Ritual Fire: The Red King Offers Transformation

Posted October 8, 2007 in
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Saying that The Red King is a one-man, neo-classical music project is like saying that fire is a source of light, or that a phoenix is a bird. It’s a correct description, but woefully incomplete.

Photo By Circle 23 Photography

The Red King have been booked to provide the climax to An October Evening, a theatrical fashion event at The Masonic Temple on Fri. Oct. 19. Those who participate will soon learn that this is no mere concert, but a ritual and interactive performance.

One of An October Evening’s fashion designers, Donna Rhodes, had the opportunity to see The Red King earlier this year while attending a festival in their home city of Portland, Oregon. “I was expecting great music, but they also put on a fantastic, out-of-this-world stage performance,” says Rhodes. “It felt more like you were participating in an occult ritual rather than just sitting back and watching a band play. The performers interacted with the crowd, both on stage and out where we were standing.” Rhodes recalls that the performance began with the smell of sage, and a woman dressed as a green fairy handing out beakers of absinthe. “I left feeling completely energized,” she says.

The mastermind behind the ritual is Johann Bran Cleereman, who composes all the music and organizes live performers to personify it. “They’re all representatives of different aspects of the songs themselves,” he says. No two Red King performances are alike. For his appearance in Salt Lake City, he plans to bring eight performers, who include singers, percussive musicians, performance artists, and occultists.

Cleereman’s occultism is not based in any one tradition. “There’s definitely aspects about me that are heathen, there’s definitely aspects about me that have the alchemical intellect, there’s the side of me that’s more physical, so yeah, I’d say I’m a free agent, which is kind of different,” he explains. “I think a lot of people want to identify and call themselves one thing, but I’ve never done that. I take the best of all things.”

The alchemical tradition is one of the key aspects of The Red King. “Alchemy is just another way of working in change and perfecting yourself or something around you,” Cleereman explains. “It’s a work of perfection. I’m taking something that’s crude and making it into something more perfect.”

The most common metaphor for alchemy is of turning lead into gold, but this is only symbolic. It’s also a gradual transition, as the practitioner moves metaphorically through the states of states of lead, tin, silver, mercury, iron, copper, and finally, gold.

Another way to express this transformation is with the symbolism of birds. In the Alchemical Great Work, a practitioner moves through the stages of The Black Crow, The White Swan, The Peacock, The Pelican, and finally, The Phoenix—also known The Red King—which symbolizes the freeing of the spirit from the dependence on the bounds of the physical senses. The goal of a musical performance by Red King is to aid transformation in the audience through invoking all of their physical senses.

“The first thing that happens is we transform the space through different essences,” Cleereman says. “Sage is a common incense used in order to secure a space and clear it and prepare it for the rest of the ritual. We start out with a lot of sage, and there are different incenses that we use to try to continue that transformation.”

As of late September, Cleereman had not received confirmation on whether he would be permitted to use fire or alcohol in his performance at The Masonic Temple, but he explains that typically, the absinthe-sharing ritual that Rhodes witnessed in Portland is a key element of his performance. “I share absinthe with everybody in the audience to continue transforming the space and everyone’s consciousness into something more able to receive the transformations that are about to occur,” he says.

Cleereman recalls that he first realized the importance of sharing with an audience while attending a festival in Thailand. He says that the men of the town performed a different purification ritual on each day of the festival. Day one was walking on a bed of coals, and day two was climbing up ladder of razors. On the third day of the festival, he says, there was a parade of hundreds of men with everyday objects pierced through their cheeks, and altars were set up in front of the homes and businesses along the route. The men would periodically pick up an offering from an altar and either consume it themselves, or offer it to the audience.

“When these guys had these huge things stuffed in their faces, and they offered me some sake or a piece of candy or a piece of fruit, there was some kind of connection that I had with them that made the whole ritual that much more intense and personalized and really got me involved in it,” Cleereman says. “So I realized that for my own show, to be able to share things with the audience was key to the whole thing.”

The things he shares may include the aforementioned sage and absinthe, as well as torches, and a book of mirrors. “There’s a book of mirrors that we open up and show to people,” he says. “And what they see sometimes has an effect. In those times when the mind is open to it, seeing your reflection makes you start thinking about yourself and where you’re at and how you’re transforming, and possibilities.”

Since An October Evening is a benefit for children suffering from illness, Cleereman plans to perform what he has called “Spiritus Medicinae,” a healing-based ritual. “I’ve been thinking about that aspect of transformation that goes on when somebody becomes ill, and bringing that kind of change to the forefront of people’s reality,” he says, adding that he would like to “hopefully bring about some kind of transformation where people can feel more involved in their own health.”

He points out that the symbol of modern medicine is the caduceus—two serpents twined around a staff topped by wings, and that it is an alchemical symbol. He plans to meditate it upon this symbol as he prepares for his performance at An October Evening.

While The Red King is much more than a musical performance, music is still the foundation. “Music’s always transformative,” Cleereman says. “Music always brings some kind of enlightenment, or some kind of resolve, or some kind of entertainment, even. Music sets the stage for everything else that’s going on. It’s the basis for it all. The show just kind of follows the lyrical content of it.”

Cleereman uses a synthesizer to recreate some of the sounds of classical instruments. While all his compositions are original, he bases some of them on the rhythms and patterns used in 13th century alchemical musical pieces. One technique in particular involves escalation and de-escalation: moving a melody forward, and then backward, ending with the beginning.

Prior to forming The Red King, Cleereman was part of a black metal group called Corvus Corax (not to be confused with the German medieval group of the same name). “We did one album, and then everyone split apart,” he says. “It was too many alpha males altogether. Everyone was super powerful, and you can’t too many leaders all together.”

After that, he realized that he prefers to compose alone. “I just decided to make music by myself and not have to worry about egos anymore,” he says. “Most things need one great mind; it doesn’t need four or five. If you have a vision, you can totally see it through to the end by yourself, especially given today’s recording technology. I prefer that. I’m pretty much a loner or a hermit. I prefer to just be by myself and have my vision come through the way that I see it and work on the philosophies that I prefer to work on and not have it compromised by other people.”

At the same time, though, he does crave interaction. “That’s why the live show is so fulfilling,” he says, “because I do get a chance to work with other people. The basis is already laid down, the philosophies and the music, and I’ve already conquered that. If other people can assist me in taking it to the next level and illustrating it better, then it’s great, because the basis is already there, and they can just build on that, and it doesn’t compromise what I’ve done at all.”

His performances are known for having an element of danger. This danger can be purely physical, in the case of smoke and fire, or it can be emotional, as with the book of mirrors. “Because it’s so revealing, people seeing their own reflection in that situation can be sometimes frightening,” Cleereman says. “I’ve had some people say that they felt pretty intimidated by the whole thing. I myself am close to seven feet tall, so just to have my person in amongst them is sort of daunting in a way,” he says, “especially with some of the garb that I don.”

Audience participation always brings an element of unpredictability. “A lot of what I do is to see what happens,” he says. “I’m putting a lot of things out there, and it’s interesting to see how people take it. If somebody has a torch in their hand, are they going to stand there with it? Are they going to try to put it out? Are they going to run outside with it? Are they going to run around in the venue with it? Are they going to try to hand it back to me? It says a lot about the people themselves what happens at the show. A lot of times some exciting things happen, where people become creative or inspired on their own, to use these implements in their own manner. I’ve had people come up on stage and participate with me. It’s definitely like a petri dish, where there’s an experiment going on.”

These experiences are influenced by the location, says Cleereman. While composing first album, Vitreolum, he was living a hermit's life alone in the woods of Washington State, and his long nights of study by candlelight gave atmosphere to the tale of an alchemist gone too far. When he began his second album, Somniferum, he was living in an industrial area of the San Francisco Bay, and this second work explores the dark abyss of opium.

“The atmosphere of the place that you’re in definitely has an influence on anything,” he says. “If you look at any kind of music art throughout the world, it’s different for a reason. The place that you’re in has an effect on you and the way that you see things, and a lot of times it has an effect on the possibilities that are there. If there’s no electricity, there’s not going to be any electric guitar. You’ve got to deal with what you have. I’ve done without a lot of things in my life. I’ve lived economically pretty poor, and I just make the best of what I have around me.”

He’s expressed curiosity about what he will find in Salt Lake City, and how he will be received. While he’s passed through Utah and says he found the mountains inspiring, he’s never stopped in Salt Lake City itself. “From what I understand, it’s pretty conservative and not too open to people of my kind: more fringe-based personalities,” he says. “But I’ve also heard great things about it. I know friends who’ve stopped there and said it’s one of the best towns there is as far as good food and inspiring people.”

“I’m sure there are fringe people there,” he adds, “and those are the people who have invited me to come and play, as somebody who’s more cutting-edge and willing and able to offer Salt Lake City something new and exciting. I’m really looking forward to seeing the reaction that I get.”