The first thing that struck me entering the Satyricon & Munch exhibition space at the Munch museum in Oslo, Norway, was the darkness. I walked down a short corridor, gradually enveloped by its pitch-black walls. I half stumbled and was half sucked into the huge room that opened out to my left. Its walls were almost eight metres high. The art on the walls seemed to float in the air.
It felt like stepping into the tar-black world of Scarlett Johansson's alien in 2013 film Under the Skin. The bright, temperamental weather of the early June day when I visited was shut out. I was beholden to a world created by Sigurd Wongraven and Kjetil-Vidar Haraldstad, better known as Satyr and Frost of the black metal band Satyricon, and the Munch curator Trine Otte Bak Nielsen.
The idea of curating an exhibition of Munch’s works, and writing music that becomes one with them, came to Satyr in the fall of 2018. He had observed that listening to music out in nature, as he put it to me, ‘has a tendency to amplify your surroundings.’ He noticed that in the right circumstances, music can achieve a kind of synaesthesia – a heightening and connecting of different senses. Maybe that is what Satyr meant when he wrote about 'the smell of black metal' in the lyrics to 'Black Lava', the final song on Satyricon’s groundbreaking 2002 album Volcano.
‘You don't think anything about the smells in the forest, then you put the music on, and ninety seconds later you start noticing all these smells,’ he says. ‘Then there's this consciousness that, okay, so apparently certain types of music will shift my attention from here to there. It will make me aware of things that I otherwise wasn't aware of. And then also, what I see and what I smell and all these things that I sense out there in nature, they also affect my perception of the music.’
There is a dialogue between music and the context of its creation and consumption. Satyr wanted to explore how deep that conversation went.
It’s clear talking to him that Satyr burns with intensity when he knows what he wants. He also tries to understand why he doesn’t want, or like, something. Satyr had never understood why he struggled with the combination of music and visual art. He soon settled on a reason: it’s gimmicky.
Music and/or sound in relation to other experiences is often reduced to an effect. He told me about the ‘sound shower’ in the domestic terminal of Oslo airport. It is a babble of voices that starts when you step under a particular spot. It was neat, but it didn’t move him.
‘My conclusion was that the reason why visual arts and music in combination doesn't really work is because there's very little emphasis on the emotional experience,’ he says.
The idea came to him of selecting a series of Munch’s works and writing music as an emotional response to them. He thought he could go further. He wanted to create an environment which was lit and laid out in such a way that it created a ‘bubble’ cut off from the outside world. Visitors would be assailed by Munch’s work and Satyricon’s sound – immersed in the profound and ineffable emotion that motivates both of them as creative voices.
Munch is a heavy artist. He painted through the late nineteenth and well into the twentieth century. His work straddles symbolism and impressionism, but doesn’t fit neatly into either category. Munch is best known for his major works of the 1890s and 1900s. His most famous is The Scream. It is one of a handful of pieces of art that have ascended to be icons of popular culture. The Scream seemed to foretell the personal agony at the heart of the twentieth century. It sat alongside other pieces of his – Melancholy, The Sick Child, Inheritance and Anxiety – which spoke to the primal hopes and fears embedded in the human condition. Not unlike heavy music.
There was black metal in Munch's work already. In particular, the piece Blossom of Pain has the genre's aggressive primitivism. Displayed in the exhibition, it could be the cover of a 1991 demo from an obscure band in Bergen.
Munch was near-fanatical in his commitment to his art. He didn’t marry and he didn’t have children. Even though he was recognised in his lifetime, he was an artist for art’s sake.
One hundred years later, Satyricon’s own art was lauded in their home of Oslo and abroad. From their origins in the second wave of Norwegian black metal in the early nineties, they soon transcended that scene. They have been nominated for, and won, Norwegian Grammys. Their 2013 self-titled album got to number one in the Norwegian charts. That same year, they performed with the Norwegian National Opera Chorus at the opera house adjacent to the Munch Museum’s new home on the Oslo Fjord.
But Satyr could see that Satyricon often got uncomfortably close to spinning on the ‘hamster wheel’ of the entertainment industry. He looked to Munch for inspiration to break that wheel.
‘Working on what I've been working on for the last three and a half years or so, and with someone who was as committed to his craft as Edvard Munch, has underlined what I already felt inside for a long time,' says Satyr. 'That this is what it's about. I'm not here to be someone's professional occult clown. I am able to do interesting things that excite me as an artist. That's where it all started. And that's where it needs to be.'
There was some danger in Satyr’s ambition behind this endeavour. Wouldn’t aligning Satyricon and Munch in an exhibition pull Munch into the orbit of the entertainment industry? Surely that would compromise the artistic integrity on which the collaboration was founded?
This conundrum was the focus of internal debate amongst the exhibition team about a sketch of Munch’s called The Kiss of Death. The sketch was used by Satyricon for the cover of their 2017 album Deep Calleth Upon Deep. The skull in the picture conveys the imperfection of death itself with its crooked lines and odd proportions. The figure with long black hair alongside it could be a representation of Satyr and/or Frost.
Nielsen, the Munch museum’s curator, assumed that Satyr would include it in the exhibition. She thought it fit perfectly with its raw emotional themes and was already synonymous with the band. The exhibition room is almost a funereal space. The works of art function as both recovered glimpses of life and a reconciliation with inevitable death.
Satyr had supposed the opposite. This exhibition was a new project and the piece’s inclusion too obvious. Nielsen pressed upon Satyr how many people would come to the exhibition because of the band. Satyricon was a gateway to Munch, as much as the other way around. Imagine the thrill they will feel seeing it in person, she insisted. Satyr was convinced. He told Satyricon drummer Frost about it afterwards.
‘"I agree with that,"’ Satyr recalls Frost telling him. ‘"And to add to that, remember that you've always been into Munch. But I think the process that you went through on Deep Calleth Upon Deep and choosing that one as your album cover, that also sent your interest and passion for Munch’s art to a new level. So it's also a turning point for you personally, and for the band. So it belongs there."’
Nielsen was right. It was a thrill seeing the original sketch in situ. You can see Satyr experience that thrill himself as the sketch is unwrapped for him in the Munch archive, in a video the museum made about Satyr’s own relationship with the piece.
When it came to sequencing the works in the exhibition, the team agonised over a computer-generated 3D model of the room. They had a list of preferred options but found that substituting less-favoured works could also improve the overall flow of the exhibition. Satyr found it very similar to sequencing an album or a live show.
‘I had this discussion with Daron Malakian from System of a Down about sequencing songs on a record,’ he says. ‘I remember he said that sequencing is very underestimated by bands <...> Because music is waveform, right? So if you think about the exhibition, and you think about music, as what it is – it is a waveform. You will see in this exhibition that arms are embracing, there are branches blowing in the wind, there's hair flying and things like that. There's a bunch of things creating movement. ‘
The only painting that is static is Munch’s 1893 Self Portrait under the Mask of a Woman. In it, the representation of Munch looks like he is being overlooked by a demonic entity. They placed it on its own next to the exhibition’s blurb text so it didn’t stymie the flow of the rest.
If the works of art make up a setlist of sorts, Munch has his own greatest hits as well. Nielsen and Satyr had to agree early on which of the major works they wanted to include. They needed to begin negotiating with the museum about re-allocating them to their exhibition. One of these is Anxiety, a painting with a similar setting to The Scream – a promenade overlooking an abstracted Oslo fjord. It's an unnerving work. You are met by a tight-faced, expressionless gathering of society folk with the ominousness of a Black Mass. Unlike The Scream, of which there are multiple versions – including painting, sketch and woodcut – there is only one Anxiety. It is the second most valuable of Munch’s works. As such, it functions (for me, anyway) like an anchor point in a turbulent exhibition.
When Nielsen sent Satyr suggestions of works for inclusion, he responded that he should do the choosing. He wanted her to focus her expertise on possible substitutions or improvements where necessary.
‘I need you to realise that I'm the one writing the music, and I need us to curate a series of works that speaks to me,’ he told her. ‘It has to start with me feeling that I can trigger a musical response to this.’
Satyr quickly dispensed with the notion of writing music to particular works of art. Once the viewer looked somewhere else during a piece tailored to an image, the spell would be broken. Instead, he looked at the range of images as a whole.
‘We have movement, we have rhythm, we have anxiety, we have darkness, we have melancholy, we have loneliness,’ he says. ‘We have mystique, we have nakedness. We have some more majestic and grand things as well. And I realised that that's the musical range that I needed to cover.’
The resulting 56-minute piece of music comes in waves like the images themselves. Motifs emerge, transform and recur. It’s hard to imagine the Satyricon of the maximalist density of 2008’s The Age of Nero creating this. I listened to that album in my car the other night driving home in the darkness. The relentless thud of the double-bass drumming drowned everything out bar the drone of the engine.
The Satyricon & Munch musical composition is layered but also sparse. It carries forward the lightness of touch explored on Satyricon's self-titled album in 2013. Instruments that were used to support or accompany their previous work are brought to the fore. The industrial and ambient undertones of the past have become overtones. There’s cello, viola, grand piano, clarinet, contrabass, theremin. Of course there are electric and bass guitars, but also baritone guitars, as well as percussion, and a bunch of analogue synthesisers. The sounds from the latter couldn’t be stored so they were recorded live, before they were lost forever.
Listening to the album now, I can hear that on the day of my visit I entered the exhibition around the 36-minute mark of the music. The composition is looped throughout the museum's opening hours. I walked in during a signature Satyricon melodic motif, almost archetypical of their music – full of brittle beauty and muted dissonance. It gave way to a deep electronic unease. The absence of vocals places the composition some distance from the adversarial footing of a lot of their songs. I only wish it had been turned up louder. Now that the album can be experienced separately from the exhibition, it can be returned to the place of Satyr's inspiration. You can take the music anywhere and listen to it to amplify your surroundings – the pine forests and beyond.
In that way, the music is the most present that Satyricon has written. Like Munch’s work, it explores the vanishing moment of possibility before the decision to fill a given space with art. In his 2017 book about Munch, So Much Longing In So Little Space, the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard described this process: ‘The conflict between what is present beforehand and what comes into being without precedent, was fundamental to Munch, it was a battle he waged, resulting in both great victories and great defeats.’
This is a battle Satyricon have also waged with their music, often overtly. ‘At my signal, unleash hell,' Russell Crowe's General Maximus intones in the movie Gladiator in the sample that opens Volcano. Knausgaard also wrote about how the truth of great art is uncovered when that art can be separated from the culture in which it found expression. That is what makes great art timeless.
When he was writing the music for Satyricon & Munch, Satyr found a sample of a catatonic schizophrenic person in conversation. He felt it worked well at the start of his composition in the context of the exhibition. But over time he concluded that using a dialogue sample tied his music too closely to the period of its production. That’s also why he prefers using analogue recording methods when he can, despite it being a ‘very complicated, expensive and not very time-efficient way of working.’
‘I think all of these things contributed to making it into (at least what we think is) a timeless piece of music,’ he says.
But we shouldn’t underestimate Satyr’s relationship with the person of Munch himself. Knausgaard writes that a work of art is ‘a point in a system of three coordinates: the particular place, the particular time, the particular person.’
Satyr set out to learn as much as he could about Munch. He read books, watched documentaries and spoke to experts. He visited Munch’s summer house and looked out at the landscape there. Satyr even talked himself into Munch’s surviving artist’s studio to write and record some of the music. He wanted to create an ‘intersection’ between their two personalities.
‘Munch, he kept saying that everything has to be done with, as he called it (he made up a word) – "heart's blood", hjerteblod in Norwegian,’ says Satyr. ‘And his point was – he's talking about whether it's any form of art, whether it's visual arts, music or literature – it needs to be done, executed and performed with your heart's blood. So I think what Munch was saying, is that even if you know your craft – “I know how to paint things like that”, or “I know how to write books like that”, or “I know how to write songs like that” – that's not a good reason. You should do it because you have a story to tell and do it because you must, not because you know how to.’
This sentiment reminded me of the opening lines of the Satyricon song ‘A Moment of Clarity’ from 1999’s Rebel Extravaganza: ‘Without beginning, without the end (Our lifeblood)/The road for the spiritual outlaws is never ending/And so is the hunt for all those answers’. It also recalled a scene from the 2008 black-metal documentary Where the Light Takes Us where Frost cuts himself with a knife as part of a performance art piece by artist Bjarne Melgaard. Unless the blood flows with integrity it might as well not flow at all.
Satyricon & Munch is an important venture not because it combines music with visual art, but because it captures truth. It brings together two artistic entities from Norway, separated by over a century, who have something vital to impart about the darkness at the centre of things. That darkness is otherwise known as heaviness. By acknowledging it, and depicting raw emotion in art that screamed down the decades, Munch is still revered in the magnificent glass facade of the museum that takes his name.
By calling out to the depths in Munch and amplifying the power of his work with their music, Satyricon have ventured somewhere new. It’s not just that they have brought heavy metal into the gallery, or even visual art into the heart of their music. They have liberated themselves of the need to make music for entertainment – or even for music’s sake.
Satyricon & Munch is thrilling for what it is in the time and exhibition space it was designed for. But also in the times and spaces that the music will be taken into separately by its listeners. For the band, it reflects what’s inside them when they are responding to an external stimulus. This collaboration happened because of the reputation Satyricon has built. What’s exciting is how it has blown open new realms of possibility for the band's future.
The Satyricon & Munch exhibition is running until 28th August at the Munch museum, Oslo, Norway: https://www.munchmuseet.no/en/exhibitions/satyricon--munch/.