In August of last year our band Leadeater toured with our friends Urghun up the West Coast of the United States. We had 10 stops planned for this tour and with the help of many kindred spirits from the sequoias up to the western red cedars, we were able to share our songs in some incredible places. It didn’t feel like just an ordinary tour, but a journey in sonic revelry. We even joined in shadow and song during the solar eclipse.
In the months following our tour together we constructed this interview and set out to release a special limited cassette of music that was recorded by Urghun at our home in Oakland California. The music and tapes are now available at our bandcamp store.
Urghun consists of members GB and PR, both of whom perform regularly with various professional medieval, renaissance and baroque ensembles in both the United States and Europe. GB is a specialist of improvisation in early music (16th and 17th centuries) and has a solo black metal noise electronics project called Mythological Eoarchean Cosmonauts. PR specializes in medieval and renaissance flute and has collaborated with many Cascadian folk and black metal projects from the Pacific Northwest.
They both met in Switzerland where they were studying early music and quickly discovered similar musical influences such as Berlin-school ambient music, dungeon synth, outsider-metal and of course, music written pre 1700’s. Urghun is extremely diverse in their writing and maintain a heavy influence with various world traditions of improvisation.
Greetings PR and GB! So we have learned from our tour together that you draw influence from many different styles of music, many of which dates back to pre 1700’s. Can you tell us about the concept behind your debut release Somnus Reliquit, what your primary influences are for Urghun and the driving force of inspiration behind this project?
We can say that a general principle around Urghun is a partnership between musical-storytelling and improvisation. Our aim with this project is to tell stories singularly or at times simultaneously, and improvise the music around the thematic concepts. For example, the text we used for Somnus Reliquit came from the nightmare prose of ancient Roman writers Tarquinius and Ennius. The initial material for that album started as something fairly basic, but the majority of the music on the release was the result of months of experiments and improvisations based off of what was first recorded. What listeners hear on Somnus Reliquit is actually unique to the one time we happened to record that particular material—it can never be recreated. It should also be said that sometimes the music that comes out of our jam sessions/practices gives the inspiration for thematic material, and then a whole aesthetic world flourishes from that point.
In regards to your comment about music from before the 18th century, we want to be clear that Urghun is not interested in making a “crossover” between early music and extreme music genres, especially not for the sake of symbolically mixing aesthetics to garner attention from a musical subculture that often fetishizes “medieval” or “ancient” soundworlds. That said, we both come to Urghun from the field of “early music”, so of course there is an unavoidable influence! For example, PR often performs with one of their medieval or otherwise traditional flutes, or will use a piece of Gregorian chant to improvise on. But what we draw from traditional or early music is certainly not the primary focus of our sound, but it is a kind of musical language that we both share and communicate effectively with.
GB, who does all the violin playing in the band, had to go through quite a long process (perhaps ongoing?) to find a successful Black Metal sound for the electric violin. Instead of listening to guitar players who rely more on a rhythmical style of riffing (which doesn’t work as well on the violin), GB looked to bands who incorporate a more horizontal or linear style of guitar playing, such as Underjordiska, Trist, or Dommedagssalme.
Your performances during tour were slightly different each night but there was a discernible communication between the both of you in what seemed to be periods of musical improvisation. Can you tell us about your live performances on tour, how you communicate with each other on stage and about live improvisation?
One of the goals of Urghun is never to do exactly the same thing twice in a live performance. We believe that this tactic forces us to more deeply assess any context that we may find ourselves performing in—we have to read the energy of the space and make musical decisions about how to interact with and within it. Being flexible in such a way contributes to an end-result which is much more satisfying to us, as well as, we hope, the audience members. We usually have a storyline or a specific psychic experience we want to impart on people at the shows, but how we actually let it out in the performance is always different. For the set we performed on most nights during our West coast tour last summer, we had a skeletal form which we more-or-less followed. These were the anchor points which kept the whole performance on track, and what occurred in-between was left to intuition. We found that different audiences seemed to be drawn into completely different sections of the performance, and it was very fun to play with those moments and draw them out!
We experimented with a historical technique that medieval and renaissance singers would use to aid improvisation which is called the Guidonian Hand. Originally, people would improvise an upper voice over a note which was indicated by pointing to a certain position on the hand. To get into more detail about how the Guidonian Hand worked in accordance with music theory practice of the Middle Ages and Renaissance might require a separate discussion which falls too far outside the scope of this interview! However, we only want to say that we decided to use the same method to improvise the “doom” sections of our set on tour. PR would determine the bass line on the synthesizer spontaneously, and indicate the note that was about to be played by showing its position on the hand to GB. GB would then conjure something above the bass line with the violin. It really became a game by the end of tour, with each of us trying to trick the other person! For example, by throwing the bass line in a completely unexpected direction, or putting together some kind of crazy harmony. The visual element of this kind of improvisation was super-engaging for people, too.
Image of the Guidonian Hand.
We also had prepared a special, alternate set on the West coast tour, which bloomed to its most extreme potential at a show at the Stump Meadow in Olympia, WA. Our goal was to do something physically subtle and aesthetically minimal, while being very unhinging and extremely loud. As anyone who was at that show witnessed, sometimes leaving a performance up to spontaneity can result in something more emotionally potent than any of its participants expected. We actually kept the concept of that performance and recorded a slightly more developed version last week. We’re releasing it early in 2018 on cassette so keep a lookout for that one!
Since this interview began, the audio of this material was recorded and can be heard below.
It is exciting to know you will be pulling that concept into a new recording! I’ve ran into many observers that were in attendance to the Stump Meadow gathering which all individually refer to your performance that night as a “portal”. As a witness, I can say I know exactly what they mean by that. Your performances were mysterious yet deeply moving and there were moments you wove movements into your sets. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
Your question actually leads us back to what we said earlier in the interview—that Urghun is a project which primarily focuses on storytelling and improvising the music around thematic material related to whatever themes we are exploring at the time. The kind of “movements” that we incorporate into our performances are meant to be a visual representation of the story or concept. They are also highly improvised depending on the physical aspects of the performance space, the energy of the audience, and other factors that come up unexpectedly.
When we plan the ideas for our performances, we discuss in more general terms what we want to show to the audience, and we gather the materials we need to convey our ideas. Then we make a minimal road map of what movements will happen when and where. In all honesty, this is as far as our planning process goes, which keeps the ritual element of the performance in the spirit of our project itself: largely spontaneous, but always related to an over-arching concept.
Can you tell us about the Urghun/M.E.C. split and your experience writing and recording it?
Originally, the cassette was produced as a gift to eight people who were involved in our west coast tour or had inspired our performances in some way. When we finished the tour we had a few free days left in Oakland, so we decided to record some improvisations that were influenced by our experiences traveling up and down the west coast in August and the beautiful vibrancy of our Orb Weaver comrades. We really felt that altogether we had cultivated a dreamy atmosphere on the tour, and we wanted to express our gratitude to the people we were able to collaborate and spend time with.
One side of the cassette is music made by Urghun, and the other side is made by Mythological Eoarchean Cosmonauts, the solo project of G.B. For equipment, we used some flutes, a fiddle, and Indian harmonium, a cymbal, and a few effects pedals. The tracks were mixed live and recorded into a Zoom microphone, which we then put onto tape. The recording is absolutely a musical reflection of the incredible time we spent with our friends in California, Oregon and Washington.
Thank you Urghun for your friendship and stunning music! Below you can hear and obtain this split between Urghun and Mythological Eoarchean Cosmonauts! Enjoy…