Interviews

Lifting the Veil on Jute Gyte's Adventurous Microtonal Black Metal

Listen to 'The Sparrow' and read our interview with the ever-prolific Adam Kalmbach on inspiration, tonality, and the perks of working alone.

by Ben Handelman
11 July 2017, 8:39am

This article originally appeared on Noisey US.

Within the black metal genre, prolific musicians aren't something anyone would describe as "rare." Many artists will release a flurry of demo cassettes (or, in this digital age, frequent Bandcamp-only offerings) in addition to label-sanctioned albums or self-released fare. It's quite different, however, to examine the intricately crafted songs and ceaseless self-reinvention of Adam Kalmbach, the seemingly endlessly prolific Missouri-based artist behind Jute Gyte.

It's not just that this one-man project releases multiple proper albums a year, nor is it the meticulous nature of the microtonal black metal and otherworldly electronic music Jute Gyte creates. There's something about the sheer weight of the whole damn thing that makes it feel like more than just somebody's pet project or weird obsession. There's a real sense of purpose to it all. On albums like The Ship of Theseus or Jute Gyte's debut vinyl release, The Sparrow, the songs are too dense and fucked up to be the mere territory of a hobbyist. This is captivating material, yet it feels like it comes from a place of outright artistic necessity.

With The Sparrow newly out and a new album entitled Oviri on the way, I tried to pick at a few cracks in the surface of Jute Gyte by interviewing Kalmbach. My editor gave me the go-ahead to waive Noisey's "no email interviews" policy in order to allow Kalmbach to share in the format that best represents his unique approach to music, philosophy, and life itself In proper isolationist fashion. Through our back and forth correspondence, I was fortunate enough to query him on the creative impulse, the immense challenges of creating, and the importance of pulling back the veils for a deeper look.

Noisey: The lyrics for "The Sparrow" came from The Necessary Lie, a collection of poetry by John Williams. What was the intention behind his decision?
Adam Kalmbach: When I do splits or EPs for outside labels, I tend to set poems I enjoy, partly because the music for those releases is written quickly and putting together lyrics takes me a long time, and partly to mark those works as a distinct branch from the main series of albums. I struck upon the idea for what became [the song] "The Sparrow" while reading The Necessary Lie and I felt the poem would fit the music well. The poem, as I understand it, uses the metaphor of a sparrow perching on and then departing a window ledge to describe the world "behind" the illusions of self and free will, a world of actions without agents. I don't know if this is what Williams intended to convey, of course. Williams was a brilliant writer and his three in-print novels are well worth anyone's time.

While there's an inherent complexity to creating microtonal music, you break down the exact range in which this album was created. What is your intention in doing so?
I'm in favour of dismantling and the pulling back of veils. As a listener, I'm always interested in learning about the creative processes behind music I enjoy. I started writing notes about my music because I appreciate similar efforts by other artists. The notes for "The Sparrow" are unusually detailed because the writing of "The Sparrow" was unusually straightforward. When writing black metal, I usually begin with a compositional strategy or plan in mind. In most cases the results are only half-successful and I end up rewriting and revising heavily, eventually arriving at a final product that bears only a vague resemblance to the original plan. Occasionally, however, a plan succeeds, as I hope was the case with "The Sparrow", and the results are more explicable.

In the notes for your album Dialectics, you made mention of artists like Coil and Trent Reznor (or his soundtrack to Quake, at least). Where are the roots of your inspiration when creating more metallic works? How does microtonality play into this?
The metal music that stands out to me as the most obvious influence on my work is Judas Iscariot, Burzum, Today Is the Day, Disembowelment, I Shalt Become, Havohej, Thorns, Mayhem's Grand Declaration of War, and so on. I'm undoubtedly forgetting something. But I also listen to a lot of post-industrial, hip hop, and classical or art music, all of which informs what I write. I grew up in the 90s listening to grunge on the radio, which I think is audible in Ship of Theseus. The most prominent influences on "The Sparrow" were Gloria Coates' "Lunar Loops" and James Tenney's "Chromatic Canon," elegant process-based music made with non-diatonic materials.

What inspires me most about microtonality is not the way I hear it used by specific artists, but instead the way that writing with microtones exposes me to sounds I haven't heard before, or have seldom heard. That said, hearing Partch when I was a student really impressed me, as did Ives' quartertone piano pieces and the continuous glissandi common in the work of Xenakis, Coates, and Penderecki. I sometimes imagine an alternate universe where Boulez never withdrew his 24-tone serialized Polyphonie X and it went on to inspire a generation of quartertone integral serialists.

One of the most dependable sources of inspiration I've found is music theory and analysis. In particular, I always keep copies of Charles Wuorinen's Simple Composition and Vincent Persichetti's Twentieth-Century Harmony near. On a personal level, I find it heartening to read music history and biographies of composers and other creative people. It seems that all artists, regardless of time or place, face similar problems, and reading about their struggles is both instructive and consoling, in the sense that it makes a sometimes lonely pursuit feel slightly less so.

You mentioned reading up on familiar struggles of other artists to make it feel less lonely. Do you ever feel a desire to work with others?
I'm not opposed to doing collaborative work, but it would never be my primary focus. For better or worse, it's important to me for Jute Gyte to be a solo project. I like having total control over the music and don't think I could write the way I do without it.

While you've been a bit less frequent in your release schedule as of late, you're notably prolific. To what do you attribute this tendency?
The reasons are mostly logistical: I don't have to coordinate writing and rehearsal with other band members, I don't tour, and I record my music myself. I've found that my writing has slowed in the last few years as the music has grown more complex.

To an untrained ear, there may be something that feels "off" or alien about your music, but the specific tonality is hard to ascertain. How would you advise an interested listener to begin learning to identify these sounds?
The only way I know to adapt to an unfamiliar musical language is by listening repeatedly and with care. This probably requires either an initial affinity for the sounds themselves without an understanding of how they are constructed (which is itself a perfectly reasonable way to enjoy music), or a faith that an understanding of the music's logic will reveal aesthetic merits that are not yet audible. Anyone who spends much time exploring music has probably experienced both scenarios. Metal listeners are already accustomed to music in which all 12 pitches of the chromatic scale are in regular circulation, with occasional microtones created through string-bending or other techniques. Incorporating additional pitches into that language is no greater a step than moving from the diatonic language of most popular music, where only seven pitches are in regular circulation, to the language of metal music.

The Sparrow is your first vinyl release. While the majority of your work has been self-released on CD, what made this feel like the right time? Why have you settled on this particular format – a screen-printed B-side with the second track as a digital-only download?
I suppose it felt like the right time by default: Dave of Blue Tapes is the only person who has offered to release my music on vinyl. The digital B-side is a consequence of my unfamiliarity with the format. When I wrote the material for the record, I created two sides worth of music, not understanding that the silk-screened side would be blank. Rather than leave the track intended for that side unreleased, we opted to make it available digitally.



One unifying theme that seems to arise across multiple albums of yours is a balance of density and space. What role do you find space plays in your music?
I struggle with balancing density and space. In black metal, individual instruments rarely vary in volume, so changes in vertical density [the number of instruments playing simultaneously] and horizontal density [the number of notes in a given span of time] are necessary not only to vary texture but to create terraced dynamics. My inclination is to make everything very dense and I usually end up thinning textures and creating sections of lower activity during the rewriting/revision process I mentioned earlier.

Is there a fundamental personal goal or message you strive to convey with Jute Gyte? I've seen pessimism discussed in other interviews.
There's no overarching extramusical message; if there is a message I want to convey, it is a musical one not amenable to translation. Regarding pessimism, in recent years most of my lyrics have been attempts to grapple with mortality, identity and change, the illusions of free will and an enduring self, the problem of suffering in a meaningless universe, etc. I have this quixotic idea that addressing grievous truths in my music will help me countenance them in my life. This personal goal doesn't have much to do with the music itself, obviously.

If you're grappling with meaning in a meaningless universe, is your art itself a coping mechanism or a response to the futility?
I think the problem is not futility per se, but futile suffering, which is the default condition for humans. To poorly paraphrase Ernest Becker, the human response to suffering in a meaningless universe is culture: an endless stream of attempts to recontextualise suffering and mortality by creating systems of meaning. (Or, to quote Napalm Death, culture is an endless stream of unconvincing answers to the question, "you suffer, but why?") Music is obviously the basis of my own feeble, provisional system of meaning. It appears impossible to avoid living within a system of meaning of some sort, and equally impossible for any system to be truly convincing; occupying systems of meaning that form strange loops by acknowledging their own falsity seems to be the lot of the contemporary human.

What is your biggest personal challenge in creating music?
In the positive sense of the word, the greatest challenge is always finding the optimal form of a piece of music: cutting away or transforming what doesn't work, expanding what does work and finding the best sequence of elements to articulate the musical argument. When this process is going well it feels similar to solving a puzzle and is totally absorbing. In the negative sense of the word, I find recording instrumental parts tedious in a way that is unfortunately not mind-numbing, and recording vocals both emotionally and physically draining.

If music is draining and tedious, what drives you to pursue it? Why push yourself?
To be clear, I find recording vocals, guitar parts and instruments tedious and draining, but the rest of the process – writing, arranging, manipulating the recorded sounds—is quite engaging and rewarding. I find exploring and refining musical ideas fascinating. And, as you suggest above, music is my causa sui project, providing me with a (groundless, illusory) sense of purpose.

Ben Handelman is in hot pursuit on Twitter.