Archive for the ‘Music of the Cubes’ Category

Early in the hi…

March 10, 2012


Early in the history of this blog (and for some years afterward), I covered a lot of speculative nonsense regarding the famous Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland. The claims made back then have never gone away, but they haven’t received a whole lot more attention either, aside from a lengthy Slate article a few months back. This did at least give some time to the sceptics, though it was clear that the author had taken a liking to the purveyors of the theory, found it appealing, and ‘wanted to believe’, as Fox Mulder might put it.

This kind of story tends to get picked up in cycles, every few years, whenever lazy journalists need a quirky ‘discovery’ type story. Well, I have a feeling the ‘musical cubes’ will soon be back, thanks to this presentation by the author of the Slate article at none other an august institution than Princeton University. Thanks to foremost cube-critic Jeff Nisbet for the heads-up.

This post is quite long, but not nearly so long as either the linked video or the original article. Consider that I’ve sat through both so you don’t have to. I should also point out that one of my comments – I can’t remember what – has been deleted from that third section of the article, along with the preceding comment by fellow critic Jeff Nisbet that. It’s possible that there was a good reason for this, but it’s pretty poor form. Nonetheless, plenty of negative comments from both Jeff and I remain, along with lots of other sceptical people, including musicians.

Now, many people will assume that because Princeton have given the ‘theory’ stage-time, they are in agreement with the presenter and the originator of the claims. This is not the case. He has been permitted (or invited) to speak on the basis of the very real physics behind the very bogus historical claims. Physicists are not historians, nor even necessarily critical thinkers.

Also, the presenter himself expressed similar doubts in his original article, citing my ‘prolific’ responses to the original claims, and in the comments pages, actually admitting that;

‘I think the early BSHistorian articles–which I get to later–are probably the best summation of all the very reasonable doubts about this project.’

Wilson restates these doubts in the video with tentative phrases like ‘could have been’, ‘no record of’, and ‘possibly a coincidence’ (more of these below). For all that he is pushing this idea, at least unlike the guys that originated the claims he is, to an extent, allowing the reader/viewer to make up his or her own mind up. He also points out that a section at the end doesn’t make musical sense, and puts this down to the changes in the stonework that are documented as having taken place. But he’s happy to accept that the rest is OK, despite the Victorian restoration of the chapel being extensive. How do we know which bits are original and therefore part of the supposed piece of music?

At one point he compares the composer’s efforts to ‘recreate’ the ‘music’ to the frog DNA used to plug the gaps in the dinosaur DNA in ‘Jurassic Park’. He also points out the various ‘arbitrary decisions’ made by the composer in that process and admits that even if the music can be considered genuine, its modern-day creator must be regarded as the ‘arranger stroke co-composer’.

Strangely, Wilson claims it can’t be a moneymaking scheme/scam because the two men involved don’t make much money from it. The fact that they only managed to strike a deal giving them £1200 a year for it does not inform us as to their motives in doing so.

The only new piece of information in the whole presentation is a piece of music found in the notes of Gilbert Hay (an associate of the chapel builder), about which Wilson states:

‘…not precisely a melody that you would find in Stuart’s – erm – transcription, but it’s the same key, its the same tonic, and its the same notes.’

He then goes on to admit, rather contradictorily, that one could ‘absolutely see this as reaching for evidence, but it is there’. He also waves away some pretty important scepticism from Professor Warwick Edwards at Glasgow University on the basis that his specialist period is the 16th century rather than the 15th and quotes him as stating ‘I don’t really know’. It’s difficult to tell, but to me it sounds like Edwards would rather not get too deeply involved either as a supporter or a critic, which is pretty standard amongst academics. Indeed, Wilson bemoans the fact that these two ‘eccentric eccentric people’ are ‘not being taken seriously by the academy’. Academics will tend to ignore speculative claims rather than get tarred by the woo brush, even if they are debunking rather than endorsing.

A couple of points he gets plain wrong. He makes the old mistake of believing that the ‘green man’ is a pagan symbol. More importantly though, he claims that the cube carvings were ‘carved in place’, when in fact all of the internal decoration of the chapel is applied, as is evident from the missing chunks today and as depicted in art (see Robert Cooper’s ‘Rosslyn Hoax’ book, Jeff Nisbet’s research, and some of my earlier posts e.g. this). Many of these chunks of masonry were restored or replaced in the 19th century. I don’t know where to start with his claim that the cubes are ‘so geometrical in a way that was not a common theme at the time’, since medieval architecture is based upon geometry. Unless he’s referring to the shape of the cubes themselves I suppose.

We also get a claim I’ve seen before (not least in the book that originally laid out the musical cube idea) that this was a ‘…time when you’d want to keep quiet about being interested in maths or music.’ Yes, music was the preserve of the rich and the church, and rules were laid down about it, but I’ve yet to see any real evidence of suppression beyond this. Medieval historians – comment below!

I would have said that Wilson simply does not understand critical thinking when he says;

‘If aliens found it, they could draw the same conclusion that the Mitchell’s did’.

He bases this on the fact that the Chladni patterns are a natural phenomenon. The clear problem with this is that they are only the hypothetical basis for the claims made. That seeing a pattern where none exists is a mistake that anyone could make is obviously not evidence that it does!

Yet Wilson apparently does understand both critical thought, and the dangers of becoming too personally invested in an idea. He points out that the originators of the cube hypothesis are ‘two men who believe’ (emphasis on believe) and most importantly that ‘their opinion is unfalsifiable’. Despite this admission that it could well all be bollocks, Wilson nonetheless believes it to be ‘very compelling’, and places his emphasis on how plausible the hypothesis is:

‘Because if it’s plausible, it’s ‘the most fascinating thing I’ve ever seen.’

Unfortunately, ‘is it plausible?’ is entirely the wrong question to ask. Plausible does not equal historical, and speculative history relies upon the superficial plausibility of the claims made to bamboozle the laymans and (some of) the enthusiasts. If there’s a whizz-bang gimmick to awe the rubes, so much the better; in this case it’s the impressive (and very real) phenomenon of ‘Chladni’ patterns. ‘Plausible’ essentially suggests that if it sounds or even ‘feels’ right, so perhaps it is.

No. No, no, no. There are times when speculation is justified or even necessary in the study of the past, but it must be carried out within a framework of evidence. It’s exactly the same principle as the old ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’ for claims of the pseudoscientific or paranormal. You can infer foundations from a ditch on an archaeological site, but you can’t speculate that it was an elephant hopscotch arena.

The claim that the cubes represent musical notes has serious implications for the established history of music, and the medieval understanding of science, so we need a damn good reason to believe it. Moreover, there is a far more parsimonious explanation for the ‘motet’ – that it is an elaborate example of bad pattern recognition. The fact that the claim is unfalsifiable is not just a caveat, it undermines the whole thing.

I can’t help feeling that if anyone in the audience was fooled by all this, had Wilson pointed out that one of the originators of the cube theory has since turned his hand to producing ‘music’ from DNA, they might not have been. No-one is seriously suggesting that music is somehow encoded in Beethoven’s DNA – nor should they be suggesting that someone did so with the Rosslyn ‘cubes’. You can generate ‘notes’ from any sequence – it’s what you do with them that makes them a piece of music.

Rosslyn: Return of the Cubes

April 1, 2009

da-vinci-codeNever mind the “code” – what about the mullet?

The “cubes” haven’t exactly returned. The promulgators of that particular claim (about a piece of music supposedly recreated by an enterprising musician) have moved on to other things since I took an interest back in 2006. But I thought this video well worth pointing out because of a very telling comment by the director of the Rosslyn Chapel Trust (timecode 51:45);

“In the lady chapel, which is the front part of the choir, there’s like little nodules of stone going up and around over the top, and each of those has a different symbol carved on it, and there’s a local gentleman who’s spent the last twenty years studying these, and noting them down, and what he did a bed of sand, and if, when he played a certain musical note, it came up with legibly the shape, so from that he managed to work out what the notes were, and then he put..set that to what the original instruments of the time would be, and composed what he said was the Rosslyn “anthem”. The only slight difficult with that is we know that some of the nodules had fallen off in recent years, and had been put back up by the local stonemason, and he will quite fully admit that he just carved what he thought might be right, and popped them back up *laughter*! So if there’s a few off notes in the concert, then… maybe that explains it!”

It’s worse than that, as I’ve explained in previous posts, but it’s good to see a degree of scepticism about the claims coming from, essentially, an official source. And although I don’t set too much store by “body language” as a (pseudo)science, it’s obvious nonetheless that between this and the director’s tone of voice, he’s not buying 100% into the “Rosslyn Motet”.

Thanks to Jeff Nisbet of for catching this and passing on the link (his own article on the “controversy” is here).

Unfortunately the video itself, though informative and clear on the original nature and (Catholic Christian) purpose of the chapel itself, does propagate various other myths about the chapel. That William St Clair was NOT made an hereditary Grand Master Mason has been shown beyond doubt by Scottish Grand Lodge curator Robert Cooper, using primary sources. In fact this was a case of an 18th century Sinclair easing his acquisition of that title by “graciously” renouncing the supposed hereditary title in order to be elected to that position in modern Scottish Freemasonry (which doesn’t even date back as far as the 14th century). Then there’s the old chestnut of the American corn carvings. There’s plenty of storytelling, but precious little in the way of scepticism about the stories. This bet-hedging non-commital attitude is summed-up by the Trust director’s comment that “We don’t seek to prove or disprove any theories“. I have to ask “why not”, when the facts are so close at hand? At the least, it should be possible to make clear what is folklore and myth, and what is supported by historians as fact, or at least, reasonably plausible speculation. However, note that he also says “the facts are just as amazing as any fiction”, which would seem to be at odds with the stance in general. To me, it seems as though the beliefs about the chapel are being treated with kid gloves, as though they are dealing not with visitors, but customers who are “always right” – a common trend in the heritage sector today – or even as members of religious groups whose irrational beliefs are not to be challenged for fear of offending them (and their spending power).

To me, this makes it all the more telling that they were willing to publically “diss” the idea of “musical” cubes in this way. Then again, they did host the composer’s live performances and sell copies of his book in their shop. But hey, the fantasy/speculative history stuff keeps the roof on, right? And there’s a lot of good conservation work going on, paid for in large part by this popular approach.  Bearing all this in mind, it’s hard to blame the Trust for this. Still, I’d hope that a lecture like this might deal a little more in hard facts, and I hope for something more in the planned interpretative visitor centre that the director outlines.

Rosslyn Chapel’s musical cubes silenced?

September 2, 2007

In previous posts I have offered criticism of the Rosslyn Chapel “musical” code theories, specifically that put forward in Thomas Mitchell’s frankly bonkers book, and the end product; his son Stuart’s “Rosslyn Motet” piece of music. Both are, of course, for sale, as are tickets to live performances at the chapel itself. The whole exercise relies not upon quality research, reason and evidence, but rather assumption, speculation and assertion. Paradoxically, this makes it fairly immune to active debunking; the carved “cubes” might still represent notes, and there’s nothing that outright contradicts that (burden of proof be damned). Or is there?

There are many assumptions underpinning the Mitchell’s work. One that is that all of the cubes that we see in the chapel ceiling today are original to the 15th Century. The Mitchells have confidently accounted for the two missing cubes, but clearly the fewer original ones, the fewer the “notes” with which to reconstruct any underlying musical code. The chapel has a long history of neglect and repair, and real expertise is required to spot the more subtle alterations today. Could the Mitchells be working with the wrong notes? As it turns out, historical evidence shows that it’s very likely that they are. I found this, of all places, in a recent issue of the esoteric magazine “Atlantis Rising“, buried amongst pieces on secret Nazi flying saucers and “Intelligent” Design. An article by Jeff Nisbet of, as well as accusations of sneaky appropriation of the work of others, reproduces pieces of art by Samuel Dukinfield Swarbreck and dated to 1837, which show the accumulated damage of over 200 years of neglect. Not only are lots of cubes missing from the arches, but those vital first few “notes” in particular have been obliterated from the first pillar or “stave” in the “motet”. In fact, whole blocks of cube-carrying masonry are absent, revealing the bare arches beneath (Rosslyn’s carvings were mostly appliqué). If this artwork is accurate, it blows any musical code hypothesis out of the proverbial water.

So, in the absence of period photographs, can we trust these sources? Or could one legitimately play the “artistic licence” card to keep the claims alive? Certainly some artists opted for a romantic or idealised impression of the evocative but visually complex interior. As documented in the wonderfully illustrated Rosslyn: Country of Painter and Poet however, Swarbreck was there to document the dilapidated original interior of the chapel prior to the first major restoration effort, due to begin that year. But how good a job did he do? Take a look at another of Swarbreck’s series, from the opposite side of the church. This shows just how many individual cubes, and how many supporting appliqué masonry blocks, were missing.


Artistic licence? Perhaps as far as individual cubes go, but it’s clear that until the restoration, a great number were missing. This second engraving by J & J Johnstone (1825), shows the same damage – missing cubes, even entire swathes of arch rib that would have held original cubes:

Just how many of the cubes are Victorian creations?

Finally, a work by J.A. Houston, again depicting loss to the stonework around the Apprentice Pillar, from a different angle, as it was in 1854:

Detail of print by John Adam Houston, 1854

Perhaps in over-eagerness to discredit the hypothesis, Nisbet attacks the historicity of Mitchell’s “stave angel”. This is supposedly the “Rosetta Stone” key to the sequence and interpretation of the cubes, hence a prime target. However, his claim that it is “not holding a musical stave but is, in fact, playing an instrument“, is by my estimation wide of the mark. Take a look at these two images:


A modern photo (left) and the same view in 1837 (right)

All of the salient features are there, save for the missing cubes and, in the case of the middle upright arch, the very blocks of stone they would be attached to. The “stave angel” is there, and given the limitation of scale, the artist has done a great job of representing it, even down to the fingers that Mitchell claims are pointing to specific lines on the stone. Now, whatever the angel is supposed to be holding (book, lectern, musical instrument, or even “stave”), it’s the same thing in both images.


Though it might suit my argument to be able to dismiss the angel as a modern piece, I’m not about to do so when the evidence suggests otherwise. In fact this serves only to further validate the artwork as an historical source vis the missing/replaced cube carvings. There are only two real get-out scenarios that I can conceive of. One is to assume that the 1837 restoration team was able to locate each and every missing cube and piece of masonry, either repair or create exact replicas of them, and finally somehow correctly relocate them at the correct place. Not impossible, but not likely either, especially not in the 19th Century, when rigorous authenticity in architectural and historical restoration had yet to appear on the radar. Just look at the radically different 1861 replacement east window – and that was intact when they started! The other possibility is that Swarbreck’s lithographs were commenced after the restoration had begun, and that the missing stonework had actually been deliberately removed for repair or copying for replacement. The work above by Houston suggests otherwise, at least as far as the individual (missing) cubes are concerned – they are still gone seventeen years later, making it rather unlikely that their original positions and carved faces could have been faithfully recreated. Finally, if this were the case, one has to wonder why the restoration team would removed some blocks whole, and simply knock other cubes from their blocks in such haphazard fashion. At this point it would take impressive intellectual gymnastics to explain how today’s sequence of cube patterns could possibly bear meaningful relation to that originally intended by William Sinclair and installed by his successor some time in the late 1400s/early 1500s.

In conclusion then, my opinion was that there was never any reason to believe that the Rosslyn cubes ever held a secret piece of music, or indeed any other code (though I will approach any new evidence for such a thing with interest). Now, thanks to contemporary artwork, we can go further and say that the pattern of cubes seen today is not 600 years old, but a composite of Renaissance and Victorian work. Anything resembling intent or design in the sequence (as well as individually) is therefore nothing more than co-incidence, with no more intrinsic meaning than the pattern of your nan’s kitchen wallpaper. Lovely church, though, isn’t it?

Edit – note that Jeff Nisbett of Mythomorph suggests the various designs on the cubes, like other elements in the chapel (notably the whole east window) may well have been introduced in their entirety by the restoration crews. In other words they may originally have been identical. Even if there is original variation, the original pattern of this is forever lost, whether or not it once contained hidden secrets.