The Sonic Language of Myth

Believing, Learning, Knowing

The Sonic Language of Myth CD Cover

The function of an artist is “the mythologization of the environment and the world”.

Joseph Campbell

Liner Notes

I am often asked to explain my music in more technical terms and I always hesitate. This is because I think of music as a symbolic language to be used to express the nature of the Universe. This way of thinking is at odds with the norm of the dominant culture in today’s world. However, I think that in order to counteract the steady accumulation of misleading information that is printed in the name of musical scholarship, it is important for the creators of this music to occasionally speak about their creation. So what follows is a kind of ‘explanation’, based on some of the ideas that run through my mind as I create music. This music can be entertaining to some, but it is not initially conceived as ‘entertainment’.

The way a music sounds depends not only on what the musician is expressing but also on what the listener is hearing. What’s heard is largely due to the listener’s personal experiences throughout life (family, cultural, beliefs, etc.). What music is created depends on the musician’s way of thinking and his/her experiences. Because of these characteristics, all discussions about music are relative.

Music is for me, first and foremost, a form of communication that can be anywhere from direct (as in the sense of a spoken language), abstract (as in the sense of modern mathematics or modern paintings), symbolic (containing an immanent and inborn meaning) or all together. I think of my music from all of these perspectives simultaneously. Music communicates information, emotions, consciousness and spirit in a direct and abstract manner. It is the perfect language to express life in all its manifest forms because everything is vibration and one can present vibration directly as sound. Music is simply organized sound. I realize that for most people music is entertainment but for me music tells a story. Those who are ready will hear the story, however, I believe that for music that is based on the principles of creation, even those who listen for entertainment purposes still subconsciously receive mind-expanding vibrations.

This particular recording is the result of research done in Africa, Egypt and India as well as information compiled from ancient writings. This music represents the vibrations of that knowledge rendered as sound. I have spent the majority of my musical career exploring ways to better express life using music and I hope to be able to continue along these lines. It is a constant process and one can never say that he/she has arrived at an understanding — Life is too complex. Throughout this recording information is being derived from Kemetic astrological, astronomical and metaphysical sources, all of which are symbolized through the use of sonic structures (forms, rhythms and tones plus intent, emotion and intuition) that masquerade as compositions. It is my belief that this form of communication can be a more direct transmission of information than ordinary language.

Each selection contains an outer meaning and an inner (immanent) meaning. There will be references to many things that may not be familiar to the reader; this is unavoidable in any detailed commentary. I am not attempting to educate the reader on the many areas that are discussed below. My intention here has been to present the information in a form that is close to the way that I think of it. In this way the reader can have some idea of where we are coming from, where we are now and where we are attempting to go. There are many publications on standard musical interpretation, what I am presenting here is specific to a particular path. This path is not new, but it is also not frequently used. With some research much of this information can be found in translations of ancient texts and remnants of what is presented here survives in many primary traditions around the world.

Steve Coleman

The Sound

Precession begins with a sound that symbolizes the Sunrise, then shifts to the alternation between chaos and harmony representing life being created out of formlessness and the created Universe (the rising harmonic cells being symbolic of the ancient Kemetic Decans) together with the laws of motion which govern their movement. By cells I mean the small individual note groupings that are used as building blocks in my music. These cells move in a clockwise, cyclic direction symbolizing the nocturnal east-west movement of the stars over the horizon (as viewed when looking south) as well as representing the retrograde movement of the vernal equinox as it travels against the background of the star constellations, also known as the Precession of the Equinoxes.

Structurally the entire composition is symbolic of the eternal oscillation between Chaos and Form. The chaos is only apparent, for there is still order present. Here is the first introduction of the musical relationships that are maintained throughout this recording. These musical relationships, expressed as ratios, have been a part of my music for many years now and account for most of the structural elements (i.e., melodies, harmonies, rhythms, movements, forms, etc.).

The ratios symbolize particular esoteric functions having to do with Life and they are usually, but not always, in the form of means, i.e., a median point between two extremes. The extremes are symbolic of movement and the median is symbolic of the eternal. The ratio is esoterically a kind of universe harmony, the tension of movement in search of equilibrium, seeking fusion with Unity. The mean symbolizes the present moment, i.e., eternity, which is outside of time (the present moment is eternal, being not of the past or the future). In addition to my own ideas and ideas acquired from my study of the primary high civilizations there are modal sections here utilizing symmetrical ideas, inspired by information shown to me by composer and saxophonist Henry Threadgill, based on progressing the structure of ratios. I have endeavored to utilize this information using what I have come to think of as the Kemetic mode of thinking.

Maat: the Kemetic Goddess that represents the principles of universal order and balance. This sound is the Universe slowly taking form and generating its internal cosmic laws. The musical intervals (ratios) that ‘unfold’ in this piece symbolize this order. These ratios are used repeatedly in the structure of the music throughout this recording in the form of melody, harmony, rhythm, form, timbre, instrumentation and mood. These relationships were introduced in Precession but appear here in more varied form. The melodic (and resulting harmonic) material throughout is based on several principles derived from the three means used in ancient times (see below) as well as the proportion Phi (the Golden Mean).

The Twelve Powers: the Passage of Ra, Life through the Universe, also representing the passage of the blood through the twelve centers of the body. There are also the twelve signs in the astrological zodiac through which Ra passes. This piece symbolizes the creation of Life forms and the symbolic beginning of the journey of Life. Rhythmically, it utilizes the proportion of the Arithmetic mean (12:9 or 4:3, the angle of the sacred triangle), inside of a much longer cycle of 26:9. 4:3 is a prominent ratio in the first division of ‘The Book of Am-Dwat‘ (the subterranean world). The Arithmetic mean (12:9 or 4:3) then regenerates itself and transforms, in the next composition, into the Harmonic mean proportion (12:8 or 3:2).

The Gate: This composition, together with The Twelve Powers, represents the processes of Life. Whereas The Twelve Powers represents the process itself, The Gate represents the completion of the Life process leading to a symbolic corporeal death. This death is a static moment, hence the symbolic meaning of the fixed ostinato figures always being played by 2 of 3 players (again the 3:2 ratio). The rhythmic structure of The Gate also contains this same ratio.

These means represent the center, a state of stasis, and the extremes represent the duality that is present in all creation. Together we have the ever present trilogy that IS ‘the creative principle’, the three as one, and an expression of harmony. So these ratios can be considered as symbols, numerical expressions invoking vital functions.

The relation of the proportions of the Arithmetic mean (4:3) and the Harmonic mean (3:2) is 9:8. This would be, as expressed in tones, the difference between the perfect 5th and the perfect 4th, which is a tone (9:8). However, here we are expressing the Africanized version of this concept, as expressed in time (rhythm). This then is the esoteric expression of the connection between The Twelve Powers and The Gate, as one ratio is transformed into the other, both expressed within equivalent time spans (intervals of duration). Also, use is made of the irrational Geometric mean in this recording. All of these means were in use in Kemet and other primary cultures (i.e., Sumer, Babylon, India, China, Greece, Yoruba, Dogon etc.).

In West Africa one frequently hears rhythms and singing that contain both the Arithmetic and Harmonic means. Generally, musicologists have only recognized the application of these proportions in musical harmony. In fact, from the 6th century BC through the 18th century AD harmonic theory was still being taught using the ratio method in western cultures. However, I have found no evidence of research being done on the rhythmic application of these esoteric principles in modern western nations. In Europe, there still existed in medieval times a system of proportionate meters that was inherited from Greece and seems to have Kemetic origins. There appears to have existed at one time a concept of ‘modes of rhythms’ along with a complex system of measuring and notating rhythmic and metric relationships using proportions (the predecessor of the modern western notation system but with more variety). This concept does exist in the Tala system in India and in many countries in Africa. Some research was done on the use of this system in the 14th century in Europe by a modern writer, Anna Maria Busse Berger. She wrote a book called ‘Mensuration and Proportion Signs’ which is a very original study.

In music, the intervals of the perfect 5th and the perfect 4th together add up to an octave. Musical intervals are added together by multiplying the ratios which denote vibrations (3/2 times 4/3 equals 2/1, the ratio that represents the octave). Professional musicians know that intervals of a perfect 5th (3:2) and a perfect 4th (4:3) added together make an octave. Esoterically, the octave can be related to the One (Unity), out of which everything is created. This is related to Life as well. Every part of the One is itself a Unity, containing in itself the same structure. We all are a reflection of Unity.

From the Upanishads,

“And then he realized ‘I indeed am this creation for I have poured it forth from myself.’ In that way he became this creation and verily, he who knows this becomes in this creation, a Creator.”

Seth: the principle of resistance, the contracting power and enemy of Heru without which there can be no movement. This composition starts with a sound that symbolizes Sunset. The sounds represent the first passage of the Soul into the Dwat (the Kemetic underworld) and the beginning of its journey on the path of reincarnation where it meets certain resistances in the form of tests. Actually, Apophis (related to Seth) is the principle of resistance that the Soul constantly meets in the Dwat.

Ausar (Reincarnation) is ultimately about resurrection and renewal; the knowledge gained in the temple to be used in the next life by accessing the intuition. Ausar is the dead Pharaoh soon to be reborn again, symbolizing that stage in our lives that involves regeneration. Here is the sound of the struggle as one is born anew, transforming into a higher consciousness. The musical techniques used here are the same as those discussed above, the elements of life are the same but arranged to address the specific vibrations of this stage of development. The sound at the end of this composition is the final stages of initiation, represented by the voices and the saxophone which is actually being played inside of the King’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid in Egypt, the ultimate initiation chamber.

Heru (Redemption): transcending the wheel of reincarnation. The mastery of the self and the perfection of the Soul thereby breaking the cycle of reincarnation. Here, the cycle of the harmonic cells moves in agreement (counterclockwise through the zodiac) with the planets of our solar system, in relation to the ‘fixed’ stars. The lesson here is that a consonance has been achieved whereby the Life of the individual and the Life of the Universe are in sync as one. Heru represents that principle that was also symbolized by the myths of Jesus and Buddha, in tune with all creation. All of the mean proportions are present here in the harmonic and melodic cells; the rhythmic cycle of 11 is a higher vibration of the dualization that is a part of all Life (cabalistically 11 = 2).

These ideas are based on what I believe was the method of reasoning of the informed thinkers of ancient Kemet. These Kemetic priests were masters of geometry, able to think (and probably speak) directly in symbols; manipulating ratios through music, dance, language, architecture, religion, mathematics, astrology/astronomy, mythology, divination and just about every area of their existence. Ratios were also used to express angles (instead of degrees) and using their methods the 3:4 proportion could describe the symbol of the sacred diophantine triangle (3-4-5 triangle) thereby invoking an invariable universal function. This was a civilization whose elect were able to directly manipulate vibration and this mode of thinking is especially conducive to creating through music.

Although I am certainly indebted to many individuals for turning me on to various information that has helped in the creation of this music, I would like to specifically thank the following people;

Henry Threadgill – composer and multi-instrumentalist. Henry showed me some musical ideas of his from which I have borrowed freely. I’ve been checking out Threadgill’s music for years but this was the first time that I specifically combined his ideas with my own. I got a lot out of my discussions with Henry about music and I am truly grateful for his contributions to my understanding in particular and to the whole scene in general.

Thomas Goodwin – philosopher and Kemetic astrologer. Tom has been a constant presence in my life for many years now and he has directed me towards many of the paths that I have walked in my effort for greater awareness, helping to shape my understanding of Mankind in relation to the Universe. I have had many conversations with Tom relating to much of the specific information projected in my music. I’m a very skeptical individual and I needed to verify much of what Tom presented to me for myself. However, I’ve found that most of what he has given me has proved extremely enlightening and practically useful in my life.

Sophia Wong – manager. The music on this CD was not created only in the studio on the dates of the recording. This music is part of a process that has been going on for years and is continuing. There have been sabbaticals, research trips and tours done in the search of knowledge without any financial rewards. No ordinary manager would put up with this as they would see no ‘logical reason’ to do so. Sophia has supported my craziness for many years now. It is rare that one has the opportunity to work with someone in business who supports work that is primarily aligned with spiritual concerns, not just concerned with ‘gettin paid’. So I am grateful for Sophia’s ‘behind the scenes’ contribution on all of the work, recordings, tours, business, research and jokes.

Greg Osby – composer, saxophonist. Greg has patiently (most of the time) listened to me ‘rant and rave’ about musical ideas for years now. We have bounced many ideas about music and life off each other and I’m sure that at times Greg has felt like a ‘Romper Room’ punching ball. But it has been invaluable for me to get his feedback on some of my ideas. Also, Greg’s role as assistant producer on this recording was very helpful.

Anthony Tidd – composer, bassist. Another person who has had to put up with my lengthy orations and I’m sure that most of the time he is only half listening, but I send thanks out to him for the exchanges. Anthony is one of the few musicians who I’ve played with who shows a genuine desire to understand what this all is about. He is a very creative musician with many original ideas; I’m sure he will make a great contribution to this music.

It was Anthony that brought to my attention the fact that composers such as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven had studied musical theory using the ratio method taught by one Johann Joseph Fux, a contemporary of Johann Sebastian Bach. Anthony introduced me to a translation of an 18th century Latin manuscript called ‘Gradus Ad Parnassum’ (The Study of Counterpoint) written by Fux and published in 1725. The English translation I have is by Alfred Mann. Fux’s book is a superb exposition on voice leading and there is a section dealing with the Arithmetic and Harmonic proportions. I was already quite familiar with these methods through the work of Ernest McClain who wrote ‘The Pythagorean Plato’. Also quite some time ago composer, trombonist and computer scientist George Lewis had introduced me to a book by Hermann Helmhotz called ‘On The Sensations of Tone’, a music theory work on acoustics, tunings systems and musical proportions.

Sean Rickman – composer, drummer; Anga Diaz – percussionist, Rosangela Silvestre – choreographer, dancer. When people believe in you enough to follow you around the world to some pretty far out places then you’ve got to be grateful. Sean and Anga are two fantastic musicians who believe in creative music. This recording would not have been possible without their contribution. Sean, Anga and Anthony have formed the backbone of my rhythm section for many years now — a seamless unit that operates as one. They have had to put up with my ideas about musical structure which I’m sure initially drove them crazy, however, it is a tribute to their musicianship that they always found a way to bring these ideas to life, in the process adding ideas of their own. So I am thankful to be able to work with musicians of this caliber who are more concerned with the music than the fame factor (I can hear them now saying, “what do you mean by that?”) I’ve been working with Rosangela since the beginning of 1996 and she has been amazing. Her dedication to expressing Life though her dance is a constant inspiration to me. We’ve had many meetings where we did nothing but discuss esoteric concepts as they related to music and dance. Rosangela has participated in my sabbaticals and gone on research trips to Cuba, Brazil, Senegal, Egypt and India. It is rare that you meet someone so dedicated to their path.

In addition I would like to thank all of the other people, musicians and engineers, who worked on this recording.

Steve Coleman


Steve Coleman (alto saxophone on all selections)
Anthony Tidd (electric bass) [except Maat, The Twelve Powers and The Gate]
Sean Rickman (drums) [except The Gate]
Miguel “Anga” Diaz (percussion) [except The Gate]
Rosangela Silvestre (vocals) [on Seth]

Special Guests

Ravi Coltrane (tenor saxophone) [except Precession, Ausar and Heru]
Craig Handy (tenor saxophone) [on Precession]
Ralph Alessi (trumpet) [on Precession, The Twelve Powers and Heru]
Shane Endsley (trumpet) [on Maat, Seth and Ausar]
Tim Albright (trombone) [except Seth and Ausar]
Vijay Iyer (piano) [on Seth and Ausar]
Robert Mitchell (piano) [on Heru]
Jason Moran (piano) [on Precession and The Twelve Powers; keyboards on Heru]
Stefon Harris (vibraphone) [on The Twelve Powers]
Regg Washington (acoustic bass) [on Precession, Maat, Ausar and Heru; electric bass on The Twelve Powers]
Todd Reynolds (violin) [except The Twelve Powers and The Gate]
Mary Rowell (violin) [on Precession, Maat and Heru]
David Gold (viola) [except The Twelve Powers and The Gate]
Dorothy Lawson (cello) [except The Twelve Powers and The Gate]
Sara Parkins (violin) [on Seth and Ausar]
Karen McVoy (soprano vocal) [on Maat and Ausar]
Jeanne Ricks (alto vocal) [on Maat and Ausar]
Eugene Palmore (tenor vocal) [on Maat and Ausar]
Erik Charlston (baritone vocal) [on Maat, Seth and Ausar]

Track List

  1. Precession 13:20
  2. Maat 2:57
  3. The Twelve Powers 10:49
  4. The Gate 2:46
  5. Seth 13:47
  6. Ausar (Reincarnation) 12:43
  7. Heru (Redemption) 11:55


Recording Engineer: Joseph Marciano
Assistant Engineers: Michael and Nancy Marciano
Mixed by: Steve Coleman and Joseph Marciano
Mastered by: Ted Jensen

Recorded at Systems Two Recording Studios, Brooklyn, NY on April 6-11, 1998.
Mixed at Systems Two Recording Studios, Brooklyn, NY on April 13-18, 1998.
Mastered at Sterling Sound, New York, NY on July 1, 1998.

All songs composed and arranged by Steve Coleman and published by Goemon Publishing Co. (SESAC / GEMA).

Steve Coleman plays Vandoren mouthpieces and reeds.

Stefon Harris appears courtesy of Blue Note Records.
The strings play together as a group called Hazardous Material.

Producer: Steve Coleman
Assistant Producers: Greg Osby and Sophia Wong
Information Consultant: Tom Goodwin
Executive Producer: Daniel Baumgarten
Overall Project Coordinator: Rémi Sommers
Cover Photography: Leigh H. Mosley
Cover Design and Layout: Rebus
Liner Notes: Steve Coleman


Some music available on the download page.