Feature Writing
Ken Waters, Professor

Chosen as the third best article written in the spring of 2006

STUDENT COMMENTS:

I loved this piece because it was just so unusual.  

Michael combines fine story telling and language control with a great article angle.  The narrative scene at the beginning of the story is extremely well written.

My favorite thing about Michael's writing is that he puts you in the situation.  When I was reading about the bum, I actually felt like I was there.  He also did an excellent job of explaining the phenomenon of alchemy while still incorporating it into Brummel's story.

There seemed to be a good balance of dialogue, description, narration and exposition. The nutgraf falls much later in the story, but it makes an interesting connection to what the story is about.  He uses tension and complication well throughout. . . .

The piece is very intellectual, but still comprehensive and relatable because of the sense of character he establishes.

He gave the reader just enough information to want to know more, and continued to satisfy curiosity throughout the entire article.


The Alchemist

By Michael Alahouzos

Nothing mattered at that moment and nothing made sense.  Taking a deep breath as he cautiously recounted the events in his mind, Daniel Brummel paused.  

It was winter in New York City . 2,772 miles away from his hometown of Pasadena, Calif., Brummel had been busy touring with Los Angeles’ best-kept rock & roll secret, Ozma.

 Enjoying his short vacation with Andrea, Brummel’s then girlfriend (now fiancée) on his arm, he didn’t hesitate to say “sorry” when a stranger encountered them outside in the middle of the night.

 They were only a block away from Andrea’s dorm when it happened.

 Daniel and Andrea had always been a good couple, though their relationship was hard at times. Brummel was at UCLA. Andrea was at Columbia University and couldn’t get away. They both felt the weight of Ozma’s touring on their shoulders. Whether Brummel was in the US or Japan, playing with Weezer or co-headlining tours with Nada Surf or Rilo Kiley, his commitment to Ozma tough on them.

 All things changed on that night in New York City – just one night before Brummel’s flight home to Pasadena .

 “We came upon this bum,” Brummel recalled, “and he asked me for money.”

 The air was cold, and Brummel was intent on getting Andrea home quick and safe. “I said I didn’t have any money,” Brummel remembered, talking rapidly as the memories came back to him.

 “Then he asked me for a cigarette… and he said, ‘what month were you born?’”

 Brummel stopped, repeating the words in his head. Unsure of what to say, he simply asked the stranger to repeat the question. The man replied.

 “What month were you born?”  

Born on September 15, Brummel simply told the stranger, “September.”

 “Ah, that’s right.” The man chortled. “You were both born on the fifteenth.”

 Time froze – the couple stood very still, slightly scared. At that moment, nothing made sense. Brummel looked to Andrea for answers, though he knew she had none. She, too, was born on a fifteenth.

“You know, he loves you a lot,” the mysterious stranger said to Andrea, who was anxious to leave and go home safely. Brummel stood still, intrigued as the man eyeballed him. “She loves you too, but it’s real hard for her to hold on when you’re so far away.”

 Unsure of almost anything and everything, Brummel understood Andrea’s sudden urge to go back home. The couple left the man standing outside.

 “It gets even weirder,” Brummel warned as his voice sped up.  

“We went back up to her dorm room on the ninth floor. I was excited by it, and I wanted to go back down and talk to him some more, but Andrea was freaked out.”

 Looking down the nine floors from Andrea’s window, Brummel noticed that the man had come around the corner of the building to where he would visible to Brummel. Startled and curious, but excited, Brummel watched from his bird’s eye view as something he would never understand happened.

 “At the moment I stared at him,” Brummel said, “I felt like he could feel my gaze, and he froze.”

 The streetlamps on Andrea’s side of the street cast the shadows of trees across the pavement, where the man was standing.  

            Brummel will never forget the image he saw that night. “I noticed that he was standing in the shadow of a tree, and I thought, ‘that’s really strange… why is he standing aligned with that tree?’”

 Making no mention of the man and the tree to Andrea, Brummel stayed up all night, excited, reading about a phenomenon he had recently been turned on to called Hermetic alchemy.  

Hermetic alchemy, a spiritual technique used to purify and refine one’s soul, unconsciously became a path that Brummel took towards a new musical and philosophical approach to everyday life.  

Inspired by the stranger’s magical knowledge, Brummel looked deep in the texts that night, only to find that these alchemists possessed rare abilities similar to the stranger’s, which Brummel actively sought an answer for.

 If asked, Brummel will tell you everything he can about the mysterious master alchemist named Fulcanelli. Though his true identity has not been discovered for almost a century, Fulcanelli was pursued by pre-World War II German intelligence for his rumored knowledge of nuclear weapons long before any ever existed.

 That night, Andrea understood that her boyfriend was on the verge of something big in his mind, and gave him Friedrich Nietzsche’s “On the Genealogy of Morals” for his flight back to Los Angeles County .

 It was on that plane that everything came together.

 “I pulled out the book to read it,” Brummel said, “and it’s an all black cover – there’s only one picture on the cover, and it’s a cutout drawing of a tree casting the shadow of a man.”

 Carl Jung, often studied alongside Nietzsche, speaks of similar cases of coincidence as an “acausal connecting principle” – when two cases happen simultaneously in a manner that is meaningful to that person experiencing them.

 “I think I felt energized,” Brummel remembers. “It was like an awakening. I felt like, from that moment on, it was initiative into mysticism. Ever since then, I can’t stop reading [about] these types of phenomenon.”

 From then on, nothing could be the same for Brummel, or Ozma. The band split in May of 2004, and the singer-bassist Brummel moved to New York City for Andrea, where he fully immersed himself in the pages of books containing the secret lives of the alchemists.

 “I wanted to figure it out, and it’s written down, but it’s kind of written in secret code, and that’s what alchemy is.”

To begin his metaphysical transformation, Brummel sought out a rare book – the alchemist’s bible – Fulcanelli’s 1922 masterpiece “Le Mystère des Cathédrales” (“The Mystery of the Cathedrals”). The following year saw him furiously writing and recording new music in his New York apartment with thoughts of spiritualism in his mind and alchemy in his blood.

 Brummel admits that, though he never consciously sought out to write a concept record concerning alchemy, it happened anyway.

 The songs came together nicely for Brummel. The result of months of work (and Brummel’s own personal transformation) became Speak Easy, Brummel’s first solo record after Ozma’s initial break-up, released in the fall of 2005.

Songs from Speak Easy, like “The Mysteries of the Cathedrals” and “The Language of the Birds,” contain numerous allusions (most notably, their titles) to Fulcanelli and his followers’ beliefs.

The actual language of the birds, or “The Green Language,” is a secret name in “Le Mystère des Cathédrales” for the hidden language that the alchemists were believed to have spoken in order to avoid accusations of heresy.

Birds also inspired a multitude of songs that make up Speak Easy’s track list, including “Coo Coo Bird,” “Sao Paolo” and “Mourning Song,” all of which contain bird references or sounds.

“The thing about the birds,” Brummel said, “is they have a god’s eye view. Birds have been here longer than us. They’ve got the perspective.”  

Fulcanelli argues that the main point to unraveling the larger mystery of alchemy and the cathedrals lies in understanding the language of the birds.

 Today, even the most avid readers of Fulcanelli have trouble believing much of what he says. It is written in the forwards to “Le Mystère des Cathédrales” that the last time Fulcanelli was seen was in 1954 by a follower named Canseliet. Summoned to a castle in the mountains of Spain by his former master, Canseliet returned to tell a tale of how Fulcanelli, who should have been about 80 years old, miraculously rejuvenated himself, appearing about fifty (Canseliet’s own age).

 Many still question the believability of the claim, including Brummel.

 “‘Beliefs’ is a very weak word,” Brummel said. He believes that it is too easy to say you believe in God, and that to know God is the strongest affirmation of faith. “Gnosis is based on the word ‘to know.’”

 The hermetic alchemists are believed to have known the mythical figure of Hermes Trismegistus, who supposedly taught the Egyptians all their knowledge of natural and supernatural things, including the hieroglyphics. Seen as their “Moses,” Hermes Trismegistus was also believed to have created divine commandments on what is known as the “emerald tablet.”

“Since alchemists,” it is written in “Le Mystère des Cathédrales,” “are popularly regarded as at best deluded and at worst deranged, a claim that alchemy is not only science but Science, not only a religion but Religion, is apt to be dismissed out of hand as derisory.”  

Brummel confirmed the feeling; since his mystical encounter, he has found himself believing more in the supernatural side of alchemy.

 When asked whether or not he is a believer, Brummel confessed that “anybody who has called it a religion in the past has been called a heretic, but I would say sure.”

 He is not the first entertainer to, either. Frank Zappa wrote a song called “But Who Was Fulcanelli?” on the second disc of his album, Shut Up n’ Play Yer Guitar.

 Dan Brown is also an avid follower of Fulcanelli’s writings, gathering much of his research for “The Da Vinci Code” from Fulcanelli’s interpretations of the hidden meanings carved into the statues of the cathedrals in “Le Mystère des Cathédrales.” It is also believed that the Priory of Sion, whose supposed task was to guard the secret bloodline of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, was also influenced by Fulcanelli’s writings and findings.  

Today, that influence is spreading with each play of Speak Easy and each of Brummel’s rare solo performances.

On April 8, Brummel played his mystical songs at the No Future Café (operated by a church in its rec-room) in Pasadena in front of an audience of roughly 35.  

Flash-forward to seven days later; Brummel sings lead vocals for the newly-reunited Ozma at USC’s Springfest in front of a crowd of roughly five hundred. The band performs some of their hits, “Korobeiniki (Tetris),” “Gameover” and “Rocks,” all written before Brummel’s spiritual transformation.

 Though Brummel may never escape his past (and past achievements in songwriting), which he believes to be “pretty shallow” in comparison to what he has created since, this is who he is. He’ll always be known as “that kid who wrote songs about videogames and ‘Back to the Future’… that kid who wore the childish ‘In Search of 1988’ shirt at his concerts.”

 Wearing a t-shirt begging for the US protection of a genocide-stricken region in Sudan (“SaveDarfur.Org”), Brummel tells the audience “thanks for coming” as he and the band plunge into another wonderful pop-rock song about that girl he just couldn’t get in high school – though a stranger in New York City confirms he did.  

When he gets home, he’ll dive back into his late-grandmother’s upright piano, meditating on the drone of the F-sharp below middle C, writing wonderful folk songs about alchemists, mathematicians, astrologists and, likely, injustices in the world that deserve attention.

 Worlds collide, nations die and Daniel Brummel makes records.