Hunter Hunt-Hendrix (Liturgy, Kel Valhaal) “I like to trigger emotion and undercut it at the same time.”

Photo: Angelina Dreem

Hunter Hunt-Hendrix is one of the most misunderstood and maligned artists working today. He gets it from both sides, too — metal purists denigrate Liturgy as “hipster metal” or “not authentic metal,” while critics dismiss his music on the basis of claims about the styles and production techniques he takes up, condemning his philosophy as too erudite and disconnected. His new record as Kel Valhaal, New Introductory Lectures on the System of Transcendental Qabala, has polarized audiences even further.

The non-immanence of most critiques of his music takes on a range of forms, from apathetic interview questions about his philosophic literature to dismissive reviews of his records that seem more preoccupied with his attraction to mysticism and philosophy than the actual music. There is a profound, humane core to his project that remains largely veiled, though, one that goes beyond the consolidation of burst beats, eschatology, and rap aesthetics; yet, at the same time, the success with which he discloses his philosophical ideas formally in his music in some ways remains to be determined. It is the opportunity of criticism to exhaust that conversation. Nevertheless, the drama of style and idea as seen in his work and its reception takes on another layer for him, as Hunt-Hendrix describes, in his “engagement with the world creatively as an opera — an unfinished, already-failed opera called 01010n.” He is very aware that he, like his work, is a work in progress, and not only progress, but Becoming.

In our interview, Hunt-Hendrix discussed the reception of his work — at Pitchfork and other places — from the standpoint of the drama of Wagner’s late operas. For him, Wagner’s conception of Gesamtkunstwork can be seen not only as a theatrical methodology, but can be adapted as a method of synthesizing aesthetic experience beyond art. He is sensitive and reflective in discussing everything from the nuances of performing Scriabin to the conditions for the communication of Lacan’s ideas. Hunt-Hendrix is focused on the Other, both in his music and his life, and he believes that his project advances, both concretely and abstractly, a valuable logic of transformation and catharsis. And while it may seem from the outside that there is a divide between his life, his writings, and his art, it is clear that, to him, there isn’t, that they inhabit a mutual aura. His thinking illuminates his music, and vice versa.

We engaged via email, for one, because I was unable to travel to New York before the record came out, but more importantly because I wanted to give him the opportunity to fully articulate his responses to these questions.

Aspects of your new album New Introductory Lectures on the System of Transcendental Qabala point toward Freud and Lacan, while other parts, such as “Ontological Love,” point toward Heidegger. To what degree and in what way do these theorists fit into your creative process here?

Lacan is very important to me, in part because of his ideas and in part because of the way he taught. He only wrote a little bit — mostly he delivered his seminar orally at lectures that took place in locations a bit off the grid, even if they were hosted by established institutions — the status of his teaching was always hovering between performance art and systematic knowledge, and he would be very theatrical about his choice of venue and so on. But more than that, his thought was always eternally unfinished and abyssal. Especially by the time you get to even a relatively early seminar like The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, his method is practically Heraclitean, like he is a living fragment or an oracle. No matter how deeply you read his words about the Other, object a, desire, the drive, and so on, there is no bottom — his words are incredibly poetic, and the way he uses his technical terms and diagrams shifts over time — so, for example, the Other always has multiple meanings, say as on the one hand the pre-existing norms and history into which one is socialized and at the same time the judging God-figure to whom one always looks for validation or must keep up appearances. It creates this experience of getting it and the losing it. He was really tapping into the essence of prophecy or revelation de-sanctified, and as a result was scorned, misunderstood, always near-indistinguishable from a charlatan or sophist.

I’m really drawn to this dimension. Some of my friends suggested that I release this music anonymously so people don’t associate it with my persona or with Liturgy — but I’m really not interested making and transmitting music in that way. I want to be very reflexive about subjectivity, revelation, the iterative process of releasing record[s] and exploring dangerous territory as an aesthetic and ethical unfolding. There are plenty of classic continental philosophy reference points for this I guess, you could consider it in terms of Heidegger’s notion of truth as aletheia, the unconcealing of the not-yet-existing, which he identifies with a pre-Socratic notion of being: the not-yet, or in terms of the Freudian death drive, the unthinkable within thought, the originary wound, the unbearable, that which does not fit into a pre-existing schema. I identify that pre-thought space with music.

Deleuze prophesied that before long it would be no longer to simply write books of philosophy — there would have to be some other way of philosophizing or reaching a pre-philosophical plane using gestures, the poem, images, sound. So in short a big part of it is holding a space between music and philosophy, which is very rare right now. There are people who theorize about sound and so on, with histories of noise music or culture or whatever — but that’s very different. What I am drawn to is thinking in the way that Schelling or Heidegger would think, pure thought in relation to the unconditioned, and forcing a union between this thought and making music, releasing records, the exploration of a style or engagement with a scene or whatever as touching this illegal space of eternal inception.

Is your relationship to Qabala religious, or would you say it is more theoretical?

I guess I would say that it is artistic-eschatological. Terms relating to the sacred are so hard to use — obviously the term ‘religion’ connotes repressive morality and misogyny, the word ‘spirituality’ connotes a sort of solipsistic self-help, while ‘theory,’ for that matter, has a 90s cultural studies ring to it that I don’t like. For me it is a matter of contemplating the absolute, acting in a simultaneously deliberative and inspired manner and engaging with forces of nature. All of this should be in relation to an ‘object of ultimate concern’ that it takes a lot of reasoning and therapeutic-creative work to even see. What I am doing is trying to spin out a new kind of system of philosophy — just like, say, Hegel’s system, but more more mobile: an RSS feed, album, actions, diagrams — all gesturing at a logic of becoming and an ethics but never landing on one, because in any case this is not possible to do, as I think Laruelle’s philosophy of immanence has shown.

Part of why I have settled on the term Qabala is that it is not a very respectable one and it is non-Eurocentric. My background in philosophy was initially Nietzsche-Deleuze, though I’ve always seen Emerson, who was a huge influence on Nietzsche, as the beginning of the chain. But other types of thought that we think of as ‘esoteric,’ and which are more practice-oriented, are just as valid. Use of music, repetition, physical gestures, and so on in conjunction with thought is not really respected in the Western philosophy tradition, with the exception of some neoplatonist like Iamblichus.

Qabala with a “Q” instead of a “K” generally designates a combination of Jewish Kabbalah with the tarot, hermeticism, and the vedic chakra system. I’m interested in expanding it to include the rituals and aesthetics of underground music and fine art — of forcing production from the cutting edge of those dimensions of culture, along with philosophy, into a larger narrative of Qabala. I propose combining music, thought, and art into what I call a Perichoresis. For me it is important to connect the vertigo of thought to extremely transgressive, even violent, cultural movements like rap and metal, and generally the dream of transgressive counterculture. It’s a crucial point, because without the critical edge of these things, the occult easily slips into sustaining bigotry, the systematic oppression of women, minorities as the preservation of states, and so on. I think of Transcendental Qabala as a system in which re-enchantment and disenchantment become one and the same.

You mention the seventh seal opening (from the Book of Revelation) in “Ontological Love” and you sing about Christ in “Tense Stage.” How does that fit in?

It seems to me like it is impossible to really have a rational ethics-politics without conceiving of apocalypse. On the one hand this is because the world seems so close to apocalypse, in the more Mad Max sense of the term, or is even already post-apocalyptic in that sense if we really consider WWII and so on. But really I’m most interested in in the monotheist notion of apocalypse as an ultimate payoff, as the ultimate unveiling of a for-the-sake-of-which required, I’d argue, by a theory of desire or drive as in Deleuze or Lacan. Matter far outstrips what we can even conceive, and our own power over it through science is creating a world that undermines our presuppositions about what it is to be human.

I mean even just with the ability to read and write genomes in the past few years… Gattaca is just around the corner, and things like resurrection of bodies or humans never dying in the first place — these are all live options. I’m not very interested in the debate around ‘correlationalism’ in Meillassioux, but I am very drawn to the idea that one can consistently yearn for the birth of a messiah and resurrection on the grounds of rationalism alone, his idea of a “fourth world” beyond matter, life, mind. The society of control keeps us so hell-bent on enjoying, being different, and getting ahead that we lose track of the relationship between reason and desire. As for Christ — I am haunted by the figure of Christ. My family history has a lot of southern Christianity in it, I had a lot of conflict with religious guilt and evangelical Christianity as a kid.

I gravitate more toward a Badiousian-Zizekian appropriation of the Pauline gospel into an atheist theory of the event, though I’m never quite able to totally de-sanctify the idea of the figure of Christ or the idea of the paradoxical incarnation and sacrifice of God on the cross. To me it means a humble suffering in the name of love, the ‘body of Christ’ as the community of believers not in any religious doctrine but in a utopia that so-called reasonableness posits as impossible, as a source of identification that is not narcissistic-ethnic, a yearning for an end to the unspeakable catastrophe, the utter train wreck that is happening in slow motion — what Cornell West calls the “catastrophe of being.”

You’ve studied Ableton and Max/MSP in the past. Which programs and techniques did you favor in creating the music for this album?

I use Ableton with the Push controller. I still make some of my own Max patches, especially for the burst beat, but I run them through Ableton, and I sometimes use Logic for its synths and effects. At this point I use a computer for all of my composition, even if I’m playing drums or guitar I’m always plugged into sample packs or virtual amps and editing on a grid. I really enjoy not listening to what I’ve written for a few months and then checking in on it without seeing it on a screen — always really changes the experience.

The percussion on this record seems through-composed and very meticulously thought out. In some ways it feels like it stems organically from Transcendental Black Metal, such as the incorporation of burst beats. How do you envision percussion’s role in electronic music vs. in TBM?

The nice thing about electronic percussion is that it is easy to cross that 40 hz threshold between pitch and rhythm, which I never fail to get a kick out of. The electronic version of the burst beat has the advantage of being able to produce tones when it gets really fast - I used it on the original Liturgy EP and its been nice to have a chance to use it in this context a little bit, as on the track “Bezel.” The thing with electronic music is that — well so on the one hand there’s the experimental use of rhythm and the limits of hearing and phenomenology and perception and so on, all the kinds of things that avant-garde composers have been interested in since the 1950s, but then there are all the socially encoded micro-genre references implied in certain syncopations from all the different styles of dance music out there — for example the relative minor changes of tempo for a 4-on-the-floor beat that imply entire different genres, or the little syncopations that imply footwork, grime, drum n bass, hip hop, whatever.

These have a huge effect because they say so much about taste — whether something is daringly fresh, cliched, what kind of person listens to it, what kind of scene it belongs to, cultural affiliations and so on. I’m as interested in the cultural signification of electronic sounds just as much as their scientific and phenomenological dimensions. I also love that people generally hear really hard-hitting beats in electronic music as a lot less abrasive than they do in, say metal — I remember back when Flockaveli came out and to me it sounded pretty much just like Pantera or something — but metal is so male, so white, so hetero, so closed — and electronic music just isn’t that way, doesn’t have to be that way, for whatever reason. I’ve always hated the metal scene so much. I’m just not that kind of sweaty macho person, and it is a strange irony that Liturgy has had to be dragged through the mud of that scene.

Through your philosophy of percussion in the past, you have sought to work through the meaning and possibility of controlling time in music. “Ontological Love,” on a macro level, contains numerous temporal and textural shifts. As with your Liturgy records, it seems like you are very attuned to how one experiences temporality while listening. What particular opportunities do you feel electronic music has to offer in this respect?

I think the main thing is that paradoxically it is much easier to work “off the grid” in electronic music because you don’t need to coordinate with musicians to all hit beats at the same time. On NLOTSOTQ, I wanted to only have a steady beat in certain places, or to have little interacting periodicities interacting in far-from-equilibrium cycles that coalesce into music that you can recognizably dance to and motifs that you can remember. I consider the album to be sort of a drawing, you know — it is pretty meticulous and every moment counts, but compared to Liturgy there are way fewer elements — I wanted to use a lot of restraint.

Temporality seems like a window into some larger theoretical ideas. I am reminded of both the line from Act I of Parsifal wherein Gurnemanz explains, “Here, time becomes space,” and the distinction between the infinite and the finite in your writing. Can you talk about finiteness and particularity in your new record?

I always go back to Bousquet’s like “my wound existed before me — I was born to embody it,” the idea that there is a sort of minimal breach, something wrong, something that didn’t fit, corresponding to the psychoanalytic notion of trauma or the religious idea of the fall or the ‘out-of-joint’ nature of this world. This to me is the topic of Cosmogony, the raison d’être for the world itself, which is perhaps a work of art, or at least it is an affliction that keeps me coming back again and again to make more music, or to try to piece together my system in a more coherent way. I don’t know what time is if not the repeated return to an inexhaustible and unfinished project, a sort of wound. The wound is infinite, but to just revel in it is too painful — better to put up a barrier, get some distance, and explore it bit by bit.

You have expressed admiration for Wagner’s music, especially his engagement with Gesamtkunstwerk. For me, Parsifal — which exists at the intersection of philosophy (Schopenhauer, etc.) and religion (Christianity) — is the opera of his that seems to correspond most to your own thought. How do you see today’s music’s aesthetic potential regarding these topics compared to that of Wagner’s mature operas?

Yeah there are so many things about Wagner that have influenced me. On the one hand there is the intersection of music and philosophy — even though he only really explicitly defined his Gesamtkunstwerk as an intersection of drama and music, it should be noted that he was the first composer in history to absorb new ideas from a contemporary philosopher — Schopenhauer’s hypothesis that music is pure will — and attempt to therefore combine it with drama or the Idea so as to amplify it and to create something like a myth or a religion that could literally take on the kind of role that that religions have played.

Of course before then there were always close connections between theology and music — but perhaps what I see as lasting in Wagner’s idea is that it was a connection with a new philosophical idea, compatible with disenchantment, scientific rationality, revolutionary politics and emancipation in this world, the actual destruction of power structures, rather than the emancipation from this world which ultimately sustains power structures. Now, Schopenhauer’s theory that music is will was pretty specific to his own cosmology and to the Western tonal system — with the bass notes, inner harmonies, and melody corresponding to his different grades of the will — it’s funny the way he writes about it, making a point of not trying to prove it, just offering the theory and recommend the reader to listen to Bach and see if it is so. But contemporary cosmology and contemporary music have a lot more going on — mostly a lot more chaos — and I think it isn’t so hard to update the idea.

Now in music we control things like noise and timbre in a way Wagner could never have dreamed — this is also very old stuff now, things that were exciting to Stockhausen and Xenakis like 70 years ago. In my musical language I like to use chromatic harmony and counterpoint — that’s the cross between the soundworld of black metal and romantic classical music that I’ve always been so into, but noise and timbre are really important too. The more contemporary things in music are the haptic qualities of extremely high volumes in rock and use of subsonic frequencies — although this was already being done by Branca 30 years ago.

What looms large for me right now is the connection between music and narcissistic identification and political emancipation, just the ritual aspect of techno, the idea of a three-day-long rave, the micro-genres of youth culture, music as a vehicle for identification, trending. Although there is a tragedy in this because there is something about youth culture that is so dark — the drugs, the short life spans of new styles, the way people become irrelevant and then don’t know what to do with themselves any longer when they’re 35. So it isn’t hard to see how this is compatible with the philosophies of difference and immanence that have been proliferating since the late Heidegger, privileging becoming, all things other, transgression, affective states, larval subjectivies. A metaphysics of a ‘chaosmos.’

People live music as a drama, from Henry Rollins’s tour diaries to Kanye’s revising his albums after the release date. The drama of Twitter battles and so on. I can’t help but think of my difficulties with journalists in those terms — how ridiculously unfairly Pitchfork usually treats me. The epithets people throw around about me without thinking or engaging are recurring leitmotifs, the logic of fantasy or the scapegoat. I think we encounter the fabric of narrative from which life is woven most immediately through those kinds of dramas — scenes and careers. If Wagner’s late operas point to the death of good and the affirmation of the subjective void of becoming, I think right now it isn’t possible to continue the project without sincerely engaging the infrastructure used to transmit music across the world.

Catharsis in that opera, as in much of German Romantic music, comes from reconciling some initial trauma through the working-through of said trauma, often by way of personal conquest. In your earlier writings, you counterpoised the Hyperborean and the Transcendental to envision a possible catharsis for Black Metal. In the press release for your new album, you introduce the idea of transcendental catharsis. How do these ideas relate?

The term “transcendental” is a coagulation of different meanings for me. The first comes from American Transcendentalism, and particular Emerson’s idea that there is an “over-soul” that will always draw a new circle around every existing circle, and that spirituality-as-art is an affirmation of this becoming, along with its egalitarian implications. Then there is the medieval idea of the transcendentals — the True, the Good and the Beautiful. And the Kantian transcendental — the space between the “I think” and the “I am,” which Hegel and Schelling were able to exploit to create the idea of a logical temporality, and the idea that it is from this space that spontaneous, quasi-divine creation can spring, which you can associate with Nietzsche’s eternal return. Not to throw around a million names. But the transcendental is all three of these things: a creative-destructive force in nature, the object of ultimate concern, and something that appears as an abyss or excess in subjectivity. The idea for Transcendental Black Metal was that it, as a genre, would hold the same relationship to the (retroactively defined) Hyperborean Black Metal that the Nietzschean-Deleuzean philosophy of affirmation holds to to the Western tradition of Christianity-nihilism. Then Hyperborean is always a refusal to become that is ultimately self-destructive. What makes me uneasy about rehearsing all of this is that, more and more, becoming itself is co-opted these days. It’s difficult to distinguish authentic becoming from the kind of self-expression and blanket affirmation of difference that fuels social media and the news cycles. I’m not totally sure how to resolve that issue.

Do you believe that real catharsis is possible in social life today? And if so, in what way or sense?

This is a really hard question. People usually think of catharsis in terms of a sort of emotional quenching, whereas the world seems set up now to only really transmit fascination and anxiety, which I wouldn’t call emotions. To return to the idea of an eschatology, it seems to me important to orient the pulses of drama in human history towards an eschatological horizon. Take the work of someone like Lil Wayne in 2008, or Chief Keef in 2012 or Young Thug last year, this figure of the young black man in the post-2Pac era who has no explicit message or critique to offer, whose lyrics one is always tempted to compare to Artaud or whoever, were it not for the inherent insult in attempting to incorporate rappers into the canon of Western art and make them ‘high,’ as though they needed that to be valid. There’s something real about this unwillingness to communicate; it touches something deeper than conscious rap is able to go, maybe something post-human, like a pure combinatory of meaning.

The problem with emotion is that in the context of popular music we associate it with cliche, with kitsch — as in the idea of the Culture Industry and so on. I like to trigger emotion and undercut it at the same time. I have done plenty of crying while listening to certain Liturgy songs, especially Harmonium. But I think of it in terms of the crying in the Silencio scene in Mulholland Drive with the Roy Orbison song — it’s like something has to be translated into Spanish and contextualized in occult/absurd trappings to hit that core. But then again so much hip-hop production can read in terms of scripted emotions of sadness — tracks like “They Know” or “Best Friend” — the production chord changes activate that same i-VI chord change that comes from Brahms and Wagner. For me catharsis is always an a-ha, a working through, but in transcendental qabala it is one of only four criteria for art-ethics, the other three being ascesis, fervor, and potency. Ascesis trains desire to go to a higher place in an abstract way — think of nondual awareness. Catharsis proper goes into the soul, a particular tragic and repressed truth or trauma that is worked through. Fervor goes at a different kind of truth — something that the authorities say is evil or impossible, like a new style or a utopian vision. Power is the truth of enterprise, health, vitality — you could almost think of branding.

Your concept of Gesamtkunstwerk is particular, adapted for today. It involves the aura of the work — the Internet, the musicians, the music, etc. — not just what is on the stage, so to speak. It seems like you are aiming at a more comprehensive subject/object relationship. What would a completely successful total artwork look like today?

For starters, this successful total artwork would have to circumscribe failure, which is the shadow inherent to any vision. Social reality has the same contours that a drama does — something goes wrong, there are desires needs and struggles, a resolution occurs that is typically nevertheless tragic. Moments like Woodstock, like New York no wave, like Lil Wayne’s moment in 2008, these are acts in an unfolding drama, and I see my engagement with the world creatively as an opera — an unfinished, already-failed opera called 01010n. To me, the most valuable thing fine art has had to offer the world since the time of Fluxus and Beuys is failure and its relationship to shame — as found in the work of Kippinberger or of Bjarne Melgaard. Everything else that has been happening since the 90s — engagement with counterculture, consumer culture, party culture, and so on, institutional critique, relational aesthetics — is revolutionary for a few years, but easily slips into a sort of compliance. But failure — and this is where Jesus Christ comes back in, the humble carpenter carrying a cross — failure can never be re-absorbed into the ordinary economy. It’s an eternal paradox.

Beyond that there are basically six “categories” of Gesamtkunstwerk for me — for Ark Work — they boil down to Adaptation, which is the affirmation of becoming as well as humiliation and failure, Apocalypse, which is the connection between the surface of the present to a deeper tradition — and not just back to the renaissance, birth of science, democratic revolutions, and so on, but also to the birth of the historical record globally — the ancient Greeks, the vedas — and even the question of why there is existence; and Enterprise, which is daily, humble effort — releasing music, posting to an RSS feed. Then there are there three aspects of Perichoresis — creating music, which is will, philosophizing, which disorients from regular life, and art, which is always interaction with people that crosses some kind of threshold.

I’ve seen in a few places that you are interested in the work of Scriabin. His music often involves unhinged chromaticism, an extremely unique approach to classical form, and a rather apocalyptic worldview (especially in his unfinished, synesthetic Mysterium). But his music is often very tender and sympathetic. Do you feel like you work toward a similar balance in your music? You write about apocalyptic humanism and renihilation. How are these ideas related?

Scriabin is kind of a strange case, because his earlier music is very tender and sympathetic, using that romantic sound world discussed above, and his later music, though it isn’t “avant-garde” exactly in the sense of being part of a modernist project like that of Schoenberg, when he starts using the “Scriabin chord” all the time and building harmonies using 4ths, it becomes much more impersonal — but like sexual and cosmic, a soundtrack to becoming. This is the only period of Scriabin that I’m interested in — the latter half of his piano sonata cycle and late tone poems — but it is interesting that it really becomes impersonal and almost evil — I read somewhere that it was believed that certain of his sonatas were cursed and certain pianists refused to play them. I saw this amazing pianist Leo Svirsky play Scriabin’s 6th sonata and Vers la Flamme recently. I’ve never had a chance to see his music performed live before. There was no tenderness at all in the performance, just a sort of troubled ecstasy. That said, at the end of the day, the music I write is obviously dripping with emotion constantly.

Are there aspects of your personal life that you wanted to work through with this new album? As strange as this question may sound in relation to electronic music, does this project feel autobiographical?

Yeah, it is actually a very personal record for me. Not explicitly maybe, but privately it contains a lot of sorrow and anger in it, just anger at people I’ve worked with and interacted with. My relationship to the mainstream press has been totally surreal — I’ve written a lot of really beautiful and inventive music that has consistently proven to be ahead of its time, and really poured my heart into it. There are always people who get it, but the most mainstream press has been so relentless in scorning me, labeling me, and undermining my achievements, even distorting history and the facts. It’s sort of impossible to ignore at this point, like it would be sort of psychotic to pretend it isn’t happening. This record is not the most ambitious thing in the world, but it is sort of an attempt to open up a little more, be more vulnerable and real. Maybe even channel some of that pain back into the work and keep going with it, accepting that if I want to share it I’m going to get totally pounced on and manipulated by some people, and just be real about how insulting and unfair that disrespect is. That’s something I’m still trying to figure out how to do.

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