The Paranormal and Music: Interview with Dr Melvyn Willin
This week's guest is Dr Melvyn Willin, who wears many hats. He is a musician, music teacher, musicologist, parapsychological researcher and paramusicologist. He is currently researching his second PhD, on occult references in world music.
DE: Hi Melvyn, that's a lot of titles, and a lot of studying, can you tell us a little more about what you've done?
MW: Thanks Dave. I don't think it is as impressive as it all sounds really. The musician title is particularly scary since I don't play as much now as twenty odd (very odd!) years ago. I get by on plucked strings, especially guitar, and have a collection of ethnic instruments that I have picked up in various countries when on tour. These include some pretty weird things such as the Japanese koto, Chinese moon lute, Rumanian cobza, Greek boozooki etc etc. My style of playing has always been acoustic folk/ classical and I've composed a few pieces and published a couple of tutor books. My main musical acitivity has been with a guitar orchestra I formed 25 years ago that is still just about going. There have been up to 60 people in it at any given time and we've given some wild concerts in venues around the world.
The teaching started as yer average school music teacher - a girls' convent actually where I was the only male teacher ! And after a couple of years I switched to freelance and have been doing this ever since - schools, colleges, adult evening classes and even a prison for several years!
The musicologist title - hey these are your titles not mine - hardly applies apart from a standard musicology masters degree and the Ph.D. which is only barely musicology. I've been interested in the paranormal for 30 years and am a Council member of the Society for Psychical Research and became their archivist recently.
I combined this interest with music for my Ph.D. and wrote a thesis on musical 'spooks'. Well, to be more precise it deals with music from mediums allegedly in touch with dead composers, music as a target in telepathy experiments and music that has no known source.
DE: That would be like people hearing discarnate voices, only sounds or tunes in this case?
MW: Yes. Much of this work was carried out at the Koestler Unit of Parapsychology in Edinburgh, under the direct supervision of my friend Bob Morris.
Currently I am studying music that was allegedly used in historical pagan practices, music that seeks to represent paganism in the classical repertoire, and current use of music in witchcraft and paganism. Various interesting links have come out of this work. For instance, the well-known British composer Phillip Hesseltine was involved in the Crowley scene for a while. The exact details are not known (by me) but he certainly changed his name to Peter Warlock around this time and also committed suicide soon after. I've been searching for more info. about Crowley's violin playing scarlet woman too.
DE: Ah, that would be Leila Waddell, I hear she really was something else as a musician, but AC didn't rate her until he'd given her some 'tuition'…. So if anyone reading this has, for instance, sheet music (or gods know, there may even be some wax cylinder recordings out there) of what she ever played Mel would be really interested. Emails to Dave, or via Melvyn's site
Some of it sounds like a cross between touring a band and 'Ghostbusters'! I'm sure you've had some subjectively pretty weird happenings while investigating unearthly music? There is a stereotypical image of spectral trumpets at séances, but it goes beyond investigating that, yes?
MW: No it's nothing like a cross between a touring band and Ghostbusters (snarl).
The investigating of unearthly music has often been cold, wet, uncomfortable and incredibly boring waiting for nothing to happen! One event sticks in my mind since myself and a colleague almost made total fools of ourselves. We visited Bolton Abbey where ghostly music had been reported. We arrived with video and tape recorder one winter's day. The place was deserted and we entered the building. Immediately ghostly chanting could be heard. We switched our machines on and they registered a recording. BINGO! We thought, at last a genuine recording. After several seconds a cleaning lady appeared from behind the altar and explained that she liked to play a cassette of monks chanting when she did the cleaning!
DE: That's priceless…..
MW: The seance trumpet that you mentioned is not used for music but for voice amplification or just to allegedly fly round the room bashing people. I've witnessed this several times and always thought it to be faked. Some of the mediums, however, did produce some pretty good music from dead composers and one guy believing himself to be possessed by the spirit of Caruso had a fantastic voice.
Written music usually varied according to previously held knowledge of composing techniques. Some people certainly excelled themselves under what they believed to be the dictation of the dead. These were usually classical composers - Beethoven, Liszt, Mozart etc- but also included a couple of John Lennons. Thank goodness I didn't have to investigate any Elvis Presley's... presumably they were all in Tescos at the time!
DE: Or in the chippy- what was that song: "there's a guy works down our chipshop swears he's Elvis"… Kirsty MacColl I think…., buy yeah, good warning there, don't assume everything is really paranormal; keep an open mind, but be prepared to accept that some things cannot be explained... yet.
MW: Yes an open mind is important, but not so open that your brains fall out!
DE: Right : ) ...moving on, I hear you have an unusual 'pet'?
MW: Yes I have a full size Triceratops in my garden (she's called Trixy). I've always like them and perhaps I was one in a previous life... it's better than being Cleopatra or Napoleon I reckon.
DE: More impressive than a garden gnome! I guess you must have a pretty wild collection of instruments and records too- is there one you haven't got or have never found, that you'd love to have?
MW: Yes I do have a good collection of instruments and several thousand records, cassettes, CDs etc. As to an instrument I'd like... that's easy. When money runs out, which is regularly, I have to sell instruments and with the mortgage not being paid a few years ago I was forced to sell my best classical guitar - a hand made job by Jose Romanillos. I'd like that back if you've got a few thousand to spare. As to a recording, any music from the fantastic film "The Wicker Man" that was NOT used in the film would be quite a find.
DE: Must be heartbreaking- I'm the same with rare old magic books; every now and then some have to go... so as one skint postgrad to another, 'fraid not on the former. But again, if anyone out there can help with the latter, please contact either Melvyn or myself. Wicked film indeed- we're gradually building up reviews of great occult films for the essays part of the site, that's one of many we've not done yet, and really should.
Time's up- Thanks for that Mel and best of luck with the rest of the PhD.
For details of Melvyn's publications, including abstracts of his research and other details see: http://moebius.psy.ed.ac.uk/~melw
Originally published 19/03/2002