Having been under the radar since its inception, Wrekmeister Harmonies is now, after the release of “Then It All Came Down” through Thrill Jockey, collecting a wider and much deserved recognition. A result of the tireless and steadfast J.R. Robinson‘s artistic psyche, the project is a never-ending carousel for some of the most ingenious minds in modern experimental music – Wrest, Sanford Parker, Bruce Lamont, Chris Brokaw, Mark Solotroff, Dylan O’Toole, just to cite a few. And, despite the fact of being generally perceived as a heavy outlet, Robinson (who, by the way, conducted this documentary) has taken Wrekmeister Harmonies to remarkable places such as the Guggenheim in New York, the Centre Pompidou or the noteworthy Bohemian National Cemetery. To find more about it was imperative.
First of all, what did attract you in Béla Tarr’s cinematography so much to the point of basing this project’s name on one of his movies?
I identified very much with Béla Tarr‘s use of space and time, of darkness and light and the subtle changes of the human condition. Stunning, bleak and beautiful.
Mihály Vig’s soundtrack for “Werckmeister Harmóniák” is quite astonishing, particularly the music he conceived for the opening sequence. Did Mihály have any influence on your project?
I was very aware of Vig‘s soundtrack as it complimented the film beautifully. I could never hope to imitate such a great composition but was definitely inspired by it.
Doing a rather simple comparison, your role on Wrekmeister Harmonies is similar to a movie director, since you assemble a group of musicians in order to achieve a goal you have in mind. Is Wrekmeister Harmonies a music representation of what happens in cinema?
Wrekmeister Harmonies for me is an attempt to realize a set of complex emotions in a musical composition format. It was influenced and inspired by a great piece of cinema that is definitely a template for what I create but I can’t say that is my answer to what happens in the cinematic format of others.
I would like to know a bit more about your career. As a musician, I can only trace you back to WH, but you seem to have an ample past as a movie artist. Would you describe yourself primarily as a movie conceiver rather than a music composer? Or do you see yourself as a man of many crafts?
I see myself as a human being who strives to live peacefully, devoid of conflict and as a creator of many forms of art. I write essays, compose, paint, research and do my very best to communicate whatever I can through these different mediums.
This is probably a poor misconception, but I have this feeling, whenever I visit a place like London’s Tate Modern, that these venues/museums are self-centered, almost snob-like. And for them to open their doors to a project where you have black metal people like Wrest and loud music going on, for me, it’s impressive. Do you think they look to WH more as an experimental art project rather than a heavy music outlet?
I can’t say I know exactly what it is these institutions have in mind when they agree to a performance. Each performance and space is unique and maybe what I’m proposing seems interesting to them. I agree that many museums are not the most likely space for inviting in black metal artists but there is a sense of risk / reward for the more adventurous curators.
“Then It All Came Down” is a piece quite cinematographic as well. I pictured almost a sort of Dante Alighieri’s “Divine Comedy” journey, where you have three movements – hell, purgatory and paradise. But “Then It All Came Down” seems to do the opposite of what Dante wrote: it starts in heaven and it suddenly ends in hell with all the heavy distortion and loud screaming.
I was very interested in the idea of lightness being transformed to darkness in regard to the human condition. This was presented to me in the Capote essay that I based the piece on. Most individuals when confronted with darkness are predisposed to fight back against it and find a way back to the light. In this essay people were manipulated and submissive to the idea of surrendering completely to darkness and forsaking the light. The common narrative becomes inverted and I wanted to represent that concept in a musical composition.
What also amazes me is how well each invited musician executes his role. How do you manage so many talents in order to fit them perfectly with what you have in mind? I mean: do you shape them or do the musicians end up molding your own ideas?
Each musician is unique. The way I compose is by using lots of dialogue. I explain the best I can what I want, we collaborate on different ideas and then I edit and assemble the composition from the recording.
How did you transpose all of this into the live setting? I’ve watched a bit of what happened at the Bohemian National Cemetery and I’ve also watched your full concert at the Saint Vitus Bar in Brooklyn – I’m not sure if the latter was also a performance of “Then It All Came Down”, though, because there’s only you on stage. Is it hard to balance the things, all the layers, when playing live?
It’s been my experience that musicians lead very complicated lives and trying to organzine up to 30 people, be it for a recording or a live performance, can be difficult in every aspect. The reward comes at the end of the session or the completion of the performance and at that moment I feel extremely grateful and fortunate.
That Bohemian National Cemetery concert is such an amazing idea; I almost have this urge to move to Chicago just to get the chance to witness something like that. How did it happen? How do you convince a cemetery to host it?
You should come! The way it came about is I simply asked in the most polite way possible about presenting my work at this beautiful space. The people at Bohemian Cemetery are incredibly gracious, kind and open minded. I remain deeply respectful and mindful of their generosity.
Thrill Jockey’s press release refers that you perceive life as a «long, gradual process of decay». Is there a correlation between this somehow nihilistic perspective and the choice of Bohemian National Cemetery to debut “Then It All Came Down”? After all, that is the place where the decadence’s final stages happen.
I don’t necessarily think of this view as nihilistic. I prefer to think of this as a more natural process. Something that has been going on long before mankind evolved, something that happens to nature, to time, to all things that exist. To me it’s an undeniable truism that inspires me to reflect, react, to create.
A year ago, I watched this documentary called «Parallax Sounds» about the Chicago musicianship, with people like Steve Albini, Ken Vandermark or David Grubbs, where they try to explain the why the city has so many experimental and challenging projects. Do you feel that the Chicago has something unique and, if so, what is it?
I don’t know if Chicago has anything unique. It’s a large metropolitan city like London or New York or Lisbon that has a sizable concentration of creative minded individuals. This community seems to interact very well and the result is a flourishing and varied scene that produces some very interesting work across many mediums.
You’re already crafting the next Wrekmeister Harmonies’s piece, right? Are you already planning to take it to live setting and can you tell us some guests that will be on it, if so?
So far Alex Hacke from Einstürzende Neubauten, Mark Soltrofffrom Bloodyminded, Olivia Block and The Body have contributed. I just spent some time up in Montreal playing with members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and we all agreed it would be a good idea to get together again and record. As far as my ultimate dream venue that would be at Interior of Incompiuta at the Abbey of the Holy Trinity in Venosa, Italy.