by Niklas Göransson
Organ-infused and obsessively attuned – experimental black-doom metal hybrid Lychgate offers progressive art by eccentric artists. British musician J.Y. Vortigern discusses sonic sorcery, the mob rule, and crowd psychology.
The following is an excerpt from the full article, which is twice as long and published in Bardo Methodology #5. The same issue also includes conversations with BLASPHEMY, DAUTHA, CLANDESTINE BLAZE, ACRIMONIOUS, ROME, MORBOSIDAD, NUCLEAR WAR NOW!, CULT NEVER DIES, MYSTIFIER, W.A.I.L., WINTERFYLLETH, and PHURPA. Since this interview took place, LYCHGATE have recorded new material which is due for release soon.
– My setup here where I live consists of a mellotron, a piano, and an organ. Piano is the instrument I play the most, whereas my interest for the organ has always been in a more compositional sense. Sometimes I go through phases where I take a break from the organ but always end up coming back, because it offers worlds of sound which cannot be imagined by any other instrument. I love the diversity of registrations – the timbre – the indefinite sustain that’s possible, and so on. Some pieces come alive on organ but sound dead on piano, or vice versa.
The relevance for these revelations being that LYCHGATE’s previous album, the 2015 “An Antidote for the Glass Pill”, was composed entirely on the organ – an instrument also highly prevalent in the music – whereas most riffs on “The Contagion in Nine Steps” were written directly on guitar.
– In terms of classical music, as well as with most contemporary composers I’ve met over the years, it’s important to remember that the common method is often writing to score first. There’s the whole matter of ‘hearing it in your head’ which is a great skill and talent in itself. Of course, many would do something in-between – writing on score and immediately trying it out on the closest instrument – or the other way around, obviously. Mine is basically a mixture of methods: playing, improvising, using a score, programming… I like using piano to play the ideas because I can immediately hear how it sounds on that instrument. This would be the main advantage for me. Then there are other things like imagining the full harmony, which is done efficiently on any keyboard instrument since we can use two hands.
What are the drawbacks?
– The possible lack of realisation for how the melody or harmony will sound on guitar, or how exactly to play it in terms of chord shapes, spread of octaves, the way open strings are used, etcetera. Also, in rock and metal, a lot of people like to think of things played on guitars as riffs. On keyboard, I tend not to think of riffs. This is a factor that contributes to LYCHGATE being atypical. On the other hand, I appreciate the importance of having a clear sense of riff-like character because that’s what rock and metal are all about. Let’s just say this is an ongoing conflictive matter for me and I do want to make LYCHGATE more riff-oriented on our next releases.
I often find it interesting to get different artists’ takes on the creative sources drawn from during flow states – this complete tunnel-vision where one is fully enveloped in the now and entertaining neither thoughts of past nor future. In the case of music, intellectually unassisted composition where riffs seemingly write themselves. As numerous previous interviewees have confirmed; more often than not, this is the musician’s finest material.
– I think being in the zone is a hypnotic frame of mind, an altered state of consciousness in which all the mind’s resources are channelled into one single cognitively demanding, draining, and intoxicating act – like an extraction process. Of course, not everyone operates creatively in this zone. Maybe they just do it in a regular state of mind. What proportion of the albums you hear were written outside the zone, I wonder? The strange states of mind I had while writing “An Antidote for the Glass Pill” derived from my life circumstances at the time; I lived in an area I hated, I detested my workplace, and then there were some personal circumstances placing me in a mental downfall for some time, which is about all I should say about that.
The house J.Y. was living in was one building away from a mental institution and whenever he went outside in his garden, some of its patients could be spotted over the fence.
– One of them would make peacock-crying sounds and another some random garbling. Even now, I can still remember their voices. I’d stay at this place for days sometimes, temporarily unable to feel connected to the outside world. I managed to write some arguably interesting material – not all of it used on the album – occasionally with the heavy aid of Zubrowka (Polish vodka). A few tracks were left off; they would’ve been valid but were somewhat weirder. Looking back, I suppose the final performance of the album might’ve been a bit too well-played, considering the context in which it was written. The music could’ve benefitted from more grit and imperfection in order to accurately reflect its origins, compositionally speaking. So, coming back to the original question, we know what drives one into this mesmerising psychological state but where does it come from and why? To answer this, we should approach creativity as functioning similar to dreams. It becomes a question of why we need to dream, or why truly creative acts might be drug-like experiences. It’s an abstract state of mind. For this to take place there are needs or reasons, both evolutionarily and generally, but we have no time here to explore them.
Not when there’s so much else to traverse. J.Y. explains that “The Contagion in Nine Steps” revolves around notions of crowd psychology, a topic of which I’m frightfully ignorant. Does it tie into concepts such as the hive mind, I wonder? This is something I know marginally more about. Whereas humanity as a collective has produced complex societal structures and highly advanced technologies, only a small fraction of us know how most things we use in daily life, such as automobile engines or even a toaster, actually work. We have collectively mapped out both DNA and our solar system – tamed sea, land, and skies – yet most of us, if left stranded on a deserted island, wouldn’t be able to start a fire. How have we achieved so much, asks cognitive scientists Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach, despite understanding so little on an individual basis? In their 2017 book, The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone, they suggest that humanity’s success as a species lies in our tendency to amass in communities of shared knowledge, allowing each of us to constantly draw on other people’s expertise for essentially everything we undertake in navigating daily existence. The two scientists also argue that the inherent human nature of drawing from a collective pool of wisdom and intelligence is to blame for our tendencies towards assumptions of knowing more than we actually do, as well as most people’s deep-rooted unwillingness to change their opinions even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This, they assert, is why attempts at promoting individualism in fields such as education and management have proven unlikely to succeed.
– The hive mind concept, or collective consciousness, is very relevant. It’s interesting how we’re happy to accept our own fate, usually without much resistance, out of a given consensus. One might say we’re largely ignorant of the decisions we make; most choices presented to us bring to mind a pendulum, in which the collective consciousness swings one way or the other. But of course, we’ve managed to achieve so much because each of us chooses a vocation and specialises within it, so that tasks are spread out over wide arrays of people where each is just a tiny piece in this colossal puzzle. What upon superficial reflection appears to be baffling is how people are generally so trusting of accepted opinions or bodies of knowledge. I think this idea of trust represents perfectly the idea of our mental shortcomings. Indeed, there’s an unconscious tendency in society to swallow what is given, rather than to challenge and ask questions.
J.Y. mentions a book he read recently – Thinking Fast and Slow, by Israeli-American psychologist and Nobel Prize-winner Daniel Kahneman. As we will soon discover, J.Y. reads a great many things.
– Kahneman identifies a System 1 and 2 for thinking. System 1 is automatic – reactive and often incorrect – whereas System 2 requires the person to make a conscious effort to calculate. He gives hundreds of examples of how the autopilot within us uses our biases or learned and predictive behaviour in order to minimise effort. The automatic System 1 is unfortunately prone to varying degrees of irrationality. For example, if we read about a medical procedure and see, ‘The one-month survival rate is ninety percent’, or, ‘There’s a ten percent mortality in the first month’, the former sounds far more appealing despite meaning the exact same thing. Also, consider this: if the price for a bat and ball is $1.10 and the bat costs one dollar more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?
The answer is not ten cents, as that would’ve have given us a total price of $1.20. The ball costs five cents, whereas the bat five cents plus one dollar – $1.10. According to research published in a 2012 edition of the journal Science, those of you who gave the incorrect answer are intuitive thinkers and more inclined to religious belief. If you instead landed in the accurate conclusion, you are more prone to solving problems analytically than abiding by instinct. It should perhaps be noted that those who failed have little reason to despair; more than half of MIT, Harvard, and Princeton students got it wrong. As did over eighty percent of participants at less selective universities.
– There are countless similar examples but if we imagine them on a large scale, we can magnify human flaws. What’s also interesting about this irrationality is how it enables us to believe ourselves worth more than we are. Those with depressive tendencies may in fact be the more rational ones at times when they realise the ugliness of existence instead of using delusion to get themselves through the day. Then again, we are loss-averse which means we’re more likely to focus on the negative or anything involving losses than we are gains; something which is statistically proven within the field of psychology time and time again. It exemplifies in one way why matters such as those within politics remain in loops.
One of J.Y.’s primary reasons for choosing crowd psychology was that he regarded it as the logical next step from the Panopticon theme explored on “An Antidote for the Glass Pill”. The term in question stems from Panoptes – a giant from Greek mythology whose myriad of eyes are perpetually on the lookout, making him the perfect watchman. The conceptual building known as Panopticon is a penitentiary structure imagined by 18th century British social theorist and philosopher Jeremy Bentham. The prison is designed in a way which allows for every inmate to be supervised by one single watchman without them being able to tell if they’re currently under scrutiny. While it’s physically impossible for the lone watcher to survey all cells at once, the very knowledge that they could be monitored at all times encourages inmates to behave accordingly.
– In the same way as viewing society as a form of incarceration, we’re looking here at the fate of the individual against the crowd – not the prison. Stanisław Lem’s novel The Invincible was an inspiring analogy for all this in describing the swarm behaviour of micro-machines, where each unit is intellectually inferior to the human yet triumphant in sheer numbers due to societal cohesion. One could say the higher the collaborative number, the more the fate of the individual is threatened. However, it might be inadvisable or even ‘dangerous’ to speculate that large populations, or high-population densities rather, are predisposed to undesirable outcomes. Also, I don’t like to admit it, but the context of current times in terms of European politics was another factor in getting me to think about trends in people’s reasoning and mentality. Around the same time as Lem’s novel, I therefore became increasingly interested in crowd dynamics, for example in Critical Mass by Philip Ball.
Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another, authored by English chemist and physicist Philip Ball, was originally published in 2004 and won the Aventis Prize for Science Books the following year. In Critical Mass, which is based on a collection of past writings and lectures, Ball summarises a theory of his called ‘physics of society’.
– Ball gives some useful points of research while utilising classical physics in explaining the equivalence between patterns governing physical laws on particles and humans, along with social statistics and probability. We see choreography in swarms of all sizes: from vortexes in Dictyostelium discoideum bacteria to sardines and human crowds, these patterns are all correlated. You could look at Vicsek and Czirok’s modelling of bacterial motion and collective behaviour, for example, or Helbing’s models of crowd dynamics. Helbing and Molnar’s 1997 analysis looked at walking trail patterns, finding that people don’t take the shortest routes available to them when going from A to B, despite having a clear line of sight and no obstructions. The findings suggest that people mimic others, such as being strongly inclined to walk where the park grass is worn down.
The aforementioned Dirk Helbing, a German Professor of Computational Social Science, also modelled a crowd of people leaving an enclosed location to escape fire. With evacuation time plotted against the desired velocity, Helbing’s team found that when a certain speed is exceeded there’s convergence and high propensities for clogging.
– At the right speed everyone could leave in an orderly fashion but, in real life, this ‘panic effect’ has ironically caused people to be trampled to death whilst trying to escape a fire. Further research looking at aspects of crowd dynamics includes deindividuation theory – the loss of self-awareness in groups and transformation of the individual in a crowd, like antinormative and disinhibited behaviour. This can be applied to contexts ranging from genocide to Internet behavioural patterns. A good way of testing it seems to have been in looking at anonymity; see for instance Zimbardo’s 1969 and 1971 studies, which tested people’s level of cruelty based on whether they had their identity disguised or not, both in administering electrical shocks and as guard behaviour in prison situations.
American psychologist Philip Zimbardo is also renowned for his book The Lucifer Effect, an analysis of the psychological causes of the mind’s metamorphosis; exploring, among other matters, how easily humans can be corrupted by others.
– From a historical context I began by thinking about the crowd from the perspective of utopia versus human nature, as explored in Plato’s Republic, including speculation that democracy’s ruling of the mob would develop into tyranny due to inherent instability; see the political doctrine of anacyclosis. Moving through history we can look at key moments which shaped society’s fate and theorise over the crowd’s role therein. Take the end of the golden age of Greece or various events from the Roman Empire: the arena, Tribunus plebis, the Nika riots, and this acute awareness of the mob’s power in general. Ochlocracy – mob rule. Then of course this relationship to the expansion and fall of the Empire.
In its heyday, the Roman arena known as Colosseum would attract an average audience of some 65,000 spectators coming to witness various grisly gladiatorial attractions involving both man and beast. Often in combination. Tribunus plebis was the first electoral office in Rome to be made available for plebs, allowing them to represent their peers in politics. Throughout the Republic’s history, the plebeian tribune played an important role in keeping the senate in order; they had various authoritative powers but none so valuable as the right to veto actions of consuls and magistrates. The Nika riots of 532 AD erupted during the chariot races in Constantinople’s Hippodrome stadium. Such events were characterised by many modern elements of contemporary team sport entertainment, with supporters of the respective clubs coming to fisticuffs while chanting slogans. This is what the event is named after – nika means ‘conquer’, and would be cried out followed by the team’s name. Emperor Justinian I was not in the least bit fond of such brutish conduct and so, after suffering particularly savage mass-brawls throughout the Hippodrome, ordered several ringleaders of the respective combatants – known as the Blue and Green factions – put to death. One must at least give him credit for uniting the Blues and Greens for the first time in history, if only temporarily. The following matchday the entire crowd, both rival parties, began chanting simply ‘nika, nika, nika’. They became increasingly hostile towards the emperor and his protective detail until full-scale riots broke out and spread throughout the city. The situation initially looked dire, and at one point Justinian is said to have considered taking flight but was persuaded by his wife, who couldn’t abide by the thought of losing her crown, to stay and fight. Five days in, utilising clever diplomacy, he was able to persuade the Blues to stand down and leave the field open for wholesale Green slaughter. When the dust had settled, about thirty thousand people had lost their lives and half of Constantinople been put to the torch.
– Then of course the Crusades and the Christian contagion, or the loss of pagan traditions as well as mass-pilgrimage. We have peasant revolts, the Renaissance, Enlightenment – for instance cultural comparison and superiority, constitutionality, and liberty. The French Revolution with the idea of Jacobins manipulating crowds, which they saw as thinking in idée fixes. Then the Storming of the Bastille and Paris Commune of 1871 along with other mobs of Industrial discontent; the spread of anti-Semitism and nazism and other 20th century ethnic cleansings such as the Bosnian War. Notice how all the previous examples refer to historical, political, and philosophical contexts on the idea of collective thinking or crowd behaviour. However, the idea of true ‘crowd psychology’ only came later with theorists like Sighele, Tarde and Canetti, and these leave us hungry for modern research scenarios.
Nonetheless, he says, the theoretical classic which normally stands out on this topic is Gustave Le Bon’s The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind from 1895.
– Some might call The Crowd outdated but it was very powerful at the time, later inspiring the likes of Mussolini and Hitler, for example Chapter III: The Leaders of Crowds and Their Means of Persuasion. I’m not forgetting Machiavelli’s classic, The Prince, which some may recall upon the mention of Le Bon. It reminds us of the psychology in which the crowd entity interacts and differs from the laws and workings of an individual’s mind, such as the loss of personal responsibility. In closing, I’d like to leave you with a quote from Charles Mackay – the author of the work Extraordinary Popular Delusions and The Madness of Crowds, which I found more light-hearted whilst also quite interesting and valuable at times:
Of all the offspring of Time, Error is the most ancient, and is so old and familiar an acquaintance, that Truth, when discovered, comes upon most of us like an intruder, and meets the intruder’s welcome.
This was an excerpt from the full article, which is twice as long and published in Bardo Methodology #5. The same issue also includes conversations with BLASPHEMY, DAUTHA, CLANDESTINE BLAZE, ACRIMONIOUS, ROME, MORBOSIDAD, NUCLEAR WAR NOW!, CULT NEVER DIES, MYSTIFIER, ROME ,W.A.I.L., WINTERFYLLETH, and PHURPA.