August 05, 2011

TEB's " Egyptian Book of the Dead": an interpretation.

"Egyptian Book of the Dead" is one of the most popular TEB tracks. The band played the tune from the very first beginning of its career (the first documented performance is from "Night Ride" BBC radio programme on January 1st, 1969) and it was played constantly through the years until the last Italian tour in 1992 even if with different titles (i.e. "Live Ghosts" on the live from Bergamo or "Necromanticus" in a new studio rendition) and outcomes.
Composed by Sweeney, Coff and Minns almost surely in the second half of 1968, it  was included at the beginning of the second side of "Alchemy", the first  album published by Harvest Records on May 1969. It lasts 6:48, while on the last period, performed just at the end of the gig as a sort of seal, it could last also around 12:00.
Being so lucky to listening to the band playing live (even if after the '80's), my personal memories bring me to the concert in Gorizia (November 24th, 1989), during the third Italian tour: you can listen to the performance on some records (i.e. "Live", published by Voiceprint in 1996), but if you wasn't there that night you cannot feel on your spine that undescribable hanging atmosphere of gelid, sinister terror. As Italian journalist Piero Bielli wrote on the gig ("Auditorium" n. 4, 1990): "(...) "The Book of the Dead", another fantastic piece, has ended the gig with an anguish crescendo, so that the frailest minds feel confused as after a peyotl".

What kind of power has this incredible track?

From a musical point of view, "Egyptian Book of the Dead" (studio album version) has a simple structure: basically it is a hand drums drone with tonal/atonal improvisations of violin and oboe. One of the last version of the track,   "Necromanticus" (as bonus track on "Live Ghosts" CD reissue) is a powerful crescendo, based on a progressive accumulation of instruments (bells - hand drums - oboe - violin - electronic effects) that picks up speed culminating in a very strong cacophony just before to stop abruptly.

About the sources of inspiration, we know the band took it from the original ancient "Egyptian book of the dead" (the papirus of Ani, 24o BC), circulating in those years also inside the English undergound culture (an edition of the first version edited by E.A. Wallis Budge in 1895 was published in England also in 1967). The book was not a single text but a compilation of spells and instructions designed to guide the deceased through the dangers of the underworld, ultimately ensuring eternal life, and comprised a collection of hymns, spells to allow the deceased to pass through obstacles in the afterlifeThe Book of the Dead was most commonly written on a papyrus scroll and placed in the coffin or burial chamber of the deceased.
It could be considered very superficial and quite semplicistic imagine that Sweeney intended the track as a soundtrack of the main rite included in the book, one of the most terrific sequence of the book: the weighing of the heart.
But I think it can be very plausible. If it were so, we'd have an attractive appliance to imagine the atmosphere of the ritual and the structure of the track could be interpreted in a brand new way.

As Wikipedia states, "the path to the afterlife as laid out in the Book of the Dead was a difficult one. The deceased was required to pass a series of gates, caverns and mounds guarded by supernatural creatures. These terrifying entities were armed with enormous knives and are illustrated in grotesque forms, typically as human figures with the heads of animals or combinations of different ferocious beasts. Their names—for instance, "He who lives on snakes" or "He who dances in blood"—are equally grotesque. These creatures had to be pacified by reciting the appropriate spells included in the Book of the Dead; once pacified they posed no further threat, and could even extend their protection to the dead person. Another breed of supernatural creatures was 'slaughterers' who killed the unrighteous on behalf of Osiris; the Book of the Dead equipped its owner to escape their attentions. As well as these supernatural entities, there were also threats from natural or supernatural animals, including crocodiles, snakes, and beetles".

The TEB's "Experiences" (Harvest 1975) retro cover with clear references to the rite.
Again from Wikipedia: "If all the obstacles of the Duat could be negotiated, the deceased would be judged in the Weighing of the Heart ritual, depicted in Spell 125. The deceased was led by the god Anubis into the presence of Osiris. There, the dead person swore that he had not committed any sin from a liste of 42 reciting a text known as the "Negative Confession".

The weighing of the heart.
Then the dead person's heart was weighed on a pair of scales, against the goddess Ma'at, who embodied truth and justice. Ma'at was often represented by an ostrich feather, the hieroglyphic sign for her name. At this point, there was a risk that the deceased's heart would bear witness, owning up to sins committed in life; Spell 30B guarded against this eventuality. If the scales balanced, this meant the deceased had led a good life. Anubis would take them to Osiris and they would find their place in the afterlife, becoming maa-kheru, meaning "vindicated" or "true of voice". If the heart was out of balance with Ma'at, then another fearsome beast called Ammit, the Devourer, stood ready to eat it and put the dead person's afterlife to an early and unpleasant end".

Section of the Book of the Dead depicting the Weighing of the Heart.

The beginning of the track, a suggestive (Stravinskian) prelude with wind chimes and a dreaming (Debussian) oboe is marked by the violin low notes in an incessant incisive contracpuntual pattern, until the hand drums start to play on a metronomical rhythm never changed.
Oboe and violin improvising on the bordone with progression of notes by the violin and oboe scales.
Here the deceased is going through the path of the afterlife and you can understand the journey is not so easy for him at all...
Around the minute 6:00 violin accords as ghosts flying around and high oboe notes, while at the 8:48 the tracks is stopped with a quiet almost relaxed end (an ironic Paul Minns about the track's coda in 1996: "I remember nothing of the production except that a few unnecessary effects were introduced, the worst at the end of "Egyptian Book of the Dead" sounding like a pyramid's bathroom...").
On "Necromanticus", after the first quite similar part, around 6:00 you can listen to a sort of interlude just before the track has a clear acceleration of the hand drums.
Listening to this version, around 7:25, the deceased is in front of Ma'at for the weighting of the heart and the pathos here is at its highest level on awaiting the result. 
At 8:49 the music stops but the result is not so clear...

Other versions, as like that played at Gorizia (one of my favourite ever!), are even more direct and powerful because the progression is clear and very speedy and the music stops abruptly leaving the listener absolutely shocked.

There, at 8:55, after a very long sequence of Carter's electronic effects, when Sweeney's hand drums start to beat his invariable pattern, you can listen a wall of sound of noise, electronics, strong electric guitar chords, Dobson's soprano free jazz improvisations build itself before you and you can just see the deceased terrified on awaiting the verdict.

Another excerpt with the weighing of the heart.

Anyway, as in the original studio version, TEB seems doesn't want to tell us what will happen to the deceased: the verdict is open to all interpretations because it seems more important to focalize that specific momentum, the state of consciousness where everyone knows inside himself if he lies or not... 

The Weighing of the Heart step is one of the few parts of the Book of the Dead with an explicit moral content.
The judgement of the deceased and the Negative Confession were a representation of the conventional moral code which governed Egyptian society.

When Sweeney dead, I'm sure it wasn't a simple casuality or just an eccentricity his wife Carolyn decided to read excerpts from the Egyptian ancient text at the funeral. She wrote me on September 2005 about it: "(...) It was a beautiful ceremony rather than a conventional funeral, Steve Pank read from the "Egyptian Book of the Dead" and tracks from "Alchemy" were played, incense was burning, Glen was in a raffia coffin with sunflowers on top. Everyone said what a wonderful experience it was and some were reminded of being at an early Third Ear Band concert. I'm sure Glen would have approved".
I'm persuaded "Egyptian Book of the Dead" was the sign the TEB play to advise the people of their responsability into the life. No words, just sounds and emotions.
As a pagan, earthly prayer.

Book of the dead on Wikipedia:
Book of the Dead (English version) download:].

"Alchemy" (LP/CD - Harvest Records, UK 1969-2004)
"Live Ghosts" (LP/CD - Materiali Sonori, ITA 1987 live) as "Live Ghosts"
"Live Ghosts" (LP/CD - Materiali Sonori, ITA 1990 live/studio) as "Live Ghosts" and "Necromanticus" (studio bonus track)
"New Forecasts from the third ear almanac" (cassette - ADN Records, ITA 1989 live) 
"Live"(CD - Voiceprint, UK 1996 live)
"Hymn to the Sphynx" (2CD - Mooncrest Records, UK 2001 live/studio M)
"Raga Live" (2LPs - Turning Point, ITA 2002 live)

 BBC "Night Ride" (January 1st, 1969)

no©2011 Luca Ferrari

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