"When artists bring underground musical subcultures into seemingly more legitimate spaces, whatever their intentions, those subcultures are easily reduced to the merely symbolic." Frances Morgan on artist Matt Stokes's grindcore-informed installation
Bela Bartok’s 1930 work Cantata Profana takes as its theme a Romanian folk tale in which nine brothers, hunting in a forest, are magically changed into stags. It’s the kind of tale that might resonate with Black Metal fans, with its fantasy of occult shapeshifting in the woods of old Europe. But grindcore, the subgenre of heavy metal that informs Matt Stokes’s film Cantata Profana (2010), is resolutely un-Romantic. Its primary thematic concern is that of negation – if not of the life force, at least of social structures, of work, of sex – without any complementary idea of transcendence or triumph. Grindcore’s abruptly curtailed songs and sometimes indecipherable lyrics take this idea of rejection/abjection to a formal level, dispensing with song structure and meaning to the ears of most casual listeners. In Stokes’s film, however, which shows six vocalists from grindcore and powerviolence bands singing an unaccompanied composition in a recording studio, this indecipherability is less nihilistic and more an opportunity to explore the textures and timbres of the voices. The slow pace of the composition – more sludge than grind – abstracts the vocals still further from their original context.
As the ancient story was transformed into an orchestral work, so a vernacular form of extreme singing becomes an avant garde vocal performance; and a musical subculture becomes unmoored from its familiar spaces and audiences and given over to the spectator in a gallery. The impact of this is undeniable, but spend too long around such works and questions start to surface, not only about their appropriative aspects, but also about the conceptual logic underpinning these juxtapositions of worlds. There is a risk that when visual art co-opts ideas of musical process – exploring DIY, say, or choral music or free improvisation – the result will reveal little about that process other than the artists’ or curators’ preconceived and frequently very general ideas about what music is or does – PJ Harvey’s recent Recording In Progress in London’s Somerset House, in which small audiences booked into strict timeframes watched Harvey and her band (through one-way windows) rehearsing and recording songs for a new album in a purpose-built studio, being a case in point. Billed as a “mutating, multi-dimensional sound sculpture” that would allow the public to “become part of the [recording] process”, it was neither sculptural nor interactive. Likewise when artists bring underground musical subcultures into seemingly more legitimate spaces, whatever their intentions, those subcultures are easily reduced to the merely symbolic.
“Initially it was the idea of taking something that had originated from a folk tale and then turning it into something new, in Bartok's piece,” says Stokes, adding that at first he and Orlando Gough, the composer with whom the music was conceived, considered using musical elements of the work too. In the end, though, all they used was the title, of which Stokes says, “The idea I had was that it might turn out to be this kind of anti-hymn or anti-anthem.”
We are at London’s Dilston Grove gallery, where Cantata Profana will be screened from now until the end of April. Stokes has just turned the sound down on the installation so we can talk; on the six screens, arranged in a shallow semicircle, the vocalists are still in action. Two – Chris Butterworth (of Kastrated) and Anders Bakke (of She Said Destroy and various other groups) – adopt classic lunging and hunching postures as they deliver abrasive screams. The moves familiar to any attendee of hardcore shows: gestures developed over years of practice not only as an embodiment of anger or defiance, but as a means of controlling the sounds the singer makes. Another, De Kurt (of Paroxysm), on the far right, stands stock still, cigarette and a bottle of lager in hand. When the sound is up, you hear that he contributes a low, rhythmic death-growl to the Cantata, taking, along with another musician called Dente, from the band Rompeprop, the bass role. The composition, which allows for distinct ‘parts’ and solo phrases for each voice, plus the six separated audio channels, allow you to hear each vocalist clearly, although at Dilston Grove they’re doused in natural reverb courtesy of the arched ceiling of the gallery, formerly a church.
Stokes says, “I'd always been interested in the way that extreme metal vocalists use their voices, but also the idea of singling them out, because it’s difficult to hear the intricacies of what they’re doing. What happens if I try and find vocalists who are up for just using their voices without the need for instruments?”
After listening to numerous performances, Stokes and Gough invited six singers from the UK, The Netherlands, Norway and Austin, Texas, along with Texan punk musician Tim Kerr (with whom Stokes worked on archival project These Are The Days in Austin in 2009), for a five day writing and recording session in the Funkhaus in Berlin. Originally the broadcasting centre for the former communist German Democratic Republic’s national radio station, the building now houses numerous studios; the one you see in Cantata Profana is a slightly scruffy, cluttered space similar to small recording studios the world over, its past life as the station’s communications centre only apparent in the multiple plug sockets that line the walls. “Finding somewhere that felt right visually was important,” Stokes says. “I spent a long time looking at studios, and also places that weren't studios. Initially I thought about going somewhere else – I looked at some really weird buildings. But then it kind of felt like you were making a music video, and that wasn't what it was about.”
Throughout our conversation Stokes stresses the collaborative, participatory nature of the piece. The composition itself was put together and workshopped by the singers, with Kerr recording and acting as something of an interlocutor between cultural zones. Gough’s role in the final recording was loosely that of conductor, pointing at prompts rather than demanding the musicians stick to a score. Rather than reduce metal to a set of signifiers, or amplify its theatricality and camp aspects in the manner of, say, artist Bjarne Melgaard, Stokes seems to want to explore what it means to be a skilled musician in a vernacular context: “That idea of skilled versus unskilled, that's something that I've always been interested in. People who do stuff for the love of doing it… the idea of skill is not an important factor. But what [the vocalists] do is very skilled, it does take a lot of time to produce the sounds they do.”
Yet does extreme metal, in which notions and hierarchies of skill are firmly in place and technical proficiency much admired, need this kind of claim made on its behalf? You wonder, in that case, who it is that Stokes is trying to convince of the vocalists’ skills – it’s unlikely to be powerviolence fans. Instead, the work seems primarily for those who might never otherwise experience such music. What it can reveal, perhaps, to those more familiar with it is an unexpected emotional dimension that is added by seeing and hearing the singers away from other musicians and from a live audience. The singers are, literally, isolated – from their groups and, because of the arrangement of six separate screens, from one another. Contrary to the perception of metal as entirely fuelled by rage, Stokes says, “It was partly about looking at emotion in extreme metal vocalists do, but not on that level of anger; actually it's emotional in lots of other ways.”
It is telling, too, that one of the most compelling performances is from the vocalist who was most resistant to the idea of band-less, wordless singing. Alex Hughes from Austin’s Hatred Surge is the only one of the group who sings lyrics in Cantata Profana; as a result, the viewer’s eyes are instantly drawn to him. This is not just because he appears now to be the lead singer, but because he expresses more vividly than anyone else the tension between sense and incoherence that draws many listeners to extreme music in the first place. He forces the gallery listener to engage in a way that they might at a live performance, rather than just being immersed in the sonics of abstracted screams, growls and grunts.
“I would say Alex had one of the most difficult times out of anybody,” says Stokes. He knew in advance that Hughes’s style was such that wordlessly vocalising wouldn’t come naturally. “We started workshopping and all the vocalists started doing stuff with their voices. Alex was like, ‘It’s not what I do, I don’t just make sounds, I need something to work against, some lyrics that have meaning to me’. I think it was only on the fourth day when he just started writing stuff down. They were completely his own lyrics, completely undirected – which was great because it was completely his own. I think that's why he does put so much into it, because there's a feeling of attachment.”
Cantata Profana runs to 26 April at London's Dilston Grove gallery