The Liturgy frontman offers an exclusive sneak-peak at the themes and sounds of Origin of the Alimonies.
By Ivan Krasnov & Isabel Sanchez
With his one-of-a-kind video opera, Origin of the Alimonies, Liturgy frontman Hunter Hunt-Hendrix fuses 19th century romanticism, black metal, and trap music to tell the story of two divine beings, OIOION and SHEYMN, incarnated onscreen by Pwrplnt founder and musician Angelina Dreem and Hunt-Hendrix himself. While Liturgy’s music is already bristling with existential questions, the work is ambitious in its aims, drawing on a diversity of philosophical frameworks to tackle the origin of all things. Ahead of the premiere at National Sawdust this Thursday, October 25—where it will be accompanied by an 11-piece chamber ensemble—Hunt-Hendrix gave AdHoc exclusive details about why he chose this uncommon format and the heavy themes the opera addresses.
AdHoc: What prompted the turn to opera as a format for this work? It seems to be at once be a fading art form, but there are also attempts to reshape the format so as to make it more malleable and relevant. How would you describe its place in today’s world?
Hunter Hunt-Hendrix: The idea for an opera about the origin of all things has been percolating for many years; I began the libretto in 2011 and developed it during my Issue Project Room residency the following year, but put it on hold for the long process of making and touring on the The Ark Work. Personally, I don’t have much interest in the cliche of “opera”—like Italian opera, or most of what’s performed at the Met. I’m more motivated by two opposed speculative meanings of the term. There’s the 19th century Wagnerian notion of opera as a synthesis of the arts, which functions in culture as a replacement for religion, using music to amplify a new myth that might guide civilization toward the light. Then there’s the 20th century sense of the term, which was more significant in the art world than in music: Opera as an experiment in the social field. An intervention, happening, “temporary autonomous zone” or whatever, which engages the narrative fabric of society at the limits of moral norms, seeking to reconfigure collective memory and rupture false consciousness—without there being an actual staged drama. It seems to me the ideal would be to balance these, to play the myth-building approach to art-as-politics against a guerrilla approach. Also, it’s obvious but nevertheless worth noting that, because of the way it’s transmitted in the digital era, music is beginning to feel incomplete without a strong visual or narrative component, so it’s easy to imagine opera being revived on technological grounds.
I think of Liturgy itself as an “opera” in the 20th century sense, because my efforts to combine metal with philosophical critique or with styles like trap music or gabber have always caused the type of reaction among some journalists and music fans that indicates a cultural trauma or blindspot being exposed to the light, which I consider a very important ethical act. I’ve never been satisfied with the usual parameters for running a rock band, because of the historical and philosophical questions swirling in my head about the politics and ethics of persona, the “music industry,” and the “underground.” We all know that rock music has only been around for 60 years and arose because of various economic and technological developments stemming from the Enlightenment and the decline of Christianity’s influence in the West, but it’s rare for people to really engage with the form in a world-historical context that also includes the concerns of classical music (which, in the large scheme of things, is also a fairly contemporary form). I’ve always felt the need to ground the practice of touring, releasing records, and promotion in a philosophic structure, or at least a practice of philosophic questioning.
But inventing a story that plays out in tandem with the duration of a single repeatable musical experience is new for me, and it rounds things out with respect to the coherence of the project. The fact that rock and rap have overshadowed classical music in terms of cultural significance is something that can be analyzed historically, which requires an account of world history, but this account would ultimately require a philosophy of history, which calls for speculation about its ultimate motor, whether it’s something like Hegelian difference-in-itself or a Freudian death drive (or, if we permit ourselves, a Vedantic cosmic cycle, or an Aristotelian self-contemplating God, or an Abrahamic jealous God, etc.). In other words, the sense I’ve been developing is that discursive philosophy isn’t on its own adequate to ground a music practice; philosophy ultimately must itself be grounded in myth. The effort to engage a wider historical context ultimately arrives at an abyss at which some kind account of the origin of all things must be given. But this account can’t be proven; it has to be sheer speculation, or maybe divine revelation, but in any case has to take an aesthetic or mythic form. This opera is an attempt to cosmogonically ground the philosophical scaffolding of a music practice and then close the loop by setting that account to music. The basic idea behind all this is that the world is made of love, and this love is difficult to access, but it’s important to try.
Can you walk us through the narrative arc of the piece?
I’m going to quote from the synopsis that’s going to be printed in the program notes at the performance:
“The world was born because a lonely surplus of light was unbearable to herself, so she chose to imagine an emptiness into which she might unburden herself of her blistering rays. The name of the light is OIOION and the name of the emptiness is SHEYMN. SHEYMN was gravely wounded as soon as he was born in OIOION’s mind, because, being less real than her scorching light, he was unable to handle its power—so he shattered. OIOION loved SHEYMN very much, and she was horrified by this disaster, so she retreated from the world. Both characters then created protective barriers—she a layer of ideas, which she named ANANON, he a layer of matter, which he named YLYLCYN. She began beaming her light towards him again, this time through the ideas. He began configuring the matter in different ways so as to receive the beams more effectively, and sending cries back up to OIOION about his progress. Music, drama, and philosophy were born, and world history began to unfold.
ANANON and YLYLCYN began to enhance one another, so that SHEYMN could gradually grow strong enough to someday receive OIOION’s light directly. OIOION, ANANON, YLYLCYN, and SHEYMN are the Four Alimonies, which are irreducible layers of being. The relation between them determines the destiny of civilization. This is the history of The Ark Work, which has so far passed through six ages, called Armistices. I believe The Ark Work will culminate in a seventh age, the Armistice of HAELEGEN, a city governed by four new laws: Sovereignty, Hierarchy, Emancipation and Individuation. HAELEGEN will also be known as the Sovereign Hierarchico-Emancipatory Individuation Muncipality (S.H.E.I.M.)”
Origin of the Alimonies deals with some dense and esoteric intellectual themes, such as cultural transmission, historical materialism, and the envisioning of post-capitalist modes of thought. What is your ultimate goal with the piece? What do you hope the audience will take away from it?
The ultimate goal is to foster rationally justifiable hope and love in the world, and to potentially contribute to a social form where freedom and respect are more widespread and more sustained. I think to actually do this with music requires an approach that is very serious about both philosophy and mysticism, because the danger of attaining the self-defeating false freedom of the “content creator” is ever-present. More concretely, the goal is the enactment of what I call “Perichoresis.” Perichoresis is a term derived from Christian theology signifying the dynamic relationship between God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit, which I identify with music, philosophy, and drama respectively. These have to be combined in a precise way which takes into account the history and social function of each discipline.
I’m planning a lecture series about Perichoresis, which will take place in the months following the opera performance, but the basic proposal is that the passage beyond capitalism requires contact with the divine, and that this contact can only be made if these three disciplines meet at their respective cutting edges, interfacing along both stylistic and infrastructural lines and [being] deeply reflexive about the historical canon. The premise is that during this stage in our economic history, transgressive or revolutionary desire is typically pre-formatted to foster an outcome that goes against its conscious aim, and a lot of philosophical work has to be done to create culture that escapes this trap. The particular path of escape I’m proposing is purely speculative, but I think other possible paths would need to take account of the same factors to really be serious.
The piece showcases a musical language that incorporates, per the press release, “underground metal, minimalism, trap music and 19th century romanticism.” Why that particular blend of genres? What were the challenges in fusing all of them together?
I haven’t looked at Adorno in a long time, but there’s an idea in my head that I associate with his aesthetics: It’s best if civilization has a single, coherent musical tradition which repeatedly establishes rules and then produces new forms that shatter the rules—and then subsequently reabsorbs these forms into new rules with a wider scope, approaching a horizon of higher freedom and intelligence. Now, it’s hard to take this idea seriously in the 21st century. Adorno was endorsing serialism, and was unable to appreciate music outside the classical tradition. He associated jazz and rock with false consciousness, or “the culture industry.” But I’m interested in holding on to his injunction in the wider musical context we have today, since it’s obvious that underground music and even the mainstream of pop culture carry powerful potential, but unlike most people working in these areas, I’m not so convinced that there’s no need for considered reflection on music history as a whole.
Metal and trap music do not so much challenge the conventions of classical music as completely ignore them, refusing to consider music history as a totality that progresses, or, more often, not even considering the possibility of thinking of it in this way. I see two basic trajectories that drive musical originality in our era: music that’s oriented around clubs and partying, of which trap music is the most prominent globally; and music that is oriented around direct antagonism towards moral and social conventions, which is what people identify rock with, although this attitude even in rock is increasingly rare. Obviously, there’s plenty of crossover between these two functions and styles, and other styles and functions that don’t quite fit this mold, but this is the best abstract schema I can think of. I’m interested in savoring the deadlock between these three opposed visions of what music is for: as pure fun, as fighting the power, as expanding the horizon of experience and knowledge—and always in the background there’s the oldest function, the “liturgical” one of making contact with the divine and attempting to establish a totality out of them. This type of project is perhaps essentially doomed, but only in the way that utopias are inherently failed or that psychoanalysis is the “impossible profession.”
The major fault line along which it must fail has to do with taste, and I think it has an interesting symptomatic quality. Combining rap and rock is viscerally upsetting to a lot of people, because their codes and reference points are different—although in the past few years, this hybrid is starting to come back into fashion again, which is no surprise to me (e.g. Ghostemane, etc.). Similar with combining any kind of countercultural music with classical music—it is so easy for it to feel forced and tasteless. To me, exploring this type of territory is the meaning of the term “transcendental,” an effort to make contact with that which is seemingly impossible, nonsensical, or prohibited, but in a controlled and rigorous way that suddenly cracks the sky open revealing a new horizon. That’s why the sound of “transcendental black metal” can change over time, as long as the technique stays the same. Ten years ago, the idea of combining black metal with math rock or indie rock was just as horrifying as the idea of combining it with club music was in 2015. More and more, I’m now interested in bringing classical music into the fold as well. To me, it is a matter of committing to the Enlightenment, of making use of the flare-ups of anarchic desire that emerge in pop and underground culture, but absorbing them into the steady and thought-intensive labor of love that needs to continue despite, or rather because of, all the insanity and chaos going on in the world right now.
To what extent does the piece draw inspiration from the Fluxus movement? How would you describe the lasting effects of the Fluxus movement today?
I think Fluxus is a silent ideology in the art world in that the imperative to breach conventions and overturn existing forms (rather than, say, to preserve or protect them or achieve virtuosic skill) is not seriously questioned, usually justified with some cloudy and implicit politics affirming anarchic creation. Generally, even someone who is, say, purely a painter will speak about his or her practice as though it is a multimedia cultural experiment exploring power structures or tapping into germinal becoming; otherwise, the work doesn’t count as fine art. Of course, there are exceptions, and these imperatives aren’t completely original to Fluxus, but I think this is the rule.
The aspect of the original vision of Fluxus which is generally omitted from contemporary practice is the sense of spirituality that I think figures like Maciunas and Beuys took quite seriously. That’s probably because, given that the art world as a whole is a slave to the massive acephalic and algorithmic effort to yield greater productivity at the expense of subjective value that we vaguely register as “capitalism,” Fluxus aesthetics can only serve it if spirituality is thrown out. (I say this because I believe, as I think David Lynch said somewhere, that it’s only a spiritual awakening that can really take the blinders off so politics can begin.)
I take concepts like intermedia and social sculpture seriously, but I also take conventional notions of craft and tradition very seriously, as important tools for breaking the trance of contemporary ideology. I like to work very hard to make music that creates a “conventional” 19th century European mode of catharsis. I think the lack of effort it takes to compose, say, a La Monte Young piece, as opposed to a Webern piece (to say nothing of a cloud rap track), was artistically valuable at a time when America was discovering Zen and LSD for the first time, but we live in a very different world now. The somewhat absurdly conventional-sounding notion that musical experience should be a path towards cultivating discipline, focus, integrity, and mutual respect is a lot more meaningful now that the dissolution of collective trust, which requires these things, is such a major social problem (as opposed to, say, oppressive conformism in the 1950s). Somewhere, the early Marx uses the figure of the composer struggling to complete a composition as the ultimate metaphor for what freedom would look like in the new society after capitalism —not freedom from social imperatives, but freedom to work really hard to create something unique and inspiring.