Last Summer, Bohemian National Cemetery in Chicago hosted one of the best concerts of the year, the experimental-metal collective Wrekmeister Harmonies' nocturnal open-air performance of the piece, "You've always meant so much to me", later selected as one of Spin Magazine top twenty metal albums of the 2013. Performed in its entirety, accompanied by video of Detroit's urban decay and the desolate landscapes of the Joshua Tree National Forest, it was a powerful reminder of the transitory nature of civilization. Sic Transit Gloria Mundi.
Last week, Wrekmeister Harmonies returned to the the same venue, with an even more ambitious programme.
First, for the unfamiliar, some background on the evolution of the indie metal world over the last few years. Locked in their basements, studying scales, practicing their craft, windows covered with aluminum foil, metal performers have gotten very good at playing their instruments. Further, the sheer excesses of the metal lifestyle have brought many major metal figures face to face with death, and those who survived the excesses are grateful to be alive. Finally, indie metal was always about thwarting expectations, now that the expectations are negative, the goal of thwarting expectations has become thwarting negative expectations. In short, the misanthropy at the heart of metal has led to isolation, which has led to skill, authenticity and wisdom.
How does this relate to last week's performance? The piece itself was an investigation of Gesualdo da Venosa, the bug-eyed murdering aristocrat, as famous for stabbing his wife twenty six times as he was for composing music whose harmonic constructs anticipated modernism. Again, for the unfamiliar, the music of Gesualdo is a historical puzzle. His compositions slide around chromatically, clearly not beholden to any specific key. Aldous Huxley listened to Gesualdo after taking hallucinogens, and wrote:
Mozart's C-Minor Piano Concerto was interrupted after the first movement, and a recording of some madrigals by Gesualdo took its place.
'These voices' I said appreciatively, 'these voices – they're a kind of bridge back to the human world.'
And a bridge they remained even while singing the most startlingly chromatic of the mad prince's compositions. Through the uneven phrases of the madrigals, the music pursued its course, never sticking to the same key for two bars together. In Gesualdo, that fantastic character out of a Webster melodrama, psychological disintegration had exaggerated, had pushed to the extreme limit, a tendency inherent in modal as opposed to fully tonal music. The resulting works sounded as though they might have been written by the later Schoenberg.
'And yet,' I felt myself constrained to say, as I listened to these strange products of a Counter-reformation psychosis working upon a late medieval art form, 'and yet it does not matter that he's all in bits. The whole is disorganized. But each individual fragment is in order, is a representative of a Higher Order. The Highest Order prevails even in the disintegration. The totality is present even in the broken pieces. More clearly present, perhaps, than in a completely coherent work. At least you aren't lulled into a sense of false security by some merely human, merely fabricated order. You have to rely on your immediate perception of the ultimate order. So in a certain sense disintegration may have its advantages. But of course it's dangerous, horribly dangerous. Suppose you couldn't get back, out of the chaos...'
This is complex music, and the Wrekmeister Harmonies performance asked some very complicated questions. How does music, which unites a tribe and binds people into a social organism, also serve to loosen the bonds of culture -- to the point where a person becomes a murderer? Did the same license that allowed Gesualdo to violate the rules of composition also permit him to kill his wife?
The piece started with doom rock, repeating Gesualdo's chromatics, reminding the audience that the chord progressions that defined their own tribal sense of identity were the same chord progressions of the murderous Gesualdo. Sophisticated members of the audience worried: Was Wrekmeister's rehashing of Gesualdo just a high-brow version of Danzig's integration of Hitlerian audio?
In the center of the piece, a professionally conducted choir assumed the stage and performed one of Gesualdo's madrigals on Death.
Werner Herzog's fictive documentary, Death in Five Voices, portrays Gesualdo as a deranged aristocrat -- a Satanic alchemist whose ghost haunts those become obsessed with Gesualdo's music. Was Wrekmeister Harmonies, having established that Gesualdo condoned murder, summoning an alchemical adept, performing the ceremony inches away from the interred bodies of once happily married couples?
The resolution of the piece, returning to Gesualdo's chromatics, answered this question. In the closing section, Wrekmeister showed that Gesualdo's musical vocabulary, while it may have given permission to murder, also expressed the enormity of his isolation and regret. So the piece ended with Gesualdo's harmonics, but this time the emotional register changed, and Gesualdo's wailing grief -- far from glorifying a murder -- reminded the audience of the preciousness of human life.
On facebook, an attendee wrote after the concert:
What a great show! The music, the cemetery...so, so good.
To the witless turds with your funky, chunky blue frames and red frames, you left your fucking beer cans and Frito bags (Fritos? Seriously? Did your mom pack those for you?) on the grass. Pick up after yourselves. Don't worry your skinny, little pants, though. We picked it up because...litter.