Wardruna released their new single “Kvitravn” earlier this month, and I think that as a work of music and — I hope I don’t leave too many people behind here — as a spell, it might be among their best.
The idea of music as literal magic is not original to me. Many other artists have spoken about art being magic almost as a matter of definition, Alan Moore (author of such works as Watchmen, and The Killing Joke) being probably the most articulate on this point.
Wardruna carries this idea of art-as-magic into their music, and I have written about how I think it is visible in their lyrics in other songs like Helvegen.
Kvitravn is different than Helvegen. It is not quite as direct, but there is one cue in the lyrics that hints at this understanding and towards a magical intent:
Lat oss flyga
i vide vindar
I hugjen veida
Med songen seida
Let us fly
Wide on winds
With hunting minds
And sorcerous songs
Grammatically speaking, the most important part of this stanza that marks it as something magical is actually not “sorcerous songs.” It is “let us.”
“Let us” is a soft directive, an invitation or a suggestion of the kind that might be used in hypnotherapy. In the context of a song, what is meant to follow from that suggestion is the intended change in consciousness that the magician hopes to affect in the mind of the audience.
Note that music will have this effect even if the musician doesn’t intend it; a lack of intent does not indicate that there won’t be psychological effects from listening to particular music, especially repeatedly. This means that contrary to Christian intuition, the magician may actually be the more responsible musician than the pop-singer, since the magician is thinking clearly and proactively about the effect their music might have, rather than just expressing how they are feeling regardless of its potential spiritual and psychological effects.
But how is this change affected with foreign lyrics like those of Wardruna? Odds are high that the listener is probably not a native speaker of Norse, and won’t understand the lyrics without looking them up. Even after looking them up, foreign lyrics still may not land as you are listening. But there is still a powerful effect — and this effect comes from the music itself.
(Side-note: Musically speaking, the sound of the music can include the sound of the lyrics, just not their meaning, which is why many songs have nonsensical lyrics).
In Kvitravn, one of the major musical tools used to accomplish this sorcerous change in consciousness is repetition. Generally speaking, it is difficult to maintain repetition without boring the listener’s ears. Some musicians try to resolve this by introducing variations around a common theme, which is a common strategy in classical music and film-scoring. In this song, Einar opted for progressive layering, dropping a drum-beat and some sonic depth at about 1:22, vocal variation at 1:55, and even some harmonizing at 2:26. In all the layers, it’s easy to lose conscious track of that basic string-riff that kicks off the song, but it’s there the whole time.
Musical repetition is at the heart of many shamanic traditions, which use repeated sound (usually a drum, throat-singing, or some similar tool) to aid in achieving an altered state of consciousness for themselves or another individual.
So the question: what alteration is Einar seeking in his audience with this song?
While I do not think the lyrics are the primary tool, they provide us a clue as to what his intentions are:
Lure you in
Veiled and dwelling
The full lyrics are there for the reading — in Norse and English — on the video-page, so I won’t go over it all here. But this very first line tells us all we need to know. Einar wants to lure you — the audience — into this journey, this flight, back into the past and into connection with this mythic tradition that he himself is a part of. The White Raven is a symbol, a strange and memorable sign that can guide the hearer on this journey.
The White Raven — “Kvitravn” — also happens to be an old stage-name of Einar himself, our guide on this wide-winged flight. He offers to teach you the songs, even as he himself is asking to learn the songs.