Baltimore City Paper

Negative Theology

Terence Hannum, one-third of the Baltimore-Chicago experimental metal powerhouse Locrian, learned a very important lesson early in his life: His knowledge of the world was limited. The visual artist, musician, and Stevenson University assistant professor of art recalls being 12 years old in Florida, about the time he first started getting into punk, hardcore, and the DIY culture of making zines, when a friend's older sister put him in his place. She had a great tape collection, and one day she decided to school the youngsters because, as she told them, "You don't know anything."

"She played me Big Black, Einstürzende Neubauten, and GG Allin's 'Hated in the Nation,'" Hannum says over iced coffee with an espresso back at a Hampden café. "It was terrible. It made me feel bad. I couldn't even listen to it now. But then it was like, 'Nothing is this intense,' and I went on all these hunts. I bought [Neubauten's] 'Strategies Against Architecture' and [Big Black's] 'Songs About Fucking.' And I thought, this stuff is very weird, it's very challenging, and I don't know what any of this is but I like it. And she was right—I know nothing. I know absolutely nothing."


Knowing nothing is not the same as not understanding anything, however, and Hannum has patiently looked for something in nothing. That idea drives his new release, "Via Negativa," out August 16 on Utech Records. The title refers to negative theology, an ancient approach to describing the divine by articulating what it is not. It's the opposite of describing the divine through positive praise of its attributes, such as, in the case of Christianity, omniscence, omnipotence, and benevolence, as revealed in Biblical scripture.

Hannum earned an undergraduate degree in religion from Florida Southern College before moving to Illinois to earn his MFA from the School of Art Institute of Chicago, and in conversation it's clear that not only does he know a great deal about religious philosophy but it has informed his creative process. "Via Negativa leads to this crisis of faith and I think I can relate to that a little bit more," Hannum says. "That method of theology really made an impact on me. How can I make something, which is a positive action, from something that is negative or a reductive action? That's where the idea came from [for the album], to strip things away."


"Via Negativa's" three songs, composed chiefly of layers of organ and voice, hit the ears like an orthodox liturgy. The relatively short lead-off track 'Become More, Become Less' is like an invocation, opening with a spectral wash of chants and levitating organ notes that settle into a steady, hypnotic drone. The nearly 16-minute 'If You Only Knew What Darkness I am Plunged Into' functions like a confession. The title is an allusion to the now-canonized 19th-century French nun Thérèse of Lisieux's near-death experience during illness, often seen as a doubt that anything awaited us after death. The song rides a patient heartbeat rhythm that neither quickens nor slows; instead it gradually fades into the background as if consumed by everything that surrounds it.

The 23-minute closer 'Unapproachable Light' is "Via Negativa's" sanctum, the glimpse of the divine, a notion that Hannum quite devastatingly subverts. Its title is an allusion to the First Epistle to Timothy in the New Testament, and refers to the place God dwells, somewhere that no one can or has seen. The song itself is a simmering tapestry of sustained organ notes that slowly dissipate until all that's left is the faint solitary hum, as if air passing through a large, empty space. God is the void—or, rather, nothing is god.

In the same way seashells offer the auditory illusion of listening to the ocean, "Via Negativa" feels like what you might hear if you could hold up a medieval monastery to the ear. For the album, "I was thinking about liturgical aspects, like mediations on a lack of activity," Hannum says. "There's melodies, but they're all kind of taken over by something else or it takes a really long time to hear them. I wanted the songs to be about patience and the process of attrition, in some ways wearing [the songs] down to whatever their core is. So there is a sense of music as religion in some way, but it isn't designed to be so affirmative. It's more like having a place to ask questions and have doubts."

To be clear, Hannum says that although he's studied and knows a great deal about religion, he's not a believer; he simply finds in religion another way of interpreting the world—and in Christianity's case, one that has dominated the creative process in Western art. For his 2013 book project "Lost Profile," Hannum collected every shot of the back of actors' heads from the movies of Pier Paolo Pasolini. He recognized that Pasolini consistently visually quoted classical art, and understood the image to be a profil perdu, when artists choose not to show their subject's faces.

"Profil perdu is one of those weird denials," Hannum says. "A lot of that work always tends to be very erotic or sacred or sublime—Romantic painters will turn away all the figures when they're looking into a sublime scene of nature."

He brings up the Kantian notion of the sublime, where terror and beauty merges in some manner. This frisson, where the overwhelming sensual aspects of being alive and the awareness that life is finite coexist, is that space he searches for in his sound and visual art. "How do you get close to that?" he asks. In the case of "Via Negativa," he tried the route of negation. "If you've broken something down so much and you're supposed to be presented with what's there, what the core is, what if there's nothing there? And I guess that's the fear—what if it is this void and, like Nietzsche, the void stares back at you?

"I don't have an answer," he adds. "I just wanted to try to make work around this idea."

He's not the only contemporary musician associated with metal to aim this high. Like all genres, metal at its core is a conservative art, subject to formal and aesthetic ideas that brand it as such. And yet the past 15 years have witnessed a wealth of metal artists creating some of the more esoteric contemporary music around, whether it be Sunn 0)))'s ambient ooze and disarmingly gorgeous collaboration with Ulver, Fantômas' flirtations with Wagnerian grandiosity, Kayo Dot's chamber-music hybridizations, Jesu's and Triptykon's ambient existentialism, or Locrian's wide-screen cinematic approach to noise.


There's a radical aesthetic running through these sounds, a different kind of push for the next extremity that is the more conventional reading of metal evolutions: faster, louder, heavier, darker, etc. Music unafraid to wander off into foreign realms isn't merely a way to question what we think about sound; it's a way to question how we can understand the world. It's this organizing aspect that has drawn Hannum to study anthropologists such as Emile Durkheim and Claude Lévi-Strauss, who have written about the music and culture of so-called primitive societies.

Maybe there's the something to learn from what we think sounds like nothing. It's not like our brains can only be expanded once, when we're 12-year-olds riding around in a car. "In the case of anthropologists, I think they're trying to do something really revolutionary, which is help us understand that religious expression is a creative way of organizing this very complex world," he says. "And there's reason in there somewhere, which to people who have been inundated for thousands of years with Christianity might seem like nonsense. But how is it any less nonsensical than the dead rising from the grave?"

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