If you came to the Spellbound Forest, you probably stood and listened for a while to the classical musicians along the paths and deeper in the woods. What you may not have realised, was that they were playing a specially commissioned piece. The Book of Imaginary Beings was written by composer James Stephenson just for the event, in partnership with the wonderful Classical Revolutions. The piece consisted of six parts, played along the pathways by different instruments. See below for more details, and here is a wonderful video of the whole piece.

This work takes its name and inspiration from the fantastical encyclopaedia compiled by Jorge Luis Borges and various collaborators during the 1950s and 1960s. In it, they compiled a “handbook of the strange creatures conceived through time and space by the human imagination”. Drawing on sources from thousands of years ago and from across the world, from ancient Greece and Rome, from the ancient Muslim and Chinese traditions, and authors from Dante to Kafka to C. S. Lewis, Borges’ encyclopaedia is an astonishing journey through the powers of the human mind. The way in which these fantastic beasts are interpreted as music in this work varies greatly – sometimes the music describes or represents the animal directly, whereas, others are more abstract, even using ‘graphic scores’ where the shape of the music staves is symbolic. But, in the end, the result is similarly a journey through the imaginative power of the human mind, and we invite you to join us on this path.

1. Haokah, the Thunder God – for flute and drum

“Among the Dakota Sioux, Haokah used the wind as sticks to beat the thunder drum”

2. Phoenix – for three or more instruments

Ancient Egypt gave rise to the myth of this deathless bird, but its form solidified in the Greek and Roman civilisations, and at the end of the Fourth Century we have the first account of the Phoenix as we now know it, an eagle-like bird who dies in flames and rises again from its own ashes, “an heir to itself and a witness of the ages”.

3. Lilith – for double bass

In ancient Hebrew texts, Lilith was a serpent and the first wife of Adam; when God made Eve, Adam deserted her and she felt betrayed, tricking Eve into eating from the tree of knowledge. In the Middle Ages, Lilith’s story was corrupted by misunderstandings with the Hebrew word layil (‘night’). She became “at times, and angel who rules over the procreation of mankind, at times a demon who assaults those who sleep alone or those who travel lonely roads”.

4. A Bao A Qu – for oboe, and two or more strings

“On the stairway of the Tower of Victory [‘Vijay Stambha’, in modern-day Chittorgarh, India] there has lived a being sensitive to the many shades of the human soul and known as the A Bao A Qu. It lies dormant… until at the approach of a person some secret life is touched off in it, and deep within the creature an inner light begins to glow.[…] Only when someone starts up the spiralling stairs is the A Bao A Qu brought to consciousness, and then it sticks close to the visitor’s heels,… at each level the creature’s colour becomes more intense, its shape approaches perfection, and the bluish form it gives off is more brilliant. But it achieves its ultimate form only at the topmost step, when the climber is a person who has achieved Nirvana”

5. Jinn – for three or more instruments

“According to Moslem tradition, Allah created three different species of intelligent beings: Angels, who are made of light; Jinn, who are made of fire [and smoke]; and Men, who are made of earth. The singular form of Jinn, ‘Jinnee’, has entered the English language and mythology as ‘Genie’.

6. Uroboros – for three or more instruments

The ancient Greeks spoke of oceans not in the way we now think of them, but as an unbroken body of water surrounding the known land mass and creating a border for the flat earth. By the Third Century, a symbol had emerged for this concept; the serpent which eats its own tail. The creature was given the Greek name Uroboros, meaning ‘the one that devours its tail’, and it has permeated Western myth and legend since that time.