ANJU SINGH CONFRONTS DEATH THROUGH FUNERAL MUSIC

HOW SHE FOUND COMFORT THROUGH MOZART ON REQUIEM AETERNAM

By Leslie Ken Chu | Photo by Taylor Geddes

If you’re a fan of experimental music in Vancouver, you’ve likely seen Anju Singh perform in one of her numerous musical projects or been to an event she’s organized. One of those projects, powerhouse death metal quartet AHNA, are self-proclaimed worshippers of death. In her solo work as the Nausea, she confronts mortality from a place of not only fascination but also fear.

As a teen in Toronto, Singh began organizing her own shows because no one would book her bands. She admits those bands were young and terrible, and thus opportunities were scarce. “Ever since I’ve been really young, I haven’t really waited for people to give me a chance. I just start doing things. I wanted to play a show, and I put on a show.”

She carried that determined spirit with her when she moved to Vancouver in the early 2000s. Since then, Singh has organized a lot more shows with a lot more success. In 2011, she resurrected Shitstorm Vancouver Noisefest as Vancouver Noise Fest, to facilitate experimentation that places a high focus on texture and volume. She’s given rise to A Night of Death and Doom, the banner under which she promotes death metal shows. And along with Bill Batt and Jeremy van Wyck, she curated Fake Jazz, a night of experimental music that occurred weekly, then later monthly, depending on which of the decade-and-a-half-old series’ various iterations was active at the time. (Due to other commitments, Singh has not been involved in Fake Jazz’s latest revival in 2018, though she gave her blessings for it to continue without her.)

There is no doubt that these shows shaped young minds, but Singh’s formative musical experiences came from sneaking downstairs after her bedtime as a teenager and seeing bands on TV. She remembers seeing Black Sabbath, GWAR, Venom, Kreator, Megadeth, and Corrosion of Conformity on Beavis and Butt-Head and MuchMusic’s hard rock and heavy metal show The Pepsi Power Hour, which was later shortened to The Power 30. She wasn’t a fan of GWAR’s music, but appreciated how outlandish their music and costumes were. And she was drawn to Ozzy Osbourne because he was like a cartoon character. “I’d look at his record covers, and I’d go, ‘Oh my god, it’s a monster! This is so cool!’”

GWAR and Ozzy in particular served as jumping-off points for her: she wanted to create something similarly far out but less cartoonish. “Even when I was younger, I wanted to play serious music. I’ve always loved classical music.” She worshipped B.B. King and jazz greats including Miles Davis and John Coltrane. And the thing she loved most about Ozzy, she clarifies, was his classically trained guitarist Randy Rhoads. Despite her gravitation towards the experimental, challenging, and loud, she describes her position in music firmly: “I always correct people whenever they decide they want to call me a metal musician or noise artist or this or that. I am a musician first. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing. I come from a musician perspective.”

Although trailblazers like B.B. King, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane set Singh on an exploratory path, she has set boundaries. “I realized what I didn’t like was being weird for weird’s sake, being good at guitar for the sake of being good at guitar, being experimental for the sake of experimentation […] I want to create things that are good experiences and/or musical.” Striking that balance has been a struggle throughout her artistic practice, but when in doubt, she always returns to the central question: “What is the goal?”

Photo: Stephane Brouseau

One of her goals is to strip classical instruments of their cultural cachet. She’s perhaps best known as a drummer, in AHNA and other death metal bands including Ceremonial Bloodbath, and Grave Infestation, but she began playing violin at least a decade before she picked up a pair of sticks. Unable to devote enough time to it, she plateaued. “Other than fiddling, like in the culture of bluegrass or Celtic music, the idea of having your own way of playing [any given instrument] is accepted,” she observes. “But the violin, typically, people expect you to have a certain level of skill in order to play it, whereas the guitar or drums, you can have very little skill and play and have fun.”

Frustrated by that double standard, she formed the band i/i in the late 2000s, to dismantle assumptions about what instruments musicians can engage with and how. The four-piece, which also featured drums, guitar, and bass, served as an outlet for her to explore the darker, rawer possibilities of the violin through pedal distortion and delay. “The reason that I really wanted to do that band was I wanted the violin to be able to have the life that a guitar would. It was beautiful sometimes, and other times it wasn’t.” Citing one of her favourite composers, she points out an approach that inspired her. “Mozart wanted to write for everybody, and when you write for everybody, you’re also telling everybody that they can write […] I didn’t want to have these particular instruments behind a piece of glass. I wanted to break that glass.”

Singh has done plenty of schooling. On top of a philosophy degree, her background includes art history – “I had to learn the Bible to understand paintings” – contemporary music, performance, music theory, and electroacoustic music. She’s also taken several Latin classes. “I went really far with it, and I was like, ‘Why the hell am I studying Latin?’” she says with a laugh. “It was so ridiculous. I just loved the class and so I kept going. And then one day I was like, ‘This makes no sense.’”

However, it ended up being more useful than she could have expected. Singh’s love of Latin was one of three key influences behind her album Requiem Aeternam, which she released as the Nausea via Montréal label Absurd Exposition in 2017. Across six tracks, she uses her violin to explore medieval Roman Catholic funeral music. The phrase “requiem aeternam” is a prayer used to hasten departed souls’ ascension to Heaven.

Another influence was Singh’s long standing fascination with death, specifically how we engage with it. “I’ve always been super interested in the concept of death. Ever since I was really, really young, I was afraid of death.” Her curiosity is partially rooted in her experiences at funerals as a child. “I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to cry. And I didn’t understand why I didn’t want to cry […] I was always really confused. And I think I still have that. I’m not entirely sure what is supposed to happen at a funeral.” 

She was particularly concerned about laughing at funerals, even out of nervousness or awkwardness. “As a kid, I was really badly behaved. I was so afraid of laughing at a funeral.” As she says, they are a weird experience of being forced and trapped into ideas of how to celebrate someone’s life. “So what I really liked about requiems is they start to open up the subject […] [T]here are rules around requiems, and so I can start to work with death in that context.”

The most important influence was Singh’s grandmother. The two shared a very close, special bond: She grew up with her grandmother in the same house and was basically raised by her when Singh’s parents were at work. She wrote Requiem Aeternam while her grandmother was on her death bed with a lung infection. For two to three weeks, Singh spent every possible moment in the hospital until her grandmother died.

During that period, Singh was also listening to one of her favourite pieces of music, Mozart’s “Dies Irae.” The composition was based on a 13th century Latin hymn of the same name, originally sung as a Gregorian chant during requiems. Its title, “The Day of Wrath,” refers to the day Catholics believe God judges the living and the dead and decides whether they go to Heaven or Hell. Interpretations of the musical sequence have since appeared in an ever-expanding list of popular films including Star Wars, The Lion King, The Shining, Lord of the Rings, It’s a Wonderful Life, and even Groundhog Day. The titles of Requiem Aeternam’s songs “Nil Inultum Remanebit” (“Nothing Will Remain Unpunished”) and “Per Sepulchra” (“Through the Sepulchres”) are phrases from the hymn.

Singh’s spin on “Dies Irae” was purely based on mood, because her favourite aspect of Mozart’s composition was that he, too, played with the requiem’s mood; unlike standard interpretations, his was vivacious and playful. “I was really confused by that, but that was the confusion that felt familiar since I was a child, whenever it had to do with funerals or someone’s sick or someone’s dying.” She tried to bring some of Mozart’s playfulness into her interpretation, but she ended up in a wholly ashen, doom-laden place. Regardless of how her version ended up, though, listening to “Dies Irae” during her family’s difficult time brought her comfort. “I really felt like I could make sense of what was happening to her and what was happening everywhere.”

Requiem Aeternam is a bit of a cultural mash-up between Roman Catholicism and Sikhism, Singh explains. “In the Sikh temple, you say ‘God,’ ‘Lord,’ over and over again.” Her grandmother did so in praying for mercy. That’s why the album track “Elaison” (“Have Mercy”) has a reprise. “She would do this several times in a day, so I felt it was appropriate for it to come up twice, but to be different because she didn’t chant in the same way all the time.” The piece emphasizes repetition and drone, because religious music is often very droning. “In the temple, it all feels like a giant drone.”

Without knowing any Latin, one can likely guess “De Morte Transire” connotes transition, passage, crossing over. “The idea of being stuck in a state of death is really horrifying to me, not passing into something else, not going anywhere else, not being released from it. I’m a little bit claustrophobic, and the idea of being trapped in a state of death is really scary to me. So that piece was written to tell her to move from death, to whatever, I don’t know.” 

A moment of passage comes two thirds of the way into the song, when a storm of static and pummeling distortion swallow her lamenting violin. “‘De Morte Transire’ is probably the most difficult piece for me to listen to because it was the main piece that I was speaking to my grandmother through.”

No one knows what comes after death, or even what happens the moment we pass. But like Anju Singh, maybe we can all learn to accept death or navigate its rituals with less fear and confusion.

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