Priest Descending Staircase:
Interpreting Mamiffer/Circle’s Enharmonic Intervals
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It’s difficult to recall when, upon first listening to Enharmonic Intervals, I was reminded of William Friedkin’s classic horror film, The Exorcist*, but the title of the album may well have been my point of departure: in layman’s terms, a musical interval is the difference between two notes, measured in steps; and an enharmonic interval is so called because its two notes are actually identical in pitch – they only have the appearance of being distinct notes because of the way they’re written – which makes it something of an illusion, like one of M.C. Escher’s paradoxical staircases, that appear to simultaneously ascend and descend without ever reaching an end point. (One might be tempted to view this unique collaboration between Seattle’s Mamiffer (Faith Coloccia, Aaron Turner) and Finnish outfit Circle (Jussi Lehtisalo, Mika Rättö) as an interval in its own right, as each act explores similar sounds that give one the impression of cold, hard light, vast distances, punishing conditions and, perhaps most importantly, the sense of ascent and descent.) Arguably, the morality play that is The Exorcist presents a literal and figurative trip up and down the staircase of good and evil, and Enharmonic Intervals – ironically, recorded in an old church – offers some interesting parallel steps, particularly in the context of the film’s climax.
*(Incidentally some of you may be aware that The Exorcist was reissued on Blu-Ray earlier this month, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of its theatrical release).
At the film’s pivotal moment, Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) – a priest who has lost his faith in his religion – sacrifices himself to save the possessed child Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair). He invites the demon to take him instead of the girl, then throws himself from her bedroom window and plummets down a steep flight of steps. Regan, clearly herself again, embraces her mother while Karras is given last rites on the pavement far below, a pool of blood spreading out from his broken skull like a glistening dark halo. (Note: it is worth mentioning that, in The Exorcist III: Legion – technically the film’s official sequel – Karras is later reanimated by a demon. His resurrection is a living hell, to punish Karras for the act of redemption that ended his previous life.)
1. Kaksonen (Finnish – “twin”): Witnesses of alleged demonic possession have reported drastic changes to the behaviour and expressions of the victims, as though a separate entity had taken control of their bodies. After Karras’ first meeting with Regan, her mother (Chris MacNeil, played by Ellen Burstyn), tells the priest that, if she were presented with a doppelganger of her daughter, “…same face, same voice, everything…I’d know it wasn’t Regan.” In the opening track of Enharmonic Intervals one envisions Karras, in his final moment of confrontation with the demon, as he catches a glimpse of the innocent girl trapped behind the demon’s baleful gaze. For a priest who has professed to have lost his faith, this is the moment of truth: time slows down, and every sense is heightened as he realizes both what is at stake and what he must do. In this moment Karras accepts his fate, entwined as it is with that of the demon, and takes the first step of his descent to hell.
2. Parting of Bodies: One of the more dramatic pieces on the album. This track provides a chilling parallel between Karras’ command for the demon to take him instead of Regan and Aaron Turner’s anguished cry, “Take my hand”. The title suggests multiple interpretations: the departure of the demon from Regan; the figurative division of the priest’s body, in which man and demon each struggle for control; and finally, Karras’s aforementioned leap through the window of Regan’s bedroom.
3. Vaso Luna (Italian – “glass moon”): Set to a combination of deep organ tones, fluttering acoustic guitar, soaring strings, and angelic choral swells, Jussi Lehtisalo’s “speaking in tongues” sounds like a calculated attempt by the demon to lure Karras to damnation as they sail through the night air. In the moment before the body’s sickening impact on the steep staircase below, Lehtisalo’s mutterings could be the demon’s appeal to reason, telling Karras that his lack of faith will ensure his eternal suffering in hell.
4. Tumulus: The composition which reminded me most of “Tubular Bells”, Mike Oldfield’s contribution to The Exorcist soundtrack, this track’s cycling motif of descending notes was particularly evocative of the film’s fateful stairway. The “Tumulus” lyric, “In, in from the cold / eyes yearn for sleep” is well-paired to the image of the tumulus (burial mound), which looks nothing so much like an entrance to the underworld.
5. Vessel Full of Worms: It should be noted here that the album clearly has death and funerary rites thematically in mind. Mortality and the sanctity of the soul are key themes in the continuation of the film’s story, and the tumultuous quality of this track seems to suggest that death is far from restful; rather, it is a violent process of organic and perhaps psychological transformation.
6. Mätäneminen (Finnish – “putrefaction”): An exultant lamentation, filled with emotional strings and Mika Rättö’s operatic vocals, the penultimate track recalls the dramatic scene of a bloody and broken Karras receiving the last rites.
7. Kaksonen 2 (Artemesia): in this final piece, the organ drone is reduced to a low, settling hum, and two voices can be heard, conversing at a distance. “Artemesia” may indirectly reference Wormwood, the biblical star of the same name, which falls to earth in Revelation and “poisons the rivers with bitterness”; and the “Kaksonen” or twin, i.e. the film’s demon, has accomplished its goals – corrupting innocence, taking the life of a man, and depriving a soul of its salvation.
Addendum: In an email Coloccia provides an additional angle for interpretation, one which dovetails with Karras’ rebirth in the sequel. Artemesia, she says, “is in reference to the beautiful plant genus, and also the healing of one of the plants of the genus: ‘mugwort’. There is also a dual reference: Artemis, and her role in childbirth/midwifery.”
The press release for Enharmonic Intervals concludes, “Instead of engaging in some lazy superstar jam, Mamiffer and Circle have gone above and beyond to create a site-specific triumph that bridges the gap between serene, holy bliss and the warm, messy sprawl of humanity.” One would add that its bridges are many and varied, and hopefully to be realized further in subsequent collaborations.