I’m on a small ferry in the Salish Sea, between Vancouver Island and Salt Spring Island, in Michael’s car, in the rain. The rain appears to fall, but of course it’s not really falling.
We’re talking, as we do, about the experience of “up” and “down” - our brains having evolved in a gravity well, and the neurological signals of “up” and “down” are sufficient for navigation at human scale on a large planet. From our perspective, “up” and “down” are demonstrable, the horizon flat – but of course none of this is true. We are standing on the surface of a ball and therefore there is no “up” or “down” but rather “in” and “out.”
Because we’re talking about music, and scale, and the conceit that a note goes up or down, this is both relevant and hilarious. It’s impossible to speak with Michael about music without invoking the mechanics of the universe. Preconception. Oscillation. The conversation between matter and energy.
Anyone who spoke to Michael about music ended up speaking about the entire universe, and of course this is because he intentionally encoded his evolving understanding of the universe in his composition. That tremor, that pause, that acceleration – that’s not an aesthetic choice, but a line of philosophical inquiry.
Michael embraced music as a spiritual practice, mindful of the sacred tradition music has always played in human culture, and specifically the Western scale and its dissection and implementation in Hermetic philosophy. He described picking up a guitar as wading intro a stream that has been coursing for thousands of years, and will continue to wind its way for millennia after he is gone. This places the musician outside their own performance, composition, and ego – the music was here before you are, it will endure long after your death, and the entire undertaking is joining in a jam session that’s been going on for millennia.
For Michael, his understanding of that interaction began with the Corpus Hermeticum - that body of philosophical dialogues recorded at least 1800 years ago but doubtless with its roots digging into millennia of fertile soil before that – owing a literary debt to Plato’s Timaeus (360ish BCE) and Pythagoreanism two centuries before that.
And as Michael would sometimes recommend, the best introduction to that is by the great sage, Donald Duck.
I first met Michael in the early 90s at a small university conference on the future of the internet and computing, and he mentioned that even pretending to understand any of it was pointless without a grounding in Hermeticism - of icon and symbol, graphos and logos. I made a few references to alchemy and Pico della Mirandola, the 15th century author of what’s been called the Manifesto of the Renaissance, and we were two weirdos a paragraph into a lifelong friendship.
Michael had been introduced to Hermeticism (and its modern visual summation, the tarot) through the avant-garde Chilean filmmaker and author Alejandro Jodorowski, with whom Michael had studied in Paris. Jodorowski had a kind of permanent salon, with travellers and artists booking theatres or cafés or living rooms to hear the mad genius digress - his mind uprooting (and finding the joy in) subjects as broad as mysticism, space exploration, mortality, physics, drugs, society, and the impetus of art. Michael’s annual sojourns to Paris to reconnect and be challenged and inspired by Jodorowski left an indelible mark on his music and outlook. An incessant, joyous parade of ideas, a cacophony of perspective, elongated timelines, drunk on the perfume of paradox.
In all things, Michael learned to find rhythm, signal, and reiteration. Ideas become exposition of other, older ideas, re-explorations of theme, riffs and improvisation on ancient conversations. The alchemist’s distillation of all things and experiences into their elements: earth, air, fire, water. He applied this not only in his music, but also in his experiments with Fibonacci spirals in the stock market.
While seemingly abstract, these lines of inquiry were firmly rooted in Michael’s love and respect for nature. His childhood in the rugged and remote wilderness of Northern Vancouver Island, in the traditional lands of the Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw people, gave him a lifelong appreciation for season, and storm. As a forester and later as an aquaculturalist, he said he had “farmed two kingdoms, of the forest and the sea” and sought to farm the third kingdom of music.
His understanding of a universal, human experience with nature instilled in him a deep respect for indigenous traditions and medicines. His childhood bedroom offered glimpses of ravens attending sky-burials in the trees outside his window, and so began a conversation with his own mortality which culminated in an acceptance and resolution in his 20s, which he wrote about in detail here.
His psychadelic experiences, grounded as they were both with a haptic experience of nature as well as his education in Hermetic philosophy, unlocked in him a torrent of composition. Previous to these sessions, he had identified three modalities in his engagement with music: performance, composition, and “noodling around.” He initially came to the conclusion that every note from the guitar constituted a form of composition. Even the most casual experiment or playfulness contributed to an artifact of music, as valid as the most deliberate attempt. Eventually he placed performance in this category as well, given the variables in each show – all was composition.
In this way he experienced the process of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, resulting at last in synthesis. This can be understood in every tradition of Western philosophical inquiry, particularly in Neoplatonism (in which he was broadly read) and alchemy (likewise).
Inherent in the DNA of his music is his wholistic understanding of the cultural, Traditional underpinning of music as practice stretching out for millennia to both past and future. He was consciously aware of the timelessness of his music, and I suspect this is why it is so enduring, so resonant.