Review: “Breaths Of God: The Pulsing Chant Of The Priestesses of Ipan”

By April 19, 2019 January 24th, 2020 Reviews

Publisher:  Arcanum Media
Reviewer:  Jacob Connor-Reston

In the two millennia since the priestesses of Ipan were silenced in the Hellenization purges of Demetrios I Soter, the reverberating effects of their famed chant has rung bell-like throughout the ages.  Until recently, the existence of this sect has largely been substantiated through hearsay and offhand dicta in the primary sources, most notably the histories of Tuetonus, possessed as they were of a precocious fixation on arcane cultural effluvia as expressions of the age being recounted- a thoroughly modern approach for the period shedding light where it might have remained dark in a more focused and pragmatic treatment of the past.

Historically, the portrait drawn of these recondite devotees is a predictably pointellist one.  Accounts of their practices range from the banal to the scandalous, with one 5th century commentator breathlessly detailing ritual child ex-sanguinations intended to draw a bath for Ipan, the Deity of Birth, Transience, and Decay.  Other, less lurid accounts, sketch a picture of a band of women skilled at the production of paper made from reeds and honey for use in the painstaking documentation of their sect’s music. A practice met with amazement and suspicion by the laity, for the mountainous regions of Asia Minor inhabited by the cult had not yet developed notation in this manner, and would not begin to systematize its folk music tradition for centuries.  And it is the remarkable idiosyncrasy of the Ipanian song which ensured their techniques would not spread to inform such an advancement.

It is on this occasion, the release of the long awaited video recordings of reconstructed Ipan cult ritual music, “Breaths Of God” (Arcanum Media), we can finally glimpse behind the veil and experience what has previously only lived in the imagination and fevered speculative fancy of cult music specialists.

 

The DVD collection is a handsome affair with copious liner notes and photos of the ritual space and artifacts, recorded in the copper-lined Satalian cave wherein the archeologist Wilhelm Duhrtkloff discovered the first scraps of preserved Ipan ritual notations in 1986, now housed at this Institute’s library in Zurich.  Ipan cult watchers will find this an apt and satisfyingly circular resolution, as this momentous find was the breakthrough that allowed scholars to begin the painstaking work of reverse engineering the methods by which an effect like those cataloged so tantalizing by countless generations of fascinated thinkers could only hint at.  The famed Pulse Music of the Ipanian Priestesses stands recreated in all its transporting glory, in 5.1 stereo.

The results are splendid, indeed.  The 12 rituals themselves are deceptively varied despite consisting of identical staging and the singing of essentially a single note, known to enthusiasts in the literature as the “tonos statikos” or the Latinate “organum staticus” which is then modified.  It is sung by a chorus of 12 arranged as points in a dodecahedron. (An insight we owe to the work of Brenda Sibilius in the Institute’s Applied Sacred Geometry department in its short-lived partnership with King’s College during the early 90’s). Attending each ritual is a single other person, a woman whose role is never named in the literature, but who has been dubbed by scholars “the Dancer” or alternatively “The Leaf In The Wind”.

 

What viewers of this remarkable production will see for the first time is the unfolding of an entirely unique conception of music that lived and might have even died with the cult.  A music generated out of the beating patterns created by six of the twelve singers as they drift just so slightly away from the pitch of the Statikos, the cave’s dimensions and alien surfaces amplifying and directing the reflection of these minutely discordant sounds to meet at the center, where stands the Dancer.  The resulting effect is a rhythmic pulsing that only she can hear, situated as she is in a chamber built for this purpose. It has been suggested compellingly by Professor LeVon Simmons of the Institute’s Ontological Epidemiology department, that the cult itself was formed after the region had been exposed to the work of Pre-Socratic philosopher Anaximenes, illustrating as it does a centering of the varying rates of oscillating wave interference rather than the usual timbral and macro harmonic aspects of sound.  The rituals’ focus on rate of beating occuring at subtle degrees of detuning creates a sound picture of the dynamic relationship between “condensation” and “rarefaction” central to Anaximenes’ cosmology. But whatever its provenance the crux of this music is entirely in this psychoacoustic rhythm. This cosmic throb, called by the participants “His Breath”, becomes irresistible to the dancer and drives her to wild and sometimes violent abandon. For the first time in history, this secret ceremony and its miraculous phasing tone can be heard by the public, captured brilliantly by a pair of Sennheiser 419 Shotguns placed at ear level in the center of the chamber.

 

Despite the marvel this represents, the publication of this DVD set has been the center of some impassioned dispute.  For some scholars, the publication of the rites represents a blasphemous breach of secrecy, a position made most forcefully by the Professor of Spectral Harmony, Dr. Bayram Tabak, at the Shadow University of Izmir. Charges of cultural imperialism and chauvinism have been made against the Arcanum imprint, as well as the filing of several doomed lawsuits. It is the detracter camp’s stance that, with what we know of this ritual, not even the singers were allowed to hear The Breath.  The architecture of the chamber and the precise arrangement of the players ensured that the proper amplification and convergence of the two phasing notes met only in the center. It is said that the choirs practiced always with a Dancer. As they could only know that the Breath has been accomplished through the manic gyrations resulting from success.

This writer will not take a position on this question, made academic now by this month’s release of the set.  But this writer can attest to the quality of this remarkable package, deeply informative of an almost lost piece of sacred human history, for which he is both moved and grateful to experience.