Notorious in metal circles as both the shape-shifting mastermind and divisive provocateur of forward-thinking, hyper-academic black-metal titans Liturgy, composer and guitarist Hunter Hunt-Hendrix – ever since debuting with Immortal Life as a one-man, lo-fi, experimental project a decade ago – has arguably reached the pinnacle of his singular sound and vision.
That claim could easily have been made in 2015 with The Ark Work, Liturgy’s sprawling maelstrom of cathartic noise and ritualistic chanting, and the following year’s debut from Hunt-Hendrix’s glitchy solo-electronics side project, Kel Valhaal. But the Liturgy leader has gone epic across cutting-edge music and multimedia spectrums with his newest project, while once again going against the metal grain.
Joining a cadre of outlier composers who are melding metal with contemporary classical music – others include Charlie Looker, Kelly Moran, Mario Diaz de Leon, and Toby Driver – Hunt-Hendrix presents Origin of the Alimonies, a massive new multi-disciplinary work, at National Sawdust on Oct. 25.
Assuming the role of jack-of-all-trades, Hunt-Hendrix will make his directorial debut with the video opera, while also providing its live hybrid chamber/metal score with a large ensemble of chamber- and experimental-music all-stars: Eve Essex (flute), Nate Wooley (trumpet), Scott Moore (violin), Jessica Pavone (viola), Leila Bordreuil (cello), Britton Powell (double bass), Leo Svirsky (piano), Leo Didkovsky (drums), Tia Vincent-Clark (electric bass), and Liturgy’s Bernard Gann (electric guitar). The work is the prologue to a multi-part opera cycle titled OIOION and the core of an upcoming philosophical lecture series.
We caught up with Hunt-Hendrix via email as he traced the lineage of Origin of the Alimonies, describing how he assembled the large ensemble, his plans for the video opera, the score, and lecture series, the future of Liturgy, and more.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: Origin of the Alimonies is billed under your name, not Liturgy or Kel Valhaal. How did this project manifest itself as a solo project? Judging from the description, it could potentially be seen as a follow-up to The Ark Work:the piece is composed in transcendental black metal style, and longtime Liturgy guitarist Bernard Gann is involved and plays in the large ensemble performing on Oct. 25.
HUNTER HUNT-HENDRIX: There are two reasons. First, so much has gone into this project besides music that it felt more natural to use my name than put the name of a band on it, like the reverse would make the non-musical elements seem peripheral. Secondly, even though music really is a continuation of Liturgy (unlike, say Kel Valhaal, which is more of a side project), people react so passionately to anything that has the name “Liturgy” on it that the signal of the music has always had a way of getting lost in the noise surrounding it. I have a certain sense of gentleness about this opera—I’d rather let it quietly emerge and not necessarily reach the same cultural network that Liturgy does, at least at first.
Speaking of that large ensemble you’ve put together for the performance, it’s an all-star, 12-piece cast culled from the chamber, avant-garde jazz, and experimental scenes of New York City and beyond. How did you go about assembling this particular group, and why did you choose who you did to realize your vision?
Everyone in the ensemble is more or less involved in the same fairly small extended family of experimental music in New York that I think of as home. They were the people who came to mind quickly and were easy to reach, some of whom I’ve collaborated with before, some of whom I’ve wanted to but didn’t have a vessel for it till now, and I knew they were highly talented and capable of bringing the music to life. I really appreciate tribalism in music, I don’t like working with people who are more than a degree of separation from my social world.
You’ve gone from (in no particular order) a one-man bedroom-fi project to quartet to duo with drum machine back to quartet while doing a one-man-electronics-band. Now, you’re leading a 12-piece hybrid chamber/metal ensemble. It does seem like where you’ve wound up with Alimonies is a natural progression (particularly coming from both the musical expanse and themes of Liturgy’s The Ark Work) that was begging for this type of large-ensemble treatment. Was interpreting your music with such expansive instrumentation something you had envisioned?
Yeah, it’s true that with every Liturgy release I’ve wanted to expand in terms of musical complexity or instrumentation, and that having a fully integrated chamber orchestra and incorporating film and narrative was an inevitable next step in the progression. The techniques, forms, and tools of classical composition have always been integral to my songwriting process, probably more so than some people realize, since Liturgy sounds so free and chaotic on the surface. I studied composition in college, and for a time really wavered between being a composer outright and devoting my time to a touring rock band.
I’ve been conceiving of going in this direction pretty much since the beginning, and I’ve also always been unsatisfied with the parameters of doing a rock band, which is probably fairly obvious to anyone who pays attention to what I do. I think a lot of my friends have been wondering why it’s taken so long to actually finish and perform this, or if I was ever going to follow through with it. Touring is extremely time consuming, like an entire year can seemingly disappear as a result of even three or four multi-week long tours. I really had to make a conscious choice to stop performing for a while in order to actually make this project happen.
Knowing the video opera screening and the live score set to be played on Oct. 25 begins a cycle that also includes a multi-part opera and a philosophical lecture series, I wanted to focus on the live score for a bit. What do you hope will happen with the live score beyond the Sawdust performance? Has it been recorded? Will it be released?
Yeah, there’s a fully mixed and mastered recording and there will be a release, but, that said, I’m not sure the piece is completely done. I’ve already added material to this performance that isn’t in the original recording. I’m very interested in an iterative approach to creating this music, doing performances of potentially unfinished material and then returning to the drawing board. Part of the ensemble performed sections of the piece at the Miguel Abreu Gallery last month, and I’ve been doing solo guitar performances of sections from the piece here and there at DIY shows in the past year. The Sawdust performance is special because it’s the first official live performance, but I plan to learn from the experience and let things crystallize as a result of whatever is learned.
Musically speaking in regard to the live score, I don’t have much to go on beyond what’s played in the trailer. Can you talk about what you and the 12-piece ensemble will be performing? Is it the music heard in the trailer? Is it a single work? Multiple pieces?
Yeah, the music in the trailer is part of the piece. The opera has three scenes, three interludes, and an overture, with various materials shared between the sections. Part of the piece is an adaptation of Olivier Messiaen’s organ work Apparition of the Eternal Church, which I consider to be a divinely inspired piece of music and have wanted for years to arrange for metal band and chamber orchestra.
All the music is synced to pre-recorded dialog in the film, which is a somewhat challenging technical feat to pull off, because a lot of the syncopated rhythms are derived from speech patterns of the characters’ lines. The star of the film, Angelina Dreem, is also performing her own solo saxophone project, which is called Paul, as the opening act before the opera begins.
The project is described as “colliding metal, classical and trap music.” Can you delve into what you were listening to and what and who inspired you when you were composing Alimonies and the multi-opera series? I’m particularly interested on classical composers who may have inspired you, and definitely the trap music aspect—I know Southern rap has played a role in influencing Liturgy.
The classical composers that mean the most to me with regard to this project are Wagner, Scriabin, Messiaen, Samuel Barber: people working in a more or less tonal language to convey the throes of subjective struggle. What I like in classical music is the notion of presenting the audience with a potentially difficult experience that will ultimately yield a reward if they endure it. I’ve always been very interested in the transfiguration that takes place when one suffers through boredom during, say, a performance of Parsifal.
Trap music operates with the exact opposite ethic: a song can just have a single hook and last for just a minute or two. I pay a lot of attention to new rappers, and am always amazed at how quickly these things cycle, how crucial it is for a rapper or a track to be extremely new, how small the window of relevance is. I’m interested in combining or colliding those two modes of listening without judging either, because I think it makes for a richer experience than either one can on its own, and the uneasy relation between the styles calls into question various aspects of how music is transmitted and identified with, which is always something I’m looking to do.
I’ve been developing a fairly detailed theory of how to generate genuinely emancipatory culture, and it involves forcing contact between the traditional canon and newer forms with a more intuitive appeal, and braiding music together with philosophy and art in a number of concrete ways. The theory is called “Perichoresis,” which is a term derived from Christian theology where it signifies the dynamic relationship between the three members of the Holy Trinity.
Touching on the teaser/trailer for Alimonies, it’s super-trippy and very well-done. I take it that’s a scene from the video opera? This entire project has an aura of mystery—is that something you are going for?
Yeah, the trailer features a few different scenes from the opera. I’m not sure if mystery is quite the right word for what I’m after, more like a sense of awe or disarming sincerity.
The Ark Work came out in ’15 and the Kel Valhaal record (New Introductory Lectures on the System of Transcendental Qabala) came out in ’16. At what point did Alimonies come to light? How long did you work on it? Are the video opera, live score, the multi-part opera and the lecture series all interconnected in some way?
I shot an early draft of the Origin of the Alimonies film as soon as we finished touring for The Ark Work in early 2016. The characters and story had been in my head for several years; I’ve actually been somewhat passionately working on this project since 2010. At that time I’d been communing intensely with the more esoteric works of William Blake. A lot of people don’t know these massive and strange prophetic poems in his body of work like Milton, The Book of Los, and Jerusalem. I became obsessed with the cast of archetypal characters populating his world, which seemed to be continuous with our own world history illuminated by the glow of some kind of divine, revolutionary politics. I think of Blake as part of a tradition of mystical aesthetically transgressive multimedia art (along with Messiaen, Beuys and others) to which I’m attempting to contribute.
Blake’s vision of world history has kind of leaked into my own. The character OlOlON, who is the protagonist of the opera, is derived from the name of John Milton’s fictional daughter in Blake’s poem Milton, which relates the story of the spirit of the poet John Milton overturning Christianity by reincarnating as Blake himself so as to unite with his daughter Ololon whom he had neglected. I’ve written and published texts here and there relating episodes or dialogues between different characters in my mythopoetic system: Kel Valhaal, Reign Array, The Genesis Caul, Haelegen and others.
Anyway, finally we shot some footage in early 2016, and then I began composing music on top of the dialogue, some of which is ordinary speech, other parts were rapped to a metronome during the shoot. After the Kel Valhaal release in late 2016 I decided to put all touring on hold and set my attention equally between composing the music for the opera and working out the details of a philosophical system that had been developing alongside Liturgy in tandem with the narrative. After I finished the score we re-shot the film in November of 2017 with a somewhat higher production value.
The performance is being billed as a prologue to a multi-part opera cycle titled OlOlON. Is the cycle composed already? What is your plan for it?
I think of there being two different temporal vectors of the opera cycle – one is iteratively developing a single work over a series of performances, with its interplay of difference and repetition, and the other is a fictional (or maybe a better word is inspired) narrative of world history that takes the form of a four-part cosmic cycle: creation, fall, redemption, apocalypse. I have a draft of the libretto for the entire four-part work, but we’ll see how things change in the process of crystallization. The next chapter in the four-part cycle is called The Loss of the Caul, and its protagonist is a figure named Kel Valhaal.
Do the pieces (the live score and the multi-part opera cycle) demand your participation, or do you envision creating a kind of opera that could be taken up and performed by other artists and companies?
I’d like for it to be in principle possible for others to perform. All the music is notated precisely, so anyone who can pull together the right combination of instruments could in principle play it, as long as they have a virtuosic drummer who can read music.
A philosophical lecture series is also planned as part of the project. Where will you be taking this series, in terms of locales and audiences?
I’m planning a seminar for the New Centre of Research and Practice, which is an online para-academic school that hosts some of the most interesting philosophers out there right now. The school is oriented towards accelerationism and more generally the connecting thread between Marxism/psychoanalysis and computation/hard science, which I think is a really significant field of enquiry which is very difficult to approach in a coherent way.
From what I’ve read thus far in regard to this this project and performance, it has gained traction on the usual music sites and metal-focused platforms. With Alimonies, are you looking to veer away from the so-called metal world (something you’ve never been really a part of to begin with) and be identified more as a contemporary-classical music artist? Is that something you’re striving for? Musicians like Charlie Looker, Mario Diaz de Leon, Kelly Moran, and Toby Driver have made that leap of combining metal elements with classical-contemporary.
I’m interested in touching multiple worlds. It’s always felt somewhat absurd that Liturgy’s primary audience is the metal world, which is distinctly the wrong place for it, even though it’s also the right place. I’d hope this piece could have some traction in different parts of the music world, and in the art world, and in the philosophy community, because it’s really important for there to be more commerce between these three domains. In my opinion it is necessary to appreciate the contemporary concerns of all three of these disciplines in order to reach full maturity as a human being, because each discipline hones a particular and crucial aspect of the soul. There’s no hope of the education system or the culture industry doing this, so it falls to independent individuals who are motivated to try.
It seems like this sprawling venture will keep you busy for a while. What is the status of Liturgy at the moment, and what does the future hold for the band?
We’ll see! There’s a lot to do with the opera cycle, but I do miss playing the songs from the back catalog live, so maybe there will be a way to devote some time to that as well.
Hunter Hunt-Hendrix presents Origin of the Alimonies at National Sawdust on Oct. 25 at 8pm; nationalsawdust.org
Brad Cohan is a music journalist based in New York City. His work has appeared in the Observer, the Village Voice, Time Out New York, Vice, and Noisey.