Blood Vapour

for flute quartet

The fourth part of the Chthonic Flute Suite commissioned by Areon Flutes in 2012.  This suite has two main inspirations: ideologically it draws guidance from the book The Dream and the Underworld (1979) by James Hillman (1926-2011) and musically it explores the textural possibilities of a flute ensemble within the context of the “heavy chamber music” style I have developed with Edmund Welles since 1996.  The term “chthonic” [thon-ik] generally means “underworld.” However, Hillman thoroughly elaborates that its true meaning extends “below the earth and beyond it” into invisible, non-physical and far distant psychic realms: the deeper mysteries of the invisible.

 “Underworld images are ontological statements about the soul, how it exists in and for itself beyond life.”

The quartet is divided into three sections: Thymos—Phrenes—Chthonios. Thymos means “blood vapour” and is one of the elements that souls of the dead in the underworld completely lack, therefore they crave it and seek it out; they also lack “breath consciousness” or phrenes.

“In the Homeric imagination, the dead lack both phrenes and thymos, and thus they ask Ulysses for the blood of life…According to the Onians, the phrenes refers rather to the breath consciousness derived from the daily in-and-out exchange with life.  The thymos that the dead seek from the living is the blood vapour which they get from sacrificed animals….Even as late as Ovid, the dead are shades who wander ‘bodiless, bloodless, and boneless.’ But psyche remains.  The underworld is a realm of only psyche, a purely psychical world. …Put more bluntly: underworld is psyche.  When we use the word underworld, we are referring to a wholly psychic perspective, where one’s entire mode of being has been desubstantialized, killed of natural life, and yet is in every shape and sense and size the exact replica of natural life.” (p.46)

So, how is this useful? For Hillman, this is the way to experience the soul in its pure form: “Jung superbly summed up the primary message imparted by the guidebooks (Egyptian and Tibetan) to the ‘land of the dead,’ saying that they each teach us ‘the primacy of the psyche, for that is the one thing which life does not make clear to us.’…Underworld images are ontological statements about the soul, how it exists in and for itself beyond life.” (p.47)

That is the crux of it: the ways in which we think and perceive in our default, everyday modalities are in fact very limited.  The scope of our existence actually extends further and deeper into invisible, uncharted and un-chartable territories: some of which can be explored through dreams and the descent into the underworld.  The things we cannot take with us there–breath, blood, the comforts of the solidity of the earth, the warmth of this flesh and bone life when we are safe, satiated and loved–become all the more delicious and appreciable when we return from a visit (if it is only a visit) to the underworld and its mysteries.  Without the mysterious, there would be only the known, and if there were only the known there would be no escape from it: life would be excruciatingly two-dimensional and oppressive, and the temporal “comforts” of physical existence would simply be a taunting parody of the rot and decay that inevitably alternate with the very fruiting and the sweetness that we grasp and cling to.