Sunday, June 7, 2009

Sunn 0))) - Monoliths and Dimensions (and getting lost in Berlin)

So, I arrived in Berlin two weeks ago on May 24th. That night Sunn 0))) was playing at the Volksbuhne im Prater. I bought my ticket a few weeks in advance and I hoped to maybe snag a quick interview with them for the blog. But all those hopes were dashed that night when a fellow student and I couldn't find the venue. In the next few days we realized exactly where the Prater was and have walked past it several times; opening our wounds each time. Dagger.

I was going to have this post be a review of the show and maybe even post an interview if I got lucky. But now I'll just talk about the new record, Monoliths and Dimensions.

After listening to this record I thought to myself, whether or not they know it, Sunn 0))) is creating a new musical lineage from ground zero. A lineage born of influences very different from (and often opposite to) traditional western music.

The traditions of western "classical" music can be traced back to the sacred music of the middle ages. Monophonic gregorian chant was more or less the starting point for the next 1000 years of music history. Starting around the beginning of the second millennium CE, the Catholic church regularly dictated musical trends and contrapuntal techniques. Characters like Guido D'Arezzo advanced musical and educational practices still in use presently. Even when instrumental music became a significant genre around the 14th and 15th centuries, the techniques of composition grew directly from the choral polyphony of church music.

By the end of the 16th century the church lightened its grip on music in general, and with the advent of opera, secular music exploded. Even so, masses, requiems and sacred music were a strong tradition of every major composer from Bach to Tchaikovsky. My point is that almost all western music up to and somewhat including the twentieth century traces its lineage back to a sacred, Christian context.

In the twentieth century several composers created brand new musical paradigms for themselves. Béla Bartók, Arnold Schönberg, John Cage, and Iannis Xenakis are among the most notable in this field. What separates these composers from Sunn 0))) however, with the exclusion of Cage, is the overall complexity of their works. Schönberg especially since he created his new paradigm, the 12-tone system, to sustain textures and genres of previous generations. Sunn 0))) signifies another new paradigm, but this time its realization is not immediate. Analogous to the music itself, the evolutionary pace set by Sunn 0))), if followed, could take centuries to fully realize and explore.

The liner notes of the Dømkirke record compare Sunn 0)))'s style to the Gregorian chant of northern Europe. I agree with this comparison, but there are important differences between these two prototypical genres. Sunn 0))) is built not from a medieval tradition, or even from the Anceint Greek tradition, but from the intense amplification and guitar technique of heavy metal. Many listeners can not even separate Sunn 0))) from heavy metal and still choose to classify them as "doom metal." I choose not to classify them as metal, but I realize that is a large part of their identity and musical background, just as Webern was well acquainted with romantic composition.

Lastly, it is very important to mention that Sunn 0))) is not a Christian group. Their monolithic compositions and ritualistic performances are a praise to something different. If nothing else they are a primitive form of worship to the aural and physical experience of sound and vibration themselves. The religious or theistic references made in their music are mostly to ancient gods and forms of worship. In my opinion, working within a non-Christian framework allows Sunn 0))) to explore much more complex avenues of sonority and characterizations of divinity. In this way I feel Sunn 0)))'s form of proto-music is far more interesting and rich with potential than anything created in the wake of antiquity.

For me, Sunn 0))) is creating a music that, if given the attention it deserves, will not be considered "21st century" music, but rather a classification we have yet to imagine, since we are in the midst of a slow and immense creation of unseen proportions. They stand in direct opposition to the fluttering, spastic nature of contemporary sensibilities. So while modern composers try to build Rome in a day, Sunn 0))) have just wandered upon the untouched wilderness where a grand kingdom will be constructed over the next 1000 years.

I promise the next post will be about heavy metal.