Axis Mundi (2012-14)

Axis Mundi: Tree of Joy, Tree of Sorrow (2010), artist book by Stephan Erasmus medium: ink on paper, 50x33x33cm, Gallery Brundyn + Gonsalves

AXIS MUNDI (2012-14) for solo bassoon
Commissioned by Ensemble musikFabrik through Kunststiftung NRW. Dedicated to Alban Wesly.

Images came to me in a dream: I saw a dead tree with dessicated bark and as I watched, the cracks and hollows filled with insects and larvae. Birds began feeding and breeding until the whole tree was a singing mass of fluttering creatures.

The symbol of the ‘Axis Mundi’ as a central pole extending between Heaven and Earth can be found in many cultures and religions. One of the best known of these is Yggdrasil, the cosmic tree of Norse mythology, whose roots, trunk and branches connect multiple realms of existence. Similarly, in Siberian shamanic cultures, the world tree represents a kind of ladder between lower, middle and upper worlds. Symbolic representations of the tree in the form of a ceremonial staff, a column of smoke or the vibrations of a drum, act as a ritual axis enabling the shaman to enter into states of non-ordinary reality to communicate with animal spirits and other sources of power.

Alban Wesly visited me in Manchester on 23 March 2012 to demonstrate the bassoon: the instrument is a long wooden tube that doubles back on itself, punctuated by a great number of holes and keys. The keys might be thought of as a quite complex ‘management system’ to resolve a natural out-of-tuneness but it was precisely the irregularities of intonation and colour in the bassoon that attracted my attention. Alban and I found a way of organising sounds which takes an ‘inside-out’ view of the instrument: in thinking about each hole as a venting point governing the cycles of vibration inside the instrument, and then subtly changing the interaction of these vibrations by opening and closing parts of the acoustic chamber below the open hole, we arrived at a series of irregular scales. These scales are made up of differently sized microtonal intervals and changing ‘behaviours’. There are tones expressed in distinct timbres from bright to dark to fuzzy, and complex multiphonics ranging from highly dissonant rolling tones and roaring frictions to consonant harmonies. Some of the sounds are highly localised, gloriously emerging from the bell at the top of the bassoon or circulating in quite specific regions of the tube. These sonic ‘knots’ inside the vibrating hollow tube of the instrument form the musical material of Axis Mundi. The breath of the musician travelling the hidden pathways across and through these knots activates the many voices of a ‘singing tree’.