At the time when this interview was conducted, TRIPTYKON’s “Requiem (Live At Roadburn 2019)” had just entered the regular German album charts at # 10 and in their home country Switzerland at # 9. A very impressive, yet justified result for such an ambitious project, which had its origin already way back in 1986, when Tom Gabriel Fischer started to write ‘Rex Irae (Requiem)’, the first part of a fantastic three-part Requiem, for CELTIC FROST’s 1987 “Into The Pandemonium” album. In order to find out a bit more about its live premiere and the whole project in general we hooked up with Tom for the following interview…
What was your first reaction when Walter Hoeijmakers contacted you about the idea to perform the whole “Requiem” piece at his Roadburn Festival? I suppose you hadn’t even started working on part 2 of it at that time, have you?
“I knew immediately that this was a significant occurrence, and that it was of enormous relevance for all of us. Walter has been one of my most extraordinary friends for many years, and I was fully aware that any such proposal by him was serious, that the platform he offered was substantial, and that his connections and suggestions would be extremely helpful in making such a concert something truly special. Moreover, I felt deeply honoured that Walter had actually thought of me for the realisation of such a collaboration of classical and metal music. Part 2 existed as a rather detailed idea in my mind for many years, but not yet as a fully written piece.”
Was it clear right from the start that you would just perform those 3 songs and not a full TRIPTYKON set before or afterwards as well?
“Early on in the project, we briefly discussed the possibility of also performing other CELTIC FROST and TRIPTYKON songs that feature classical instrumentation. But Florian Magnus Maier (the classical arranger), V. Santura (the musical director), and I very quickly felt that this would destroy the magic and focus of the moment. The mere fact that you have an orchestra at your disposal does not mean you have to bring out every single song you ever did with classical instrumentation and perform a mishmash of essentially thematically unconnected material. Restraint and discipline are called for instead.”
How did you rehearse for the Roadburn show? I mean, the songs require lots of classical instruments and I suppose you weren’t able to work with the Dutch Metropole Orkest right from the start, so how did you do that?
“It is true that rehearsing with a full orchestra is a colossal logistical and financial undertaking. This is why rehearsals are planned in detail in advance, and why the number of such rehearsals are kept to a minimum. But everyone involved in the project was very professional and could draw from many years of experience, so that wasn’t really a problem. And we are living in modern times and were able to rehearse at our regular place in Zurich, using MIDI files to simulate the classical instruments. The sound is of course deficient, compared to the actual orchestra, but it allowed us to get thoroughly familiar with the full piece.”
Did you try to get original singer Claudia-Maria Mokri involved as well? If so, why didn’t it work out and how did you hook up with Safa Heraghi, who has a quite different vocal style?
“No, I had no intention whatsoever to involve Claudia-Maria Mokri. Many years ago, she contacted what was then CELTIC FROST and our affiliates, and she stated that she no longer agrees with Heavy Metal and that she distances herself for her earlier collaborations with CELTIC FROST. She asked us to remove any trace of hers from the music and credits of CELTIC FROST’s “Into The Pandemonium” album and from our website. Of course we answered that this was completely impossible, that the music, album and credits had been in the public sphere globally for many years, and that we were not going to tamper with history even on our website. We also told her that the recordings in question had become quite well known, and that she should feel as happy as we are to have been a part of it. Nonetheless, she did not change her explicit rejection of it all. Safa Heraghi had recorded some guest vocals for DARK FORTRESS some time ago, and I saw her onstage with the band in Zurich shortly thereafter. Her performance was fantastic, so I went backstage and asked her if she could imagine also working with TRIPTYKON one day. The subsequent initiation of the “Requiem” project of course served to make this a far bigger collaboration than envisioned at that initial moment.”
Did you get any response from the musicians of the orchestra or conductor Jukka Iisakkila regarding “Requiem” as a whole? Did they make any suggestions when it comes to the songwriting or arrangements?
“The musicians of the Metropole Orkest were very collaborative and interested in the project. They have performed many unusual collaborations in the past and were thus quite used to it and quite open. Many of them also professed very sincerely that they really liked our “Requiem”. This is a major difference to when we, in CELTIC FROST, worked with classical musicians in the 1980s. At the time, such musician were generally very sceptical, often even outright dismissive, about collaborating with a Metal band. They did it as a job but made it obvious how much they looked down on us and how much the resented our music. It took more time to talk to them, explain everything to them, and convince them to give it a chance, than to actually record their parts. Jukka Iisakkila was the perfect choice for this project. He had the right personal demeanour and displayed the right mix of professionalism and humour. And of course we did indeed discuss a number of late detail amendments to the composition as we rehearsed together.”
Was it a challenge for them as well maybe, to perform music like that?
“For the reasons stated above, it was quite an organic undertaking for them.”
It was probably the first time for you ever to play a show with headphones on the whole time… What kind of feeling was that?
“A nice, warm, and cosy feeling. The headphones were quite important for the performance, and I did not mind them at all.”
If you look back on that special night now, were you satisfied with the whole performance? I mean, it probably must’ve been your biggest dream come true, so did it all in all fulfill your expectations? Anything you would have liked to change if you would have the chance to?
“Yes, I was happy with the performance. There are a number of things that could have been tried differently, but who knows if it would have made it better or worse. But we put so much effort into it and were fortunate enough to work with so many extremely capable people onstage and behind the scenes, that it was clear that everything that could have been done to make it a good performance was actually done. The “Requiem” wasn’t my biggest dream. My biggest dream, as a young teenager, was to be granted to become a musician, and I will never stop being grateful to all the people who have contributed to make this reality, first and foremost the audience. I have been involved in so many exceptional musical moments during the past 39 years that I have long since felt deeply grateful and satisfied. I don’t always need more. I find such an insatiable attitude quite problematic, in fact. The completion of the “Requiem” was something I always thought should probably be done, and it was a fantastic, once-in-a-lifetime experience, of course, but it also wasn’t something that dominated my every thought in recent years.”
Do you remember general reactions of the crowd from that night? From what can be seen on the DVD, it seems to me that people sometimes weren’t sure how to react on your performance, but at the end of the set they all looked extremely impressed, with a big smile on their faces, knowing that they had just experienced something totally unique and special…
“The audience was perfect. I have hardly ever experienced such a respectful, interested audience in my life. And several of the members of the orchestra told me after the concert that they had never felt such respect from an audience either, even during classical concerts. That made me very proud of the Metal crowd that came to see us that night.”
Had there still been plans to record the songs in a studio environment at the time, or was it clear right from the start that a live recording would replace that idea after all?
“Due to the high level of professionalism by the people involved, it was clear that a life recording would suffice.”
You partly already used the cover artwork as a stage backdrop at the Roadburn show, so was that always meant to be the artwork for the whole “Requiem” EP release? What can you tell us about that piece of art?
“That piece, “Blood Angel” by Italian artist Daniele Valeriani, had long been a favourite of mine. Valeriani is a friend of mine, and I had asked him if I could purchase the rights for the “Blood Angel” quite some time ago. And when we began work on the “Requiem”, I proposed it to the band as an album cover, and everybody loved it. Valeriani also contributed another one of his paintings for the project. He is an amazing artist, and I am sure we will collaborate again at some point in the future.”
Writing classical music differs quite a bit from writing Rock music, so how tough was it for a 22 year old to come up with part 1, ‘Rex Irae (Requiem)’, back then? Did you already draw influences from classical composers at such a young age?
“It was very difficult for me at the time. But that applies to almost all of the music (and indeed the entire production) of “Into The Pandemonium”. And, yes, I had listened to classical music throughout my youth, but listening and composing are still two completely different propositions.”
How does a Metal musician write a classical piece of music anyway? I mean, I suppose you don’t play any of the instruments that get played by the orchestra, like cello, trumpet, trombone, horn, violin or timpani… so do you use computer samples or something like that for your basic ideas?
“In 1986/1987, I wrote the music on the guitar and then gave the demos of that to a classical arranger, as I cannot write scores. Of course this also involved many detailed discussions as to the instruments used, and so on. In 2002 to 2006, I had first written the composition on the keyboard and then transferred it to a program on my computer when writing further versions of it. Then, again, I gave the demo to the classical arranger.”
By the way, what was the reason that you wrote “Requiem” part 3 before you wrote part 2?
“Martin Eric Ain and I simply thought part 3, “Winter”, would suit the “Monotheist” album perfectly. I played the demo to him, and we both agreed it should be on the album. It’s that simple.”
In the songwriting credits for ‘Grave Eternal’ we also find a guy named Florian Magnus Meier… was he the only outside person who worked with you on the whole “Requiem” piece? What kind of background does he have?
“Florian was our classical arranger, as mentioned above. He really was the key person of the entire project. He is a classical composer by profession, a Metal musician by passion, and a long-standing friend. He was therefore the ideal person to correctly understand the nature of this project. More than that, he contributed innumerable ideas, from the instrumentation to the composition itself. The gestation of the finished “Requiem” was accompanied by countless production meetings by Florian, V. Santura, and myself, both on Skype and in person.”
Did this whole project have any influence on your decision to play shows as TRIUMPH OF DEATH afterwards? From very sophisticated music back to very simple, straight forward brutality?
“No, the idea for TRIUMPH OF DEATH originated many years ago, perhaps around 2011 or so. I took the first concrete steps to bring it onstage in 2013, during the recording sessions for TRIPTYKON’s “Melana Chasmata” sessions, and actual transcriptions work and rehearsals began in 2018. But it was of course quite a unique experience, in 2019, to perform my most primitive and my most sophisticated compositions in the same year. Basically the bookends of my path as a musician.”
Ok Tom, that’s about it for now. Any plans for the near future already? More “Requiem” shows or a new TRIPTYKON album maybe? No matter what, I wish you all the best. Keep up your great work, also in the animal rights department.
“Well, a TRIPTYKON album should and will happen, yes. And there are some TRIUMPH OF DEATH live recordings that we will listen to and mix. And perhaps some other new project. We shall see.”
Photo credits: Ester Segarra, Matthias Landes, Henryk Michaluk
Interview: Frank Stöver