Czech sound alchemist, Vladimír Hirsch, has been composing and experimenting with modern classical, dark ambient, and industrial music for over two decades. By using both electro-acoustic and digital techniques he is able to create fascinating scapes of aural expression. From the sacred union of these styles and their own intricate facets and dimensions emerges what Vladimír Hirsch calls INTEGRATED MUSIC, his living essence manifested.
Heathen Harvest: Vladimir, what was life like growing up in a country in political turmoil such as Czechoslovakia, and how has this manifested through your art?
Vladimir Hirsch: I grew up in a family which was “the enemy of the regime”, my father was imprisoned in a communist concentration camp, because he – as a lawyer – rejected to participate in the system of prosecuting opponents of the regime and was blamed on charges of conspiracy. Of course, all the persecutions we were exposed to would be a book of stories – and the character of the socio-pathological situation in our land participated in the formation of my artistic attitude at some point. For a very long time, all “suspected” cultural activities were prohibited and I was totally isolated and composed music only for my drawer. Only in my late years of prolonged agony under the communist regime, did I form a post-punk band and in 1987 played for the first time in public. It is necessary to say I have never been a songwriter of protest songs. All the time, I have been focusing on, more or less existential themes that I consider as the only substantial exploration.
However, it was really hard to live in that Orwellian State, on the other hand, it served as an overwhelming experience of how grand human decay can be expressed. If some concrete political consequences of the former regime appeared somewhere in my music, I consider them as a superficial expression and out of my basic conception. In fact, there has not been any change in the quality of world politics since that time, only in tactics and in specific strategies of leading the herd. We live in a seemingly different environment, but it is a feigned democracy, with a sophisticated system of manipulation, subconsciously intoxicating human minds, conforming their style of life and values towards individualism and a diversion from spiritual understanding of being. The manipulators understand, that for their reign, it is not necessary to kill or pursue anyone these days. The natural hierarchy of values has been quietly substituted by their holograms. The result of that act, formal existence without content, leads to a significant loss of spirit and subsequently a loss of consciousness of that process. It is invisible and painless, so a lot of us do not feel any lack. This form seems to be more dangerous, because of its hidden character and easy acceptance of that status quo as a pleasant comfort. This desolating fact is what I want to show in some degree with my work by challenging the traditional templates of understanding: “positive” and “negative”, “beauty” and “ugliness”, etc.
HH: Your art emanates some truly horrific sounds; wherein seems to dwell something otherworldly. Do you believe it‟s possible your art evokes the presence of something otherworldly?
VH: I am glad you have that feeling. From my point of view, it is natural to long for “other worlds” – which means for me longing for the cognition of our real matrix. I admit – I am aware of their presence intensely in my mind, being at the same time absorbed by a mordant, overwhelming feeling of impossibility to genuinely reach them . I realize that there is no other path, than only to try to somehow transform our physical reality. That trial cannot be under way without a fight and pain, whether inner, silent, latent or blatant and violent. So, I attempt to realize that struggle in music with the belief that the music is able to be an authentic description and expression of that transubstantial act. This might be the reason why some listeners get a physical impact or accented “physical” sense from my music despite its spiritual themes. This confrontational style sounds probably maddening and horrific, but when I find myself in that transient “hyper state” of my own existence while creating music, I don´t feel any horror or joy, any positive or negative connotations, only some kind of awakening and relief from overcoming them. Therefore, I am very often surprised by some people’s descriptions of my music as bombastic, with dramatic gestures, I don’t consider them that way, I feel it as the epitome of the natural cognitive process.
HH: What kind of effect would you like for your art to have on those who listen with intent?
VH: Excellent question and an important one. Thank you. I have never received it. I would like to know myself what they imagine! I would like them to escape from the limitations of rationality, which seems to pervade everything, into another dimension. Music is able to explore and reveal a deeper underlying reality in contrast to the phenomenological world. Ideally, the audience would discover and open that space. But I must say, sometimes I am surprised by some reviewers descriptions. For example, my music has been referred to as devilish, dark and disturbing. However, for me it is the complete opposite, because the intent is a spiritual purgatory and the impact might feel like as an intense violent flooding. On the other hand, music is mightier than its creator, saying more than is even originally intended. It is the miracle of art. Simply, I would like them to open their subconsciousness.
HH: At times ominous and nightmarish and at others solemn and beautiful; are these reflections two faces of the same phenomenon? Or do you view them as observations of two different currents of light (and dark?)
VH: A permanent presence of inner feud is a basic attribute of our existence. This struggle seems to be something important. I am captured and fascinated by it and it serves as my main creative force. Therefore the mode of my musical expression often has a confrontational nature about it. Many of my works are abrasive and physical while somehow being solemn and contemplative simultaneously. For me, they make sense together because they arise from the same source, just like spirit and matter living together, fighting each other, but cannot be separated in our human world. There is something that reconciles both worlds, I feel music is that path which leads closer to that point.
It is impossible to see light – thus also to call it – without simultaneous existence of darkness. Its co-existence does not inevitably mean anything contradictory, if we had not constructed so many artificial antagonisms during our history. The dual nature of reality only appears to be dichotomous, when it is really of the same whole. We are able to create opposing attributes that are absolutely not in conflict. Sometimes we try to find our leading thread inside the labyrinth, sometimes we try to get rid of it by conscious or unconscious self-lobotomy, feeling unbearable discomfort from it. There is no easy escape from our oppositional-categorization prison we made paradoxically for ourselves.
HH: While much of your music does not even contain lyrics, your art still remains immensely profound; what do you feel is the reason for this?
VH: Usually I create music thematically, which represents for me some inner epic construction. Musical language is more abstract, its potential contains larger means of expression than words. There is also the danger that lyrics can mislead and overshadow the musical intent. That is why I use vocals and voices in my solo works only as a musical instrument. In rare cases I also use some lyrics, but allow them mostly to be submerged and purposely unclear. However, in my other projects, predominantly Skrol, the music has a more traditional song form and lyrics are more appropriate.
HH: What do you feel is lacking from the majority of contemporary “art”, that it is without the sense of the profound?
VH: Contemporary art bothers me the most by its formalism, the silent assent to loss of content, fear of authenticity, contempt for emotions, rejection of serious topics, dilettantism and an epidemic of some sort of primary manipulative intentions of creators. There is some unwritten agreement in the art of today, that it is not necessarily substantial to say anything, actually, the message – and especially a more profound one – should be avoided like an infectious illness or rejected with derision. Instead, it flows in the stream of purposive slickness and calculation of apprehension for targeted social or taste fashioned groups of people. I consider it as one of the logical results of gradual despiritualization.
HH: The process of artistic creation is a very sacred thing; in what ways do you prepare yourself mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually before creating or performing?
VH: I used to work in consecutive phases. Idea, conception, creation. Ideas are elusive, so I probably cannot count it as a phase of work, but it is usually some result of an inner continual searching process, that lives its own life. At the moment when it is found by my consciousness, it remains there like some permanent question until the end of the work. Anyway, I am never prepared. I am not the commander of those mechanisms and to say the truth, I don´t want to be. It would be a rape of spirit.
The preparation for performing depends on the character of the project. The Industrial audience is usually vociferous, used to a continual stream of noise. In my music, I work a lot with dynamics and the range of sound levels moves from discrete to extremely loud. In quiet passages, the loudness of the audience is very annoying and harming not only to music, but also my own ability to concentrate, so I am very happy when shows take place in churches or for example, a film festival, where people are naturally or instinctively immersed in the experience. In general, of course, I need to submerge and not be distracted. Such ideal venues and atmosphere are hardly ever-present, so I have unconsciously developed during the years some mechanisms which shield against distractions.
HH: Your music is not only aural, but also very visual. What artists/artworks have inspired your compositions? (Painters, musicians, sculptors, etc..)
VH: I could write a very large paragraph of influences and huge list of artists, but I will mention the names of those that really tempted me to work similarly. From music, I have always been attracted by the spiritual strength in the aching reality of Miloslav Kabeláč, close encounters of space and detail of György Ligeti, mathematical order in chaos of Iannis Xenakis, as well as pure and sharp bone-penetrating existentialism of Swans, the ability to move in microspace of Giacinto Scelsi or animate industrialism of SPK. In other art that inspired in some way my artistic philosophy or my general visions, I can mention the metaphysical transformation of pain in Mikuláš Medek’s paintings, Graham Greene’s salvation of the damned or Jorge Luis Borges’s authentic imaginary worlds in writing.
HH: What role (if any) does philosophy play in your artistic expression? Spirituality?
VH: Of course I work with some philosophical principles, both consciously and mostly unconsciously, which result in a natural flow of expression. Spiritual insight is definitely my main inspiration in music.
HH: Do you work with any other mediums of artistry such as painting or writing poetry?
VH: Yes, I had some short period years ago when I tried to paint. But painting did not express all I wanted as I had no formal training. I admit I do still like two of my paintings, but unfortunately I threw them out. I have written short stories for a very long time and also lyrics for my musical projects. I have some periods when I am inspired to write, but it is sporadic.
HH: In early 2012 you played some live performances in Berlin. How did those go?
VH: It was at a Berlin film festival called Directors Lounge, and my performance was interesting because of the presence of an audience that normally would not appear at my shows. Whether I want it or not, one is always placed into some category. My music is not acceptably classical for the classical music milieu and for its classical aspect not too industrial, noise or dark ambient for people that usually listen to that stuff. But, only that second scene is able to accept my style, so, I usually play at industrial and similar concerts. The positive response was a pleasant surprise. The audience in Berlin was able to go behind the line of standard categorization, as the event was a film festival, so they behaved as if in the cinema, quiet and submerged. I performed the album ‘Underlying Scapes’ to Marianna Auster’s video collage, which was synced thematically to the music. We wanted to invoke an out-of-body-experience based on the confrontation between sound manipulation of subliminal structures of the brain and its transformation into an emotionally and surrealistically charged visual narrative.
HH: Your live shows have been referred to as frightening and unsettling by some; is this the desired effect you have for your audience, or do you think this is merely a reflection of society’s inability to deal with such deep and thought-provoking emotions you express?
VH: The second one, without doubts. I hope I make music as an authentic scan of my mind, expressing inner fights, doubts, dreams, nightmares, rages, etc., without any intent to mindlessly provoke.
Contemporary society is pathologically cultivating general blindness, being scared more from the loss of illusions and the loss of comfort, than from its own decline and fall. It is definitely losing its ability to solve problems, producing more and more sophisticated toys that generally help in invocating ignorance of reality. Therefore fear of that kind of music and inability to be confronted is rampant. Better to blame artists for cynicism, aggressiveness or malicious intent, while at the same time speaking cheaply about beauty and positivity, rather than seeing and facing all those things in the real world. I want listeners to awake from that facade. If we leave personal taste out of consideration, I understand somebody cannot deal with those feelings, which can be reflected in their own apprehensions and doubts. As such, I am scared more from optimism than despair.
HH: „Graue Passion‟ stands out for me as one of your most powerful pieces of work. It is in my opinion true musical mastery. As I understand, it took several years to get its proper release. When listening to it today do you feel it is complete or do you wish to re-work it someday?
VH: It was reworked several times, as I was not satisfied with the result for more than 7 years. Really strange, after those fully prepared conceptual trials, the project remained in my head like some nightmare. Paradoxically, “Graue Passion” is the result of one night’s revision, made spontaneously after a sudden, accidental impulse.
HH: In 2001 you performed some exclusive concerts in the U.S. How was this experience for you, and do you have any plans or desire to return to the U.S. in the near future?
VH: It was interesting in many ways, because of the many absolutely opposite feelings I received from the experience, from disgust to astonishing amazement that cannot be surpassed. Playing in the States cannot be so easily defined, as it really depended on the venue and state. Sometimes, I felt that the audience seemed standoffish, as if they have already heard it all before. However, I have never forgotten the show in Detroit, in the center of a totally dead district, where I had the same feelings I had reading Ray Bradbury´s “The Martian Chronicles”, where all inhabitants of some town died out and the main character is walking there in dry wind, that moves all artificially looking martian corpses, like fallen leaves down streets, expressing some definitive emptiness. With still five minutes before the show, there was not any person inside the hall, but during one short moment, it became full of people that disappeared after the show as quickly as they appeared. I went out and in the street only the sound of garbage was heard rolling in the wind. Surreal, unreal, incredible. Btw, it was one of the best shows I have ever had. The tour, was called “Fire Martyrs Tour”, with 16 concerts in 16 states in three weeks and over 6000 miles on the road. Doubtless, I would like to return back again, but with the possibility to choose places of performances.
HH: Your newest work entitled “MISSA ARMATA. INVOCATIONES “was released in November 2012; could you tell us about it?
VH: It is actually a new release of old stuff which has been reworked. “Missa Armata” is the original version of Mass. With the new version, I returned back to the first original, because of its strictness, considering it more authentic. “Invocations” is a reworked version conceived now as musical prayers. Both compositions share a common redemptive theme. Missa Armata is more noise-industrial oriented, while Invocationes compliments it with ritual dark-ambient.
HH: Being a modern composer do you feel your music is understood and/or appreciated by people, or do you feel it is largely goes over the heads of most people?
VH: In general, I think that overwhelming majority of people will switch off their media player after few seconds of listening, so, music is “going over their heads”, as you said, but without a chance to really get in. The standard reaction is “I am sorry, I cannot undergo it”. I realize that the inevitable fate of this kind of music is to stay on the margin of society. It is natural and I am reconciled with this fact. Once, some Czech reviewer wrote – probably from his own experience – that my music is either loved or hated, with always sophisticated reasons of respondents for one or the other – it never has an indifferent reaction.
HH: When listening to your music, one can get the sense that it involves a particular transcendence from out of the pits of political, social, and religious dogmas, perhaps even one‟s own personal hell into a more enlightened and spiritual mature being. Are these the sort of themes you explore within your music?
VH: Absolutely! You described it exactly in very enlightened way by your own question. I could not say it better, perfect definition.
HH: You have been involved with other projects such as Skrol, Luminar Ax, and Aghiatrias at different points throughout your career. Do you prefer working in a collaborative environment with other creative individuals, or do you find greater fulfillment from working solo?
VH: My investment in conjoint projects was always at the maximum and the overwhelming majority of them were based on my solo works. All those cooperations were usually in the beginning inspiring and a connection of people and their creative effort, constituting some interesting and original potential, but I can say without any pretension, that I have preferred working independently for many years, because I can freely realize my intentions, without any external intervention. On the other hand, I still enjoy performing on stage with a conjoint project much more than solo concerts. The connection between people on the stage is something unique, when you are metaphorically making some part of the building rise to a transcending space with another person(s).
HH: Moving away from music for a moment, I know that you practiced as a physician during the 1990‟s. Were you still creating music at this point, or was your focus on your medical career?
VH: I always considered myself as a worker in the medical field and had never had any ambition to make a career from it, feeling that work as a duty with a granted social sense and even sometimes enjoying it for the same reason. I was always making music during those times; however being a physician was time- consuming and exhausting, but I always needed to indulge in that creative space – I couldn’t and cannot live without it. Albeit, it is worth mentioning, that my job was sometimes very inspiring for musical creation in some way.
HH: In 1999 you left the world of medicine; was this an effort to focus on your art once more? If so, what triggered your decision to leave such a prominent profession to return to the world of art?
VH: I have always wanted to engage in music full-time, but it has not been realized. To create this kind of music is not compatible with the possibility to earn a living. In 1999, I got totally exhausted from my double life and my musical work started to be more and more demanding, therefore I decided to leave the medical world and change it for employment that allowed me to live without harming my musical aims.
HH: In this day in age, it is increasingly more difficult to find an inspired work of art to shake us from this somnambulist state of being, your work being an obvious exception to this monotony. What have you found to be inspiring enough to share with world? What is it you are trying to express through your music?
VH: As you know, from what I have already mentioned, there are not too many things that I consider inspiring in contemporary art, or maybe I have not come across them yet. Besides the artists I have already mentioned, I have drawn inspiration from some films – for example, the Czech director František Vláčil from the 60s and Tarkovsky, as they deal with a deep impact of spiritual questions inside an individual with amazing mastery of expression, poetic language, atmosphere and aesthetics. I also love Tarkovsky’s symbolism.
In my works, I have specifically been inspired for instance by Teologia Spiritualis Mystica, which is a description of the contemplative process for the purpose of higher cognition. This is used in the album Contemplatio Per Nexus, attempting to describe all steps of that process, which is apparent by the name of particular tracks. There is also somehow strange inspiration in Symphony No.4 (Graue Passion), from the lack of description the long period between the death and entombment of Christ. Originally I was inspired by Dostoevsky’s description of the painting of Hans Holbein, “Graue Passion.” He writes that it alone can shake the Christian faith in the Resurrection, because of the strong mortal portrayal of Christ’s dead body.
HH: Do you consider yourself a religious person?
VH: Yes, I do, but I am not fully in accordance with institutional structures of religion. I consider spirituality as something strictly personal. I don’t like to speak about it as it can be heard in my music.
I think some my albums apparently give it away, e.g. “Graue Passion”, “Exorcisms” or “Contemplatio Per Nexus”, above mentioned “Missa armata” or “Invocationes”. Sometimes, I have to laugh reading some reviews, describing my stuff as diabolic or covertly devilish. This is exactly what I am talking about – superficial understanding of music as some assemblage of associated symbols with predetermined meaning and their inclusion into closed boxes with – once and for all – assigned categorization.
HH: On your album „Exorcisms‟, the titles in Latin combined with the haunting aural soundscapes of the music, causes me to envision a purging. Much like the church will exorcise a demon, an exorcism of this kind casts out the church from one‟s self. Would this be an accurate interpretation of this piece? Please enlighten us…
VH: Yes, exorcism is in general considered the religious practice of evicting malevolent spiritual entities from a person, but the name means also a prayer, used for the same purpose. This is the case in my album. I used there also some real names of those prayers, e.g. “Ecce Crux” (Behold the Cross) or “Averte! (Turn Away!) “
HH: With that, I’d like to thank you for this candid interview, Vladimír. You can leave us with your choice of words.
VH: Many thanks for the thoughtful questions, Clavdía. Music composition whether in a simple or sophisticated form, must exhibit a moment when all its springs merge into one powerful current that lifts Man above his being – an ecstatic eruption transporting us above ourselves. Solely this moment gives meaning to music and justifies its existence.