A.D. Sharp's Nightmare volume 1: Lullaby for Lamashtu

A.D. Sharp's Nightmare volume 1: Lullaby for Lamashtu

Tuesday, 02 June 2020

The first volume of A.D. Sharp's "Nightmare" recordings will be available later this year. Think Ronald David Laing with an upbringing of psychologically unsound Giallo. File under: Clinical Horror. Read an article framing thoughts on Lamashtu, neuroscience and aural approaches.

In the Sumerian section of the British Museum, there’s a clay amulet used as protection against the demoness Lamashtu. Lamashtu is depicted riding an ass, suckling a wild pig and a jackal. In his excellent essay on “The seven-headed dragon and the demon Choronzon”, Joel Biroco mentions one of Kenneth Grant’s obsessions: the qabalistic cipher of Shugal-Choronzon (half male – Shugal, half female – Choronzon). Shugal is the ‘howler of the desert’ its zootype is a jackal; Choronzon, to Grant, is a recension, via Blavatsky of the Atlantean pig God, Chozzar. It would seem that the amulet in the BM adds a further dimension to this debate. As far as I am aware, no one has made this ‘more obvious’ connection between the nightside of Eden (ie Lilith and all her connotations) , the jackal and the sow.

Amulets of the type on display at the BM were hung in bedrooms of Babylon to ward off the demoness, and often with head of Pazuzu above the figure of Lamashtu. Of course, this evokes the brilliant edit in the opening scene of The Exorcist; two jackals fighting in the desert at dusk cutting to the giant leering statue of Pazuzu. But it also raises the duality of Pazuzu as plague carrier and demon killer.

Its pleasing to see this question comprehensively tackled by Nils Heeßel in his article “Evil against Evil – The Demon Pazuzu” , and more so that he invokes the opening scene of The Exorcist as a strange kind of pulp trailer to an academic paper. One day I would like to mentally time stretch and prise open these Assyrian gateways to a realm of horror anthropology, the archaeologist’s cut of The Exorcist, set wholly in the ruins of Mosul and the offices of the Iraqi Antiquities Department. Abstract out the Catholicism and return to the very dusts of belief.

The crimes against Lamashtu are multifarious. Most readily she was accountable for stealing babies during sleep, but also she was a seductress of men. In modern medical phenomena, Christopher Whitcombe proposes that she was probably to blame for both Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and Wet Dreams – a true target for the Daily Mail and the agony aunt. Further down the list of accusations she was also to blame for nightmares. To some extent for the lesser crimes of succubal intrusion and as the governess of sleep paralysis, she requires some rehabilitation. Surely these can be reevaluated as processes of nocturnal liberation and autonomic rituals of initiation, rather than the interference of the monstrous feminine.

Heeßel, while examining the connection between Pazuzu and Lamashtu does concede there is little textual rubric to explain their interplay, the evidence is largely based on imagistic associations discovered on an abundance of talismans. The connection remains opaque, with the inference that Pazuzu serves the role of some kind of tribal despot within the pantheons of demons, holding their lesser powers at bay. The author does however posit the idea that Pazuzu, with his protections and pestilence, his overriding ambiguity acts as an Apotropaion – something both wanted and feared – much like a horror film or the kind of cosmic nightmare that goes beyond the boundaries of extreme anxiety to a transcendent space.

This is the space that Nightmare hopes to explore. Subverting the concept of Max Richter’s recent Sleep project, can we go a step further and can music be used to induce sleep paralysis. Whereas Richter used Sleep as a curative agent against his own insomnia, Nightmare aims to readdress an ontological imbalance, the demonising of our innate ability to conjure cosmic horror. Following a century of the self, the bloated ego doesn’t need any more help, its needs a few nocturnal shocks.

In tandem with its philosophical motive the project acts as a compositional exercise exploring two general approaches:

1] Anti-lullabies: Can music be created to lull ourselves into physiological states conducive to facilitating night terrors?

2] The Nightmare Machine: Song structures that mimic the automatic journey from regular dream imagery to the self electrocuting delirium of night terrors.

Obviously these are bold propositions and inevitably doomed to some degree to fall short. But all creativity is a fleeting glimpse of the ‘true imagination’s’ potential most resolutely maintained in the dream continuum.

That said, Patrick Mcnamara’s study Nightmares – The Science and Solution of Those Frightening Visions during Sleep provides a useful starting point with which to both rationally rehabilitate Lamashtu and to structure the music and its delivery.

The central tenet of Mcnamara’s thesis is that the nightmare serves some evolutionary purpose, otherwise it would have been factored out by natural selection. He looks at pre-modern tribal structures and theorises that a person who experienced nightmares on a regular basis and was able to effectively communicate his experiences to the tribe would be treated with respect and awe. The nightmare, being autonomous in nature, was empirical evidence of someone being in touch with the spirits and the supernatural world. The person was therefore someone the society could turn to when rational solutions to their problems were not forthcoming. The nightmare man was the shaman. Respect and societal standing resulting from the effective communication of the nightmare becomes currency with which to promulgate its genetic coding and to maintain this somewhat deleterious experience in our DNA.

In addition, Mcnamara’s study of sleep architectures provides useful hints for the development of the sound and its delivery. Where Richter encouraged his audience to allow sleep to progress in temporal procession with the music, nightmares generally tend to occur in the latter stages of the sleep cycle. There are 5 phases in the cycle, starting with shorter bursts of REM activity at around 90 minutes into sleep. The earlier bursts might only last a minute or so. Later in the cycle REM activity might last up to 30 minutes. It’s during these phases of REM activity that nightmares are most likely to occur. This provides an interesting problem for music to facilitate sleep paralysis. It would have to be programmed to start 4/5 hours into sleep. The Nightmare project will look at providing a means of delayed listening (more on this as the experiment develops).

While the optimal time for nightmare induction presents a logistic issue, some of Mcnamara’s insights on the biology of sleep provide interesting access points to create sounds sympathetic to the experience. Particularly pertinent perhaps is the phenomena of Ponto-geniculo-occipital (PGO) waves. PGO wave activity is prevalent during REM, and whilst commonly generated in the Pons region and propagated up to the visual centers, these waves also appear to be active in the amygdala and limbic systems. It’s proposed the PGO waves are associated in wakefulness with orienting reflexes that occur after startle, interest or fear. If this is the case, then organisms experiencing PGO waves during REM are likely to undergo regular and repeated startle reactions, orienting reflexes and stress-inducing mobilizations to defend against hallucinatory threats. Might this give us the sound effects for the nightmare. It strikes me that the tropes of psychedelic music are the thin end of the mind-bending soundtrack to sleep paralysis. One thinks particularly of phased/flanged panning overdoses, random ricochets of breaking glass and insidious whispered threats, something that turns the ears and mind inside-out, neurology meets Brainticket’s Cottonwood Hill.

Mcnamara suggests that nightmare content rather being made up in order to explain primary emotional experiences works the other way round. It is the cognitive content that elicits the emotional experience. The triggering event is the retrieval of an unpleasant memory image and it is “this cognitive content that then sets the nightmare machine in motion”. Mcnamara’s phrase “nightmare machine” is itself a wonderful reverberant notion that is worth extrapolating upon. Perhaps there is a dark analogue of Brion Gysin’s dream machine – a flickering matrix, revealing half glimpsed horrific imagery. I would say this is perfectly encapsulated in the weird forensic eroticism of Marcel Duchamp’s peep hole to the perverse, Étant donnés . A naked corpse like muse espied through the fracture of a window. It’s worth noting the Penguin edition of Bataille’s Story of the Eye features an abstract version of Duchamp’s Étant donnés.

The nightmare machine, sonically considered might be constructed by automating a simple unsettling sound image. The British composer Trevor Wishart’s Imago provides a possible entry point. Imago took a very simple recording of two whisky glasses, clinked together. Using a software package Sound Loom, the initial brief recording was fed through a set of processes to create a liquid and acoustically self-cannibalising collage. Again like the analogue of Gysin’s dream machine, might there be a case for instantiating a dark imago using a brief but frightening sound collision – the sound of two jackals fighting at dusk, beneath a leering statue of Pazuzu.

The demoness Lamashtu was fended off by a combination of image (the protective amulets featuring Pazuzu) and by well documented baby incantations or ritual lullabies. Again from a logical point of view, music to induce sleep paralysis might require a somewhat detuned lulling phase. Karel van der Toorn in his essay “Magic in the Cradle: A Reassessment” looks at two Babylonian baby incantations. On the surface, they appear to be no more than charming lullabies. However, van der Toorn, having studied the rubric from first millennium copies of the text, believes rather than merely existing as folk songs, they were incantations that belonged to the professional lore of the exorcist. In the dusts of belief the lullaby was a rite of serious banishing. Van der Toorn proceeds to deconstruct the texts to suggest the baby incantations were protections against the gradual erosion of family life and the ensuing abandonment of the ‘god of the house’ precipitated by the noise of the fractious child. He maintains that the Babylonians were particularly sensitive to the implications of noise in their society, citing the flood of the Atrahasis catalysed by the cacophony of over population. The house once abandoned by its local god, provided a vacuum into which Lamashtu takes hold. The term ‘god’ in respect to the hearth could be viewed as synonymous with the ‘dead’. In other words the gods of the house were the ancestral spirits of the family.

Reviewed from this perspective there seems little benefit in creating the atmosphere from which our ancestral spirits flee. But perhaps there is an intermediary dream, the comforting nightmare, in which one communes with loved dead disturbed from their sleep. Maybe not so much invoked by an anti-lullaby but by an off-kilter lullaby, enough to awaken the gods of the house, but not so extreme as to cause them to flee.

I would suggest this realm is the one eloquently described by William Burroughs in his “My Education:a book of dreams” as a certain class of dream taking place in “The Land Of The Dead”. The people in Burroughs’ dreams of this nature are all dead, but known to him – friends and family. The location of the dream is a specific set of former abodes – in Burroughs’ documents, these are always three or four blocks, either in St. Louis, Paris or Tangiers. The world outside the environment is a cosmic grey zone. To Burroughs this means that outside the known universe what exists is nothing… a epiphanic nihilism. In my own experience, similar visitations by dead relatives and friends nearly always take place in the house I lived in through my adolescence. Perhaps the correct balance of noise and lullaby is the gateway to the cosmic nightmare, irrespective of the furniture and wallpaper of our ontologies, whether it be the grey zone of Burroughs or the multi-hued terror of Lovecraft’s cosmological abyss.

In summing up the rationale for Nightmare, it’s worth returning to the overarching thrust of Mcnamara’s neuroscientific case for the defence of Lamatshu. Mcnamara holds up the evolutionary idea of Costly Signalling Theory (CST) as a marker of the nightmare’s function. CST posits that certain evolutionary traits that signify biologically veridical communication necessarily have some metabolic downside, and furthermore the animal’s ability to function and survive in spite of this deleterious effect is a physiological display of its altruism. Like the ornate but metabolically demanding antlers of the stag, the nightmare ordains a shamanic empiricism on the nightmare sufferer. The project therefore comes under a class of experimental living, not as by product of exhibitionism, but that even in the spinal causeways of night, we are our own laboratory animal.