Bathing in the Horror That the Blood of Time Carries

It is by no mere coincidence that a quick online search of any band or artist known for high volume and even the most casual relationship with noise, and the word “punishing” will almost inevitably yield multiple results – in particular, reviews of records and, even more so, live shows from mainstream publications. But who is being punished, and who is the punisher? Certainly, if we understand performance style as a type of language, we may turn to Bataille and Deleuze for rather surprising answers: “The torturer does not use the language of the violence exerted by him…In this way [the Marquis de Sade’s characters] fall short of the profound silence peculiar to violence.” Consequently, de Sade’s gratuitous revelry in humiliation and degradation is in fact the “language…of a victim.” By contrast, Andrija Filipović reflects, Masami Akita’s “inexpressive performance is colder and crueler, as the title of Deleuze’s book on masochism reads.” One could imagine the performers of Hijokaidan, expressing through their corporeal linguistics their victimhood and desire for the cold and cruel discipline and punishment of the inexpressive, impassive sonic masters. The under-documented variance and perhaps even precarity of Merzbow’s cold distance from the audience will be discussed here later, nevertheless, it is an incontrovertible truth that, despite the many hypermanic noise performances in which an audience may be held captive in stunned silence, there are many others in which an audience will (at the very least strive to) meet the energy of the performers, particularly in the case of noisecore and grindcore artists such as Melt-Banana or Sissy Spacek; or potentially surpass it, in the case of those who would strive to headbang to the drone doom of Sunn O))), and above all to dancers in contrast to almost all techno or beats-based performances, such as that of Surgeon, Muslimgauze or Demdike Stare. However, no matter the levels of energy typically returned by the audience, we may still interpret their motion and especially their shift in consciousness as a purely reactive force, and thus evidence of a degree of subordination to the active force of noise. Nietzsche and Deleuze would affirm this position:

In Nietzsche, consciousness is always the consciousness of an inferior in relation to a superior to which he is subordinated or into which he is “incorporated.” Consciousness is never self-consciousness, but the consciousness of an ego in relation to a self which is not itself conscious. It is not the master’s consciousness but the slave’s consciousness in relation to the master who is not himself conscious.

Friedl’s acknowledgement of the sadomasochistic contract between artist and spectator is lacking, on account of its non-acknowledgement of the fluidity or versatility of the contract; instead, he believes “the agreement between the audience and the performer…defines the roles of activity and passivity” to an extent with which neither I nor Foucault would agree. Nevertheless, he does account for the sphere of music, from its composition to its reception, being a matrix of power relations, in which a subject may be master to one, and slave to another. In such a vein, the modern, avant-garde classical composer plays the role of the interpreter’s sadist, “exaggerating the technical difficulties of their scores to the point where they are impossible for any interpreter to play. The interpreter[‘s]…ever-losing fight…gains a very emotional dimension: Sisyphus onstage, performing his masochistic pleasure, only to fail every time.”

Aptly enough, the score-sheet’s ever-increasing rendering as “a set of technical instructions” moves it ever closer to Deleuze’s conception of pornography as “literature reduced to…imperatives (do this, do that) followed by obscene descriptions.” We should, of course, consider that – more often than not in relation to records than performances – the listener too may be given a set of imperatives as part of the listening process: recall the need for the listener to move the needle each time she wishes to hear the next track in From Here to Infinity, or the increased labour demanded of the listener for the playing records by post-rock/noise rock/drone band Godspeed You! Black Emperor. This reached its culmination with ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!, whose vinyl release was as four tracks, on two records – one 12” (“A”) played at 33 1/3rpm and one 7” (“B”) played at 45rpm. The liner notes instruct the listener to listen to ‘Allelujah in the order A1-B1-A2-B2, requiring the records to be exchanged and the speed of the player to be changed between each track.

Friedl suggests that the contract between artist and audience “does not obviously include the idea of suffering from the performance,” which suggests a difference between pain and suffering, at least within a sadomasochistic context, dependent on the theme of tension and release. In this case, pain may be understood as a singular phenomenon, which may be interpreted in multiple ways – including as a source of pleasure – during its increment and at the time of/just following its release. Meanwhile, suffering acts more as an existential condition of relative consistency, on account of chronic sustain or lasting, even permanent, damage. Accordingly, there appears to be a temporal component to the pain / suffering distinction. One perspective on a macro level might be to understand the sensuous echoes of power, as revealed as pain within the sadomasochistic theatre, as foldings of the planes of suffering experienced at a chronic level from the descendants of atrocities. Indeed, from a Foucauldian perspective, the sadomasochistic encounter may be understood as a certain genealogical praxis:

“The body manifests the stigmata of past experience and also gives rise to desires, failings and errors. These elements may join in a body where they achieve a sudden expression, but as often, their encounter is an engagement in which they efface each other, where the body becomes the pretext of their insurmountable conflict. The body is the inscribed surface of events (traced by language and dissolved by ideas), the locus of a dissociated self (adopting the illusion of a substantial unity), and a volume in perpetual disintegration. Genealogy, as an analysis of descent, is thus situated within the articulation of the body and history. Its task is to expose a body totally imprinted by history and the process of history’s destruction of the body.”

In this sense, we may understand suffering as being – or at least as being directly related to – the perpetual disintegration experienced as a result of the process of history’s destruction of the body. Pain experienced during the sadomasochistic encounter is the genealogical articulation of the body and history. This is reflected within the noise performance, and yet the suffering also remains extant; it is, however, almost invariably experienced not by the crowd, but by the performer. Friedl ends his essay by mentioning “how Schumann’s fourth finger on his right hand became crippled because he tied it up to improve his playing.” Similarly may we consider the tinnitus and perforated eardrum My Bloody Valentine guitarists/vocalists Kevin Shields and Bilinda Butcher have sustained, due to the extreme volume of their shows (most infamously, the extended climax to “You Made Me Realise,” known to fans as “The Holocaust”),  the potentially self-injurious results of harsh vocals of artists like Masonna, or the neck and back injuries caused by headbanging.

Aside from suffering-as-side-effect, the noise aesthetic invites, more than any other, suffering as an integral fabric to the creation process; one of the most remarkable examples being the production of “Báthory Erzsébet” by Sunn O))). Guest singer Malefic (Scott Conner) of Xasthur and Twilight, an apparently severe claustrophobe, was locked inside a casket, loaded into a hearse, and from there recorded his vocals, beginning: “Here / decompose forever / aware and unholy / encased in marble and honey from the swarm / a thin coat of infernal whispering that bleaches from within / a darkness that defiles thought.” With regard to “Báthory Erzsébet”’s sound, Graham speaks of its disarmingly quantum state: “It’s chromatic and pitch-centred, riff-based and ambiguously discursive. The music’s complication of conventional codes of musical organisation means that it impacts in the register of confusing and unstable jouissance as opposed to that of clear discernment.” Malefic’s vocal performance also operates in kind. Employing a traditional black metal “wretched vocals” technique, Malefic would, by most accounts, sound “scary.” However, what renders the sound of “Báthory Erzsébet” so unique is the extent to which Malefic in reality sounds petrified in his delivery. Graham’s description of the ways in which the instrumentation “wobbles” and “flickers” are wholly matched by Malefic’s involuntary wavering, whilst the punctuation of gasps between roars speak entirely to the sense of flickering; the listener’s mental image of Malefic is disturbed by the flickering, irrepressible intrusions of Scott Conner’s chronic fear of enclosed spaces.

As with many extreme metal – and particularly black metal – song structures, there is no verse-chorus division in the lyrics and the unclarity of the vocals strips away any need for rhyme or avoidance of enjambment. Thus, Malefic’s delivery is an effectively unbroken account of the corporeal putrefaction and spiritual desolation of titular Hungarian countess and mass murderer Elizabeth Bathory. Within such lines as “Stolen by the wingless harpies whose memories lay waste the valley of diamonds … / a thick viscous cloud smothering hope … / the begotten mistress of eternal hunger … / worship in the torment of a million wasted lives / bathe in the horror that the blood of time carries,” in conjunction with the aforementioned opening, “Báthory Erzsébet” is a poignant reflection on Bathory’s legendary vampiric status as one who retained her beauty by bathing in the blood of young maidens, ultimately succumbing to a most brutal realisation of the way of all flesh. Thus, at the heart of this song is an unmistakeable tension between preservation and entropy, made manifest as imagery of claustrophobia and isolation, as reflective of Bathory’s death in a condition of solitary confinement tantamount to immurement. One may naturally assume that, of all lyrics a claustrophobe might wish to find oneself singing, from the confines of a casket, these are absolutely not they. Thus, just as the (in this instance, both bass) guitars of founding Sunn O))) members Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley – credited in this instance as Mystik Fogg Invokator and Drone Slut, respectively – are drenched in feedback distortion, so too in another sense are Malefic’s vocals: every element of his performance having an amplifying and, indeed, distorting effect on every other.

Within the context of musical production and performance, “Báthory Erzsébet” perhaps stands alone as the most effective sadomasochistic genealogical exercise, whose hellish iconography of eternal entropy acts of course as acute representation of the perpetual disintegration to which the body is subjected by history, as described by Foucault. Amplified by the creative process, stemming not merely from an artist’s pain, but his suffering, on account of the chronic and seemingly lifelong condition of his claustrophobia, even when not trapped in a casket, the song through its crushing loudness transfers the pain to the listener. Friedl reminds us that Nietzsche considered the suffering experienced through dramatic performance as first and foremost an experience of “compassion,” that would imply sympathy. However, there most certainly is a physical, sensorial component to sadomasochism, to noise, and most assuredly to this particular instance. In such a way, the sadomasochistic theatre and the Sunn O))) performance – both of which revel in their paradoxically timelessly historical costumes – act as the repetitious festivals of Deleuze’s description: “they repeat an ‘unrepeatable.’ They do not add a second and a third time to the first, but carry the first time to the ‘nth’ power. With respect to this power, repetition interiorises and thereby reverses itself.” We the listener and Sunn O))) the performers – not least of all Malefic – are united and unified by the shared experience of the repetition of Bathory’s death.

What this unification between musician and listener in sensuous relation to the repetition of unique events as expressed in noise reveals is that, although the listener/spectator is only able to respond in this situation via – by definition – reactive force, the musician/artist also does not seem necessarily – and perhaps is not at all – capable of holding the active position, either. As Nietzsche and Deleuze already established, the active position is dependent on a level of unconsciousness that, if present in the scenario of noise-creation, would by even the most liberal standards, likely preclude someone from the ability to self-identify as an artist. Thus, it would appear, the noise itself behaves and exists as an active agent