur in March, 1922). While Lovecraft’s descriptions of Zann’s music, as heard by the tale’s protagonist through the walls, hint at chaos and pandemonium, this soundtrack instead takes a dark mathematical approach to the breakdown of the barrier between the world we know and a mysterious place beyond it. From the story:

“There in the narrow hall, outside the bolted door with the covered keyhole, I often heard sounds which filled me with an indefinable dread – the dread of vague wonder and brooding mystery. It was not that the sounds were hideous, for they were not; but that they held vibrations suggesting nothing on this globe of earth, and that at certain intervals they assumed a symphonic quality which I could hardly conceive as produced by one player.”

“The Music of Erich Zann” by H. P. Lovecraft.

This project began shortly after reading a piece in Quanta Magazine about Cohl Furey, a mathematical physicist at the University of Cambridge whose findings are “…fueling an old suspicion that fundamental particles and forces spring from strange eight-part numbers called octonions.” Soon after, I became mesmerized by Furey and her videos on YouTube (her work became a muse, in a way). Attempting to get my head around octonions, I ended up going down a very deep rabbit hole. At times, I feel like I am still down there (it’s quite dark, and my intellect just doesn’t burn brightly enough to light the way). So throughout all this, H. P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Music of Erich Zann” kept drifting through my mind. I’ve always interpreted Erich Zann as not only a ward against what might come through his lone gable window, but also the reason that window was opened in the first place (and to a modern reader, Zann feels like a prefiguration of the electronic musician – someone toiling alone, in obscurity, armed with but a single instrument). My deep dive into the octonions led me to a mnemonic device called a Fano plane (this can be seen in Furey’s videos). The Fano plane is an equilateral triangle, but it consists of 7 points and 7 lines, with 3 points on every line and 3 lines through every point. In music, there are seven musical notes, so it felt natural (read: uncontrollable impulse) to convert the seven points of the Fano plane into musical notes via numbered musical notation. I’m a fan of “found numbers” and what they sound like: page numbers in books, random serial numbers, catalog codes, numbers embedded in the fabric of society, culture, technology, or even the human body. So the Fano plane was fascinating to me. The rules that govern the multiplication of octonions are basically built into the Fano plane, represented by arrows (moving with the arrows yields positive answers; moving against the arrows yields negative answers). I wasn’t multiplying numbers, but I did pay attention to the arrows. Using the Fano plane from Furey’s video, I mapped the corresponding musical note (in the key of C) to each point, and then I picked a starting point and followed the paths defined by the arrows to generate 3-note sequences. When played, there was something haunting and melancholic about the tones. I started looking at the Erich Zann story in a much different light at that point, since Furey’s research was pointing towards an explanation of our physical reality. Would translating those mathematics into music be much the same as what Erich Zann had been doing? These notes merely formed the core of each track. It took many weeks of experimentation for the final products to emerge. Note: the lone window in my studio remained unchanged throughout the recording process.

Madness Rides is $4US at Bandcamp in audiophile-friendly HD: 24bit/96kHz format. It can also be obtained in non-HD (standard 16bit/44kHz format) from Apple Music, Amazon Music, and most other digital music retailers. It can also be streamed on Spotify, Apple Music, and just about any other streaming service you can think of.

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