Read a transcript of Joseph Stannard's conversation with vocalist Jessika Kenney, part of a series of exclusive interviews with collaborators and members of Sunn O))
How did you first come into contact with Sunn O)))?
“That was through Randall, the engineer. He was the person I connected to Asva [California-based drone outfit featuring ex-Sunn O))) collaborator G. Stuart Dahlquist] through as well, although there are lots of varied connections and mutual friends that we have, probably due to just being around Seattle. As for this latest thing... yeah, I don't know.”
“Well, I don't think I could just blame it on that, because we have a lot of similar interests as well, but yeah... I don't know. I don't know how to explain that connection. It seems like it's something definitely beyond the particular place or the particular concept of the music. Maybe there's something of a philosophical affinity that we have.”
Where would you locate that philosophical crossover?
“It's hard to say because it's kind of more defined by what it isn't than what it is. The lack of the limitations of a genre, or a subculture, a or type of music. But I don't know... I don't know exactly.”
You've worked not only with Sunn O))) and Asva, but also with US Black Metal outfit Wolves In The Throne Room. Would you say that you had a special affinity for this kind of densely textured, heavy music?
“Well, I'm not really interested in the heaviness of it, that's not really how I think of it, but I'm very interested in the full spectrum experience of sound, and a lot of my experience has been with tuned metal and percussion, so I'm really interested in non-linear relationships of tonalities and harmonic relationships. So I feel like what Sunn O))) is doing is very inspiring and beautiful in those kind of non-linear, harmonic relationships. I don't think of it as specifically Sunn O))), but just the experience of a loud, distorted guitar [laughs]. I mean, I can remember many shows I've gone to, where I'd be in the audience just singing along with the feedback, especially the upper partials. Sometimes I would just do that and create different kinds of beating patterns. That's what I was really having a good time with in Asva as well. It's more of a physical experience of sound.”
Sunn O))) could be considered part of a tradition which includes composers such as LaMonte Young, Tony Conrad and Terry Riley. Stephen however seems to be trying to connect to something even more fundamental than that, the roots of that tradition.
“Well, I think we're all trying to search for something with sound as the force, and not necessarily social configurations, or even cultural concepts. Just trying to go to sound as something that's alive and has its own will and way that it wants to go, and way that it wants to be known. I think that would be a point that we're very kindred on.”
Stephen definitely seems to view the sound as an entity in itself, above and beyond the individual egos involved.
“Yeah, and more undefinable.”
Have you ever performed live with Sunn O)))?
“No, and I don't think that's something that we're planning.”
“I'm not really sure. Yeah, I think that would be an interesting experience, but most of what I'm really interested in doing right now is very acoustically based. I don't know, it's never come up.”
Can you tell me a little about the choir that performs on “Big Church”?
“They were friends of some friends of ours in Vienna, and they have sung together in groups, but they came as individual people. They're very good, trained singers, and very sophisticated in their thinking. You could just picture, they'd already been singing Schoenberg and whatever, they were beginning with that. So it didn't really surprise them. I think when the guitars first came in, it was a bit humourous for them, but they quickly immersed themselves in it and had incredible focus. It was really an interesting session, because it was down in the basement of this huge building, this very old building, which used to be a hangar for building airplanes. I think it was probably at least 200 or 300 years old, and just kind of damp and dank, and had a very intense vibe. You'd go down two or three flights of stairs and you're in this kind of brick room, and having these six singers plus me and Attila, just wailing and wailing for hours... really, it was like a very beautiful ritual. And I thought it was very interesting too, to hear singers from Vienna singing in Hungarian. There's something profound about it, the different layers of history, going back a few centuries, and the connections between Austria and Hungary, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. For them to be chanting something in Hungarian, it had an interesting ring. The way they pronounced the word, how they thought about it. I was just really amazed by them.”
I'm interested in your own interpretation of the 44-letter word repeated throughout that track, megszentségteleníthetetlenségeskedéseitekért. Attila told me that when he first came up with the concept for the lyric, he had to sit down with Stephen and explain it at length before they achieved a level of clarity.
“I think there was always a lot of disagreement, even after Attila described the grammar of the word, how each part breaks down and relates as one concept. We all disagreed to what that word might actually be applied to and what it would mean. I was looking at the liner notes on the CD and how the word was translated, thinking back.... the original definition that I was excited by was that this word represents the result of acting as if it is impossible to deconsecrate something. And that meaning – and this is my own take – that nothing can be deconsecrated. That, even though people have these concepts of good and evil, pure and impure, these extremely dualistic concepts, that actually it is impossible, or it would be a profound result, to show that it is impossible, to deconsecrate anything. The sacred is something that is undamageable. But I know that Attila had an idea, and I agreed with his concept, that it was more kind of a legalistic term. That it was almost like an accusation. It's the result of this, your punishment, or what came back to you because you refused to admit that something could be deconsecrated, that your self could be unholy, for example. He was saying it was like a criminal state, for example, like a member of the clergy, or someone who was considered to be holy, and because of their social status, refuses to admit that they could actually deconsecrate themselves. Attila's agenda was more to rail against that. Like, 'You say that you're holy but you've made yourself unholy, and the result of you acting as if you could not be made unholy is this song, which is my indictment of you.' But I find that less exciting. I'm more excited by the impossibility of deconsecrating something.”
It's very consistent with the Sunn O))) way of being, the element of myth and mystery, that the new album should harbour a conundrum of this kind.
“Yes, and it's childlike, as Attila said. The word is almost like a joke, it's something that they teach to children in school, to show how the Hungarian language works. You can add on so many parts to a word and it can get ridiculously long, and here's the example. That's very playful. I like that you said that, that it's like a riddle.”
It's very pleasing and unexpected to find a piece of music which contains a kind of linguistic puzzle.
“Oh, yes. A focus for discussion. We've been so involved in that lately, because I've been learning the Persian language and doing a lot of translating classical poetry, just spending hours and hours sitting with my teacher discussing all the possible meanings for a line of poetry, having to go through not only English to Persian, Persian to English, but back to 800 years ago and poem, which is great because it has hundreds, possibly infinite ways of being interpreted. It's so personal and it can help people so much to find their own meaning in it. But how you find that can be very rigorous and very intense. This great teacher moved to Seattle, and I started studying with him, although I was already performing a lot as a singer, I started off in a whole new place as a baby of Persian music, and have just been working with him since that time, for about five years. It's more qualities of music or qualities of sound that drew me to it rather than anything that could represent the music culturally. I feel in a way very innocent to that, but I feel very involved in the musical understanding, the poetic understanding.”
Does this tie in with your contribution to Sunn O)))? Do you approach this music with a similar understanding?
“I think I might only tie it in as far as finding that place where you can feel free of certain concepts and limitations, and you can naturally connect to sound and the physical experience of sound. I feel that in both cases, with Sunn O))) or with Persian music. It's mystical, actually. It's a mystical experience, which is beyond intellectual comprehension. It's also very mundane, it's something that can happen through just not knowing something, just ignorance! Not to make it into something too grand and lofty, but I do think it has the ability to elevate your spirit, to approach something with that kind of attitude, with Sunn O))), or with Persian music, or any kind of creative work.”
Sunn O)))'s music seems to be halfway between organism and structure. Do you think of music as a living thing, or as an environment? Are we talking biology or architecture?
“Well that's just a beautiful question. In the realm of sound, what's the difference between a body and something that's not alive, that's just a structure? It seems very possible that music could be the place where those two things unite.”