Interview by Jason Guest
Jason: Hi. Thanks for taking time out for this interview. Sky Burial is an incredible piece of music (Ed: Jason’s review is here). According to the promo material I received, it was recorded 19 December 2008 during its one and only performance. With all of the hard work that went into the writing of Sky Burial and the preparation for the performance, why did you choose to perform it only once?
Echtra: Hello. Sky Burial was actually recorded in advance of the performance. The musical pieces are backdrops for ritual enactments, with only the vocals being performed live. The music was actually recorded in 2007. Echtra performances are incredibly complex and involved undertakings, which prohibit frequent appearances, and as well I appreciate the conceptual clarity of moving through the process once, as opposed to multiple times. It feels more authentic this way.
Jason: Why did it take so long to release it?
Echtra: Echtra is perpetually years behind in terms of releases. This is owing to many factors, which include ambivalence about releasing music in general, the prioritization of live rites over partaking in the marketplace, and the vagaries of interacting with labels and collaborators.
Jason: For the performance, you were joined by Lina McLean, Johnny Delacy, and Steve Joyner/CoRE. Why did you choose them and what did they bring to the performance of Sky Burial?
Echtra: Echtra performances do not involve the production of live music, but rather use music as a contextual environment in the enactment of highly detailed ritual plays, which often involve collaborators in the portrayal of supplementary “roles” conducive to the unfolding that is sought.
Jason: Sky Burial is the first part of your Passage Cycle triumvirate. When will you be releasing the second and third parts? And will they be in the same format (CD/DVD)?
Echtra: Yes. BardO is slated to be released sometime in 2013, and Re-Enterior soon after. I would ideally release all as CD/DVDs, but cannot be sure I will have the time to edit video and produce video artifacts. I long ago determined that to release CD-only documents of Echtra was absurd, as so much of the heart of this project is reflected in the visual aesthetic of the performance dynamics. In the past, I forbade any kind of documentation of live rites, including photo and video. Now that I recognize the need for the full dynamics of Echtra to be revealed, however, I have relented on this. The video that exists of the BardO and Re-Enterior performances, however, is very dim, owing to the dark, candlelit environments that Echtra performs in. It remains to be seen if I will have the spare energy to craft a compelling video project to represent these works.
Jason: The name “Echtra” refers to Old Irish Literature about a hero’s adventure in the otherworld, a space between worlds or layers of existence. How does Echtra’s music seek to capture, to represent, or to embody this concept?
Echtra: One of the dimensions of the echtrai that has always spoken to me is the way in the hero would be unexpectedly transported to the otherworld. In many of this class of adventure stories the main character would be going about daily activities, but be suddenly taken to another realm of existence, where the adventure would unfold. This is the kind of experience that I hope to conjure, first for myself and then for others, in the production and execution of the music and performance of Echtra. To experience a gap in conventional modes of perception, to be forcefully taken from mundane awareness, and to have the possibility of altered states of consciousness all seem related to this basic impulse. There also something noble about the hero, and coming to understand our own lives as a hero’s quest (it is potentially worth noting here that “hero” is an entirely gender-neutral term in my vernacular).
Jason: Echtra’s music is meditative, it has a narrative feel to it in that the albums feel like a journey that, given the proper (and much-deserved) attention, are transformative. How do you approach composition? Do the pieces begin with a melody, a passage, or the concept? And how do you develop these ideas?
Echtra: The pieces all begin as long, labyrinthine, acoustic works. I first write the arpeggios and occasional strummed sections, which are often in themselves quite transportive. I later take these and layer them with other elements, most notably distorted electric guitar but also many different forms of electronic instrumentation. Vocalizations come last, though the lyrical themes are often implicit in the crafting of the basic aural aspect.
Jason: Sky Burial takes the Vajrayana (Sanskrit for “Thunderbolt Vehicle” or “Diamond Vehicle”) form of Tantric Buddhism as its influence. The term vajra signifies the absolutely real and the indestructible in a human being. How has this concept/philosophy manifest itself in Sky Burial?
Echtra: Vajrayana Buddhism has been a major influence on my life and psyche, and has been of inestimable benefit for myself and those around me. The triumvirate of the Passage Cycle is actually an exploration of the life cycle, as understood in the metaphysics of Buddhist understandings of the journey of consciousness through death, intermediate states, and rebirth. Sky Burial is an exploration of death, and the way in which that which is indestructible can be most fully realized through the contemplation of demise. Physicality betokens only one dimension of our being.
Jason: Music is a very powerful medium for conveying messages, secular and spiritual. Do you think that music, something intangible and abstract, is itself imbued with a power to provide an avenue into these unknown aspects of existence?
Echtra: I really enjoyed this question. I resonate with the image of music as “intangible,” but don’t entirely understand the notion of music as “abstract.” It is certainly a language, and as such is symbolic in a particular sense, but my connection to music involves an embodied and fleshly dimension that certainly transcends the abstract. Yes, I have made the experiential discovery that music provides an avenue into unknown aspects of existence, and I think it could even be said that music is the only avenue into certain aspects of existence. Crucial dimensions of who we are only realizable through song.
Jason: Echtra’s “Cascadian Black Metal” originated to reflect a passion for the “intrinsic connection between humans and the natural world” and to challenge the restraints that modernity imposes upon consciousness so that the truth of being can be experienced. Can such a philosophy provide a viable alternative to the dominant myths of materialism and the false consciousness of capitalism?
Echtra: Yes. Opening a pathway for the discovery of one’s humanness, and who one really is, are the most important aspects of the Echtra project. The mysticism that underlies my personal process is important to me, but if this were all there were I wouldn’t waste the thousands of hours I have invested in projecting this entity outwards. There is an aspect of Echtra that is fundamentally ministry, and I revel in the idea that far-flung individuals may have been assisted in their personal process of liberation through engagement with Echtra’s works.
Jason: Culturally (or at least sub-culturally), there’s a deep-seated desire to explore belief systems, systems of symbolic representation, and philosophies that are in distinct opposition to the dominant ideologies of the west in the 21st century. Do you think that modernity has reached its crisis point? And is humanity able to deal with it?
Echtra: Yes, this is clearly the historical moment where we will either see an “evolution of consciousness,” in which mass culture will shift in a more life-affirming direction, or this great unraveling process we are engaged in will reach its apotheosis. While I am hesitant to auger an outcome, my sense is that modern humans have a severely diminished capacity for emotional and spiritual process, which would be necessary for the advancement of a cultural mode that could shift the logic of domination and destruction.
Jason: Like most other art forms, it appears that “Cascadian Black Metal” and its philosophy has been utilised as a marketing tool and pseudo-individualised for wider production and consumption. How do you seek to retain the philosophy’s essence in an era where whatever can be, will be packaged and sold in a diluted form?
Echtra: That’s a good question. Protecting the integrity of Cascadian Black Metal was for a long time an obsession, and was part of the reason why in my live enactments (including Fauna, Echtra, and Fearthainne) I would never allow documentation of any kind. The releases were always handmade, and given as gifts. I dearly wish I still had the time for this level of engagement, but my calling to participate in society and meaningfully partake in the healing of the broader world makes it impossible to be this fastidious. While I haven’t entirely jettisoned an interest in the possibilities inherent in “Cascadian Black Metal,” I recognize the limitations of ego identification with this concept, and want to make my communication with the world more dynamic and manifold.
Jason: What’s your opinion of the digital era? Because of music being readily available in digital formats, has the ritualistic aspect been lost in the digital era?
Echtra: Certainly as an aspect of life becomes more disembodied and abstract something is lost. You know, it could really be argued that the recording of music itself, the attempt to freeze a moment of time and a relational process of aural engagement, is essentially a perversion that distorts the psyche. Music has always been, and will eventually be again, a temporal connection between producer and listener with an intrinsically fleshly character. However, at least with “records” (be they LPs, cassettes, or CDs) there is an aspect of the connection that is not lost, in that there is a moment in the process where something is held in hand, and the communication between the musician and their listener has a physical dimension. As bodies, I believe we need this kind of tactile engagement to fully apprehend experience.
Jason: What does the future hold for Echtra? Is there more music in the pipeline?
Echtra: The performance of Re-Enterior, conducted as part of this last year’s Yule Festival, may have been Echtra’s last. I tend to be quite prolific, and am currently creating music in another vein which would not be appropriate to the mythos of Echtra. I tend to return to this project, however, so ten years on from its onset I know better than to predict whether it will become active again or not.
Jason: Are there any plans for Echtra to perform live? What would be your ideal setting and/or venue for a live performance?
Echtra: There are no plans for performance currently, though the woods have always been my ideal and preferred setting for ritual work.
Jason: If you do choose to perform, will we be seeing you in the UK?
Echtra: If there was a level of interest in my work that legitimized the notion of touring I would certainly consider it. Unfortunately, however, the amount of money I would need to be paid to invest the time and energy in performance abroad could never be generated by audiences alone.
Jason: Thanks again for taking time out for this interview. Do you have any closing words for our readers?
Echtra: I don’t, Jason. Thank you for your thought-provoking questions, and your interest in this movement of life towards truth.
For more on Echtra, follow these links: