Interview with Matthew Heilman for Starvox (part2)

(Answers marked "(RE:)" are R. Tschirner's answers to Starvox interview pt.1 used as references by some of the new questions.

Matthew: You mentioned other "related common projects." What other musical studies are you involved in and what are these other music projects like in comparison to ELEND?

Renaud: These projects have not yet been released; there are two collaborations of both ELEND composers which have crystallized during the last years and which will maybe be issued in the near future: we have been writing experimental "avant-garde" orchestral music that goes beyond what we initiated on The Umbersun: Ensemble Orphique. This was to be our common project subsequent to the completion of the Officium Tenebrarum. In contrast to ELEND this music involves a more ambitious kind of writing music. It means a lot of work and really should be seen against the background of contemporary "serious" music or sound research. We have also been working on Statues, very violent dark industrial, which allows us to deal with musical violence per se. Apart from that, we also work independently from each other, in various styles. Iskandar Hasnawi has got a trip-hop project (A Poison Tree), which I find quite original. And I am involved in various other musical activities ranging from jazz to metal.

Matthew: Your use of synthetic instruments is and always has been extremely commendable. Especially on Weeping Nights and The Umbersun -- I have yet to hear a music project that can recreate such gigantic orchestral sounds with such authenticity. What kind of synthesizers did you guys use? (Unless that is your big secret!)

Renaud: We started with rather basic machines, synths by Korg, Roland, E-mu, Kurzweil. Our first samplers were an Akai Sampler and the E4XT by E-mu. The Kurzweil K2500 we had bought long ago can also work as a sampler. We still use all of them, but only parsimoniously. Musical equipment has evolved incredibly during the last decade, and still has many surprises in store. We mainly work with PCs and integrated sampler instruments now; we have quite a library of sampled instrumental sounds which mainly consists of CD-ROMs available on the market, but also of recordings done on our own, such as the totality of the industrial noises you can hear on Winds Devouring Men. What I am always wondering about is the fact that with the possibilities one has nowadays, everybody should potentially be able to produce quality music on his own. And more and more people are making music at home; but apparently this hasn't changed much in the quality of the output. The problem with this democratisation of music production (which is principally a good thing, I want to emphasize that) is that everybody thinks he can become a star overnight with self-made demos. And this is obviously not enough.

Matthew: In regard to the "Officium Tenebrarum" cycle: Why "Paradise Lost?" Can you explain why John Milton had such a profound affect upon you and Iskandar? Your presentation of Lucifer corresponds with the way that 19th Century Romantics sympathized with his character, and the way in which they viewed him as the hero of "Paradise Lost." I had always figured that you were just taking the Romantic motifs and providing a musical interpretation of them, but a lot of folks might have misunderstood ELEND and assumed you were Satanists.

Renaud: Stylistically, Milton has never appealed to me. Ezra Pound qualified Milton's verse as rhetoric, and he is absolutely right: it is one of the best examples I know for what one would call "verbosity". Unlike Shakespeare, Milton attempted to reproduce epic Latin verses in English; some might argue that he has achieved something unique, but I don't find this a very interesting issue.
Now, as far as Paradise Lost is concerned, Iskandar Hasnawi merely chose it as one of the starting points for our cycle, as a sort of exposition. It would be wrong to see our treatment of the figure of the rebellious angel as being in accordance with 19th century Romanticism. Milton's Satan, "majestic though in ruin", counts among the first depictions of this originally evil figure as the heroic rebel impersonating decadent beauty; the forerunner of the ideal Romantic artist. ELEND never followed this path: you will note that everything in ELEND's "Officium Tenebrarum" evolves around the hopelessness of rebellion and the inescapability of death. There is no Romantic glorification, neither of the fall, nor of the rebel per se. If there is any kind of fascination in ELEND, then it happens on a much more abstract level, which is mainly connected to musical matters. The Miltonian position inevitably leads to Satanism, which mainly inverts the roles but achieves exactly the same results: a Manichean view of the world, with the worshipping of one single patriarchal figure. In our earliest interviews back in 1994 we emphasised that we were not concerned at all with what happens to this figure after the fall - the lyrics of the first album, which are still set in a Miltonian context, close with the building of Pandemonium, the point where the rebel is about to turn into God's counterpart, and therefore loses all his relevance for our concept.
You will notice that although we started from Paradise Lost we never once used the name "Satan": we deliberately turned to the term "Lucifer", the "bearer of light". Originally, this term was applied to the planet Venus, the "Morning Star", because it appears shortly before sunrise. In this sense Christ is described as the light-bearer of the Apocalypse (Rev: 22,16). But since the same star also appears with the setting sun this led to the following remark in Isaiah's satire on the death of a tyrant: "How you are fallen from heaven, / O Day Star, son of Dawn!" (Is: 14,12). But the medieval biblical tradition, where "Morning Star" had been translated with "Lucifer", understood the descent of the star Venus/Lucifer as the fall of the lord of demons. Therefore, the name "Lucifer" has been associated with the figure of Satan since the Middle Ages. In ELEND, however, we kept the parallel between Christ and Lucifer, and elaborated a complex reflection, on an almost archetypal level, on the symbolic process of denomination in Christian theology and on the nature of the Christian religion, which sees itself as a religion of salvation. You could read the lyrics as Iskandar Hasnawi's logbook of his struggles against the Christian religion; they are interwoven with many images and personal references that are alien to this tradition. Our cycle was a personal interpretation of one of the founding myths of the Western cultural imagination. We took many liberties with biblical or theological texts. You could even call it a dreamt mythology; and thus, there is not such a great distance to what we are doing on Winds Devouring Men.
The fact that the Officium dealt with themes partly based on Western philosophy and theology has led people to believe that ELEND have had more than mere abstract interests in the matter. The point is that what we tried to achieve with this cycle (which can more or less be summarized as extreme violence and most oppressive darkness in music) had to be presented in a comprehensible form, and most people in our culture are familiar with the Christian religion and related topics, also regarding deviating interpretations in philosophy or literature, such as Paradise Lost. In order to produce our tripartite maelstrom toward absolute darkness we thus looked for a symbolical figure that could embody this process (Lucifer). From a Catholic ceremony designed to welcome hope and light as the symbol of Christ's resurrection (the "leçons de ténèbres"), held on the three nights before Easter Sunday, we achieved a descent into utter hopelessness and emptiness (hence the name ELEND).
In addition to that, the "Officium Tenebrarum" (or "Office des Ténèbres") cycle was structured according to the sequence of these masses; although I find many details on the past albums not perfect in retrospect, our concept was very elaborate both in form and content; and very coherent, too.

Matthew: Are you aware that the English band Paradise Lost sampled a choir part from The Umbersun on their latest release? I always found that amusing -- as if they were apologizing for using the name Paradise Lost when you guys were the true Milton aficionados in the dark music world!

Renaud: Iskandar doesn't really appreciate their music, and I haven't bought their last few albums myself, so we were totally unaware of the fact that they had sampled us. But we have checked thanks to your remark. As you know, they used the solo soprano opening of "In the Embrasure of Heaven" as the opening of one of their songs. They didn't mention us in the credits of the album, though. Need I say more...

(RE:) Renaud: Anyway, you are absolutely right in presuming affinities to orchestral music. I can give you a list of composers which I think are esteemed by both of us, and in whose tradition we like to see ourselves. I will try to keep it short: Mahler, Strauss, Bartók, Varèse, Scelsi, Messiaen, Xenakis, Ligeti, Nono, Henry, Górecki, Penderecki, Pärt.

Matthew: Those are the very composers that I had always assumed had a deep impact upon ELEND, especially Górecki and Penderecki. Are you at all familiar with Penderecki's opera for "Paradise Lost?" I myself have not heard it since, as far as I know, it has never been recorded. But I know that it exists! I was curious how similar it might have been to ELEND's work and if had any significant influence upon you.

Renaud: No, we have never heard it either. In 1996/97 we weren't familiar with all of his works, but those we knew certainly motivated us to pursue our own experiments with musical violence. We have developed our own methods of composing rather independently from the learned school, but in retrospect we notice that the composers we appreciate have worked along similar lines, without our knowing it. Although Penderecki's concern with religious matters is completely alien to both ELEND composers, his seventh symphony (Seven Gates of Jerusalem), which was written approximately at the same time as The Umbersun, shows some interesting similarities to The Umbersun, conceptually, but also compositionally. It was quite surprising to listen to it when it was released on CD in 2000. So maybe we will have another surprise when his Paradise Lost will be available.

Matthew: Where did you and Iskandar study music, and what specific degrees did the two of you earn at University?

Renaud: Regarding music we are autodidacts; except for a thorough basic musical education in our teens. We learned to play a few instruments, like the violin or the piano, but we never really had the opportunity to study composition in a scholarly context.

(RE:) Renaud: We have never been interested in gothic at all; I don't think that it has anything to do with dark music. Metal does not count as dark music either, but it is a style that is concerned with musical violence, and this is what we appreciate. I still miss this kind of barbaric, violent approach in many metal bands. But fortunately there are some people of whom I think that they have understood the essence of metal - Immolation, Morbid Angel, Cadaver Inc., Dillinger Escape Plan, Cephalic Carnage, etc.

Matthew: You claim that "Gothic" really doesn't have anything to do with dark music. Are you referring more or less to the fashion and image associated with the Gothic club scene? Because from my perspective as a "Gothic" DJ and a literature major with an emphasis on Gothic literature, I would say that the atmosphere in most of ELEND's music strongly mirrors the atmosphere of dark Romantic and Gothic literature, and unlike many current club bands, ELEND could be referred to as Gothic without any aesthetic hesitation. I would say this as well about bands like Dead Can Dance, Sopor Aeternus, and even some of the early Gothic Rock bands like Bauhaus, the Banshees, Christian Death, etc. It seems to me that many of the purest "Gothic" bands do not want to be associated with the term. I understand that I may have a rather unique or more academic impression of the term Gothic, but why, in the case of ELEND, do you have an aversion to the term? There needs to be more quality bands out there that "reclaim" the word and its proper usage!

Renaud: Because ELEND is as far removed from Gothic proper as from the music scene that took over the term. As a literary movement, the "Gothic" was mainly concerned with the revival of a certain historical period and what was believed to be part of it; there was a fascination with the obscure, the supernatural, the occult, etc. It is obvious why the term was applied to a particular wave of pop bands in the 80s, and we could argue whether it was deserved or not. But I don't see any connection to ELEND in either movement.
There is a naïve sentimentality at the heart of the literary, or scholarly, Gothic - and the same holds for the entirety of the Romantic movement; for the English current with Shelley, Byron, Walpole, Lewis etc. as well as for its offspring that were the French Decadents, Baudelaire, Lautréamont, Lorrain or Huysmans. The Romantic approach is not ours, which has more in common with Modernism or Futurism and the Poundian re-appropriation of antiquity.
The musical references to Romanticism on the past albums were linked to the Officium: I have already outlined its textual dimension above; the music was intended as a kind of survey of the complete Western musical tradition, from the Renaissance to the middle of the 20th century, growing more violent and dense on the one hand, and more modern on the other, as it advances. We have never been drawn to Romantic music, but this doesn't mean we can't acknowledge its inventions and its role in the evolution of the Western tradition. Actually, everything that happened between the Baroque era and Richard Strauss is of little interest to us, emotionally. This is also why we are turning to other traditions with the new ELEND album: we have done the most out of the Western tradition already.
Among the bands you mentioned I guess you can call the Banshees or Christian Death gothic bands. Sopor Aeternus is a circus clown, and Dead Can Dance is definitely not a gothic band. What we principally don't like about the gothic scene is a certain attitude toward life, and all that goes with it, including image and fashion of course. It is essentially a nihilistic movement; we find such tendencies repulsive. We have always kept to the human dimension, the earthly, the temporal, even in our confrontation with theological material. Our recurrent emphasis on violence and hopelessness must not be mistaken for the Gothic fascination with the morbid; this does not interest us at all. Human consciousness first of all means being conscious of the inevitable end of one's own existence. Death is significant because it shapes human experience, but there is nothing delightful in death or disease.
I really would like to be told specifically why ELEND has been associated with this scene. Melancholic atmospheres? George Clinton can also be melancholic, and no one would say that funk has anything to do with gothic. The instrumentation? Density? Violence? Then Penderecki would be gothic, too; and besides, there don't seem to be any gothic bands to which those aspects apply. The literary references to the Western tradition? That is not specific enough. Maybe these misunderstandings are connected to the theme of the fall of the angels; I hope that my remarks on the Officium concept will have shed light on this matter.
Our understanding of dark music involves the element of dramatic tension; you have to know Richard Strauss to comprehend that tension is the essence of our work. There is none in what is commonly regarded as "gothic" music. We can only always point to ancient Greek tragedy (mainly Aeschylus) for a better understanding of what we mean. I should stop using the term "dark" in connection with music; with ours, and with music in general; it doesn't mean anything. "Tragic" is the only suitable term to describe ELEND.

(RE:) Renaud: It is pleasant to know that people from diverse musical backgrounds are able to appreciate what we are doing. But we don't really mind about the reception of our music. We were first signed to a metal label in 1994, which made the metal scene the first one in touch with our work; but at that time ELEND was much more easily accessible for somebody familiar with extreme metal - and there were many misunderstandings of course. The new cycle we are beginning with Winds Devouring Men might not please this audience that much, while people who approve the album without knowing the previous work might be shocked when they are confronted with its raw violence, the screams, the uninterrupted torrent of violence that pours from it.

Matthew: Was this one of the reasons that you decided to leave the screams and growls behind? In an effort to further emphasize the more "serious" aspect of your music? You sort of tested the waters with this in the past, with the Weeping Nights disc which was material from the Les Ténèbres du Dehors release, without the male screams. But they were back in full force on The Umbersun? Will they ever make a return to ELEND?

Renaud: Maybe, but very likely not in the current cycle. They would be out of place here. We use screams in Ensemble Orphique, for example, but they are not male screams. Violence can be expressed in many ways, musically, and they don't always have to be the most obvious. But once again, this is a matter of point of view. Screams will be more likely to shock the listener, because they are not common in what you could call the musical mainstream. And maybe the reason why non-metal audiences find the new album more appealing is the fact that the overall atmosphere on Winds Devouring Men is more melancholic than oppressing. But violence is still there, of course, and it is much extremer than before, notably on some tracks in the middle of the album. I personally think that some passages with layers of dissonant strings, rhythmical elements and distorted noises are the most violent ones we have ever made. But they are merely outbursts: they are unexpected and surprising, but will not trouble the average listener too long. I think this is the main change compared to the previous album: nothing on The Umbersun was really "surprising". Once you entered the flux with the first piece it brought you to utter wretchedness like in a programmed ride; very brutal of course, but very predictable.

Matthew: The integration of "Industrial" elements was a nice surprise, and provides a similar kind of rawness and intensity that the screams provided on the earlier albums. What inspired you guys to do this? Are you fans of early experimental Industrial bands like Throbbing Gristle and Einsturzende Neubauten? Or are you taking your noisey cues from contemporary "serious musicians" like Arvo Pärt and Philip Glass?

Renaud: We quite appreciate the approach of Einstürzende Neubauten. But I would rather point to the work of Pierre Henry or Iannis Xenakis than to others as far as "noises" are concerned.

Matthew: Whereas most of today's experimental artists just create noises with their computer programs, you guys actually went out and made these noises, or at least sampled real life sounds? Where did you guys do this? What all did you sample?

Renaud: The major part of our industrial samples was recorded in a metal embossing factory here in Austria. We recorded workers on their machines and also used some of the machinery available there in unconventional ways; some of the sounds thus recorded were later re-designed on the computer. Apart from that, we record whatever we believe to be interesting; ambience sounds we happen to come across or unconventional noises we produce on our own with devices we construct for this specific purpose.
Most bands that use "industrial" elements in an external context have recourse to sample CD-ROMs that are used everywhere else (in films, television series, computer games etc. ). There are not as many as you would think, and we know most of them. Just listen closely to the sounds used in the X-Files. You will find them in many other places. These samples are extremely well done of course, and they have an excellent sound quality, but you will always be limited in your scope. Using them is just like using instant food instead of preparing a meal with choice ingredients. In recording and treating our own sounds we can be sure to achieve a result that has not been heard before. There is no real innovation in this domain, except in industrial music proper, in electronic music and in contemporary serious music - anyway, all these ideas reach back to the Musique Concrète of the 50s and 60s. Or even to the Futurists in the early 20th century. We do not pretend to be innovative in having recourse to this principle! We merely believe that there are still some interesting things to be done with "noises" and with programming. It is possible to produce music outside of the norms of a conventional instrumentation; and working with one's own sounds is a much more interesting process than admiring and using the work of others.

Matthew: There has always been such a remarkable similarity between the clean male vocals in ELEND and the vocals of Brendan Perry (DCD). In many ways I always felt that ELEND picked up the neo-classical strains that Dead Can Dance abandoned, in order to pursue their more ethnic influences. ELEND really fills that void quite well. Was this at all intentional? (I wouldn't ask if the similarities weren't so strong...)

Renaud: Not at all! We have always appreciated Dead Can Dance of course, but I wouldn't subscribe to the idea that we are continuing what they began; it would neither do justice to them nor to us. Their way of writing music is fundamentally different from ours, their sound too. Our music has always been dramatic and complex, both harmonically and structurally; theirs was primarily concerned with readability, even when they integrated exotic or unconventional elements. In addition to that, we have always attempted to achieve an overall acoustic sound, i.e., a sound closer to recordings of serious than of popular music (we have only really managed this on the last album, due to the obvious reasons I talked about in the last Starvox Interview). Brendan Perry is an outstanding producer, and the sound of Dead Can Dance's albums is very clean, even clinical, in some ways. I am not saying that one approach is better than the other; it is merely a question of different concerns. But anyway - one must never forget the role Dead Can Dance played in the development of popular music. There have not been many bands with the same approach; one should never forget that they synchronically used contemporary and archaic instrumentations or structures untypical within the context of popular music in a period when everything evolved around conventions. I believe that we are indebted to this very approach - it is for this particular reason that we stated our respect for them in the credits of our first album. In this regard they were pioneers, which we certainly are not. As to the male vocals - there are similarities in the tone colour of the voice, indeed; this is a curious coincidence, but there is nothing we can change about that!

Matthew: So what's next for ELEND? Will fans have to wait another five years for the next album? Is Winds Devouring Men the first instalment in a new conceptual cycle?

Renaud: Yes, the new cycle comprises four albums. Actually, the next album is scheduled to appear approximately one year from the release of Winds Devouring Men, which would be spring 2004. We are currently working on it and have already started recording some pieces. The pace will not be as slow as on Winds Devouring Men, this time. The music is faster, more violent, more bizarre, if you prefer. The two subsequent albums will be released in 2005 and 2006 (if everything works out as planned). Beyond that, the future of the project is uncertain.

Matthew: Thank you again for answering our questions. Best of luck with the latest release and all your future endeavours!

Many thanks to Starvox, especially to you and Joel, for the interest shown in ELEND and for giving us the opportunity to do two really in-depth interviews!