The future is now. We are living in the epoch that past generations and science fiction authors have speculated on with hope and wonder, only ours is lacking the gloss of sentimentality and narrative structure. This is a reality of godless chaos and grinding repetition, where we strive toward innovation even as we are haunted by our own primal selves. Run down cityscapes that obscure the sky, flooded with garbage and slowly eroding, play host to this dance of progress and stagnation. And all throughout this stage there is playing out individual scenes of the typical horror: violence, sex, violent sex, shame, hopelessness, suicide – the list goes on.
In the way that art is a reflection of ourselves, few mediums feel as apt for the times as that of power electronics and harsh noise. To grasp the chromatic wonders of electronic capability and agonize it to one’s deformed will feels like the perfect means to a self portrait. And even fewer artists within this pitch black underground wield such a force of expression as Ester Kärkkäinen, who operates under the moniker of Himukalt. To attempt to capture and properly do Kärkkäinen’s art justice in writing would be a feat that requires time and a high word count. Even then, when one begins to understand the traumatic inception of this project, the grim and achingly personal nature of it, there comes an understanding that to simply expound on the sonic qualities would be a grave omission.
For over half a decade, Ester Kärkkäinen has stirred in the shadows with startling prolificacy, producing an ever expanding array of albums and collaborations that run the spectrum of experimental electronics’ many faces, all while retaining a consistent obsession with the dualistic nature of lust (Himukalt translates to ‘lustfully’ in Estonian) and the many guises it takes on throughout every facet of life.
“Sexuality is one of the central themes to my art and music.” Kärkkäinen herself explains. “[It] is a very powerful emotion that brings out terrible attributes of men and women. Jealousy. Anger. Addiction. Emptiness. Almost all of the best and worst experiences of my life in some shape have to do with sexuality. The ecstasy of connecting with another person. Or the trauma of sexual abuse. Or the blind decisions made without considering the consequences and fallout. Psychic and psychological aftermath.”
Time and seemingly unceasing inspiration have allowed Kärkkäinen to capture and reflect this hideously seductive muse to greater and more fleshed out extent with each subsequent release. 2021’s Dreaming Of A Dead Girl seems to be the current zenith of this evolution thus far, melding the barbed ice of feedback with pulsating rhythmic beats that lull the listener into a daze, allowing the inevitable screeching of a sonic holocaust to penetrate as sudden and as shockingly as a frosted needle. And while this last major release is a definite high point in Himukalt’s story, to look back along the multitude of past albums would have you find them differ very little in quality and impact. Each aspect of Himukalt, from the raw sonic experience to the visual persona feels calculated and razor sharp in its effect. In a medium as abstract and subjective as noise, rarely is the intention so sharply felt.
As Kärkkäinen continues to reveal and elaborate, it becomes only more evident that these sounds are no pretense or simulation, but echoes of sincerity.
“I’ve been reflecting back on my former self quite a lot during the pandemic. Those reflections are very much an obsession for my work in Himukalt, but I’ve realized I have been central to a number of bad decisions and traumas AFTER my episode as a stripper. All of the dysphoria, the emotional parasites, the psychic toxicity, the chemical abuse, the scars on my body, the scars in my heart. So, I cannot say that I’m the result of sex work (and by extension, none of the women showcased in the Sex Worker series should be reduced to any single identity). It’s easy for me to blame myself for all of this, instead of any external forces, cultural stereotypes, or just shitty people. I recognize in myself a broken woman, and that’s something that will never change about me. Even as I’ve developed tools and strategies to survive what came out of all of my past, I wonder what it feels like to be healthy.”
The line between pleasure and pain is often elusive. Our deep seeded hungers tend to lead us toward ruin, yet the prospect of momentary rapture drives us ahead. Kärkkäinen’s statement rings true in her work, as often the listener will be held in a state of simultaneous anxiety and titillation that manifests the true to life inner clash of the reptilian with the civilized animal. This point is built upon in the use of actual field recordings. Moments of intense intimacy punctuate through the electronics, sometimes bolstering the aura of terror and hopelessness, or leaving us to decide on a context that remains elusive.
“…moments of horror, intimacy, and the erotic in Himukalt, [are] very much the intent of the use of such voices. All of the voices represent a female protagonist. I should be perfectly clear that the woman in the song is both “me” and “not me.” As I mentioned before, I draw from my own life, but also that of others. There’s a forthcoming album called ‘A Third Fantasy’ to be published through Found Remains in 2022 on which I liberally borrow texts from Kathy Acker, who in turn borrowed texts from cheap pornography, Marquis De Sade, various French philosophers, and her own diaries. I’ll only go so far in parsing out the origins of the voices from my recordings by saying that some of the voices and actions are of me. Some are of former lovers. Some are appropriated. Even if those appropriated samples do not originate in ‘real’ settings, I am trying to recontextualize them to address an emotional gravity within various stages of the erotic.”
Since 2016’s, Conditions Of Acrimony, Himukalt has steadily evolved in its breadth of technical proficiency, and the overall confidence of the creator at the helm. Over the years and across albums, different perspectives and ‘storylines’ have elapsed, but the spirit of Himukalt, one born of felt experiences and true pain, has remained unchanged, even irreparable, like sonic scars.
“I think the themes in Himukalt remain very much the same. It’s very much an exorcism of all of these past, present, and future traumas. Yes, there’s a lot of anxiety and panic to deal with alongside the depression. I don’t see myself being able to heal entirely. I’ll be carrying this burden for some time. But, as far as the art of the noise, there’s definitely been an evolution of how I compose and sequence. I feel like I have greater control of the noise and rhythm; and I’m able to shape it with equal parts ferocity and nuance. I also used to completely bury my voice in the early recordings, but now I feel more comfortable with it.
“It’s also been very eye-opening for me personally to work with Harriet Kate Morgan (aka Military Position) in Scopophilia. Through the nature of collaboration (something that does not come naturally to me), I’m needing to work with her sounds, her noise, and her voice in ways that respect who she is and what we are trying to say. Again those themes relate to sexuality, self-identification, self-loathing, and self-objectification. But we contextualize that within heavier sequencing than what either of our projects has done. We are slowly working on a second record. But she’s long been an inspiration to me, and I am humbled to work with her.”
The arena of power electronics and death industrial has always trafficked in the subjects of extremity and transgression at the hands of early pioneers such as Throbbing Gristle and Whitehouse. Explicit sexual deviancy or scenes of intense violence shoved in the listener’s face as their ears are shredded by walls of noise or bizarre arrangements of manic soundwaves. This is a trend that has come to largely define the underground noise aesthetic to a great degree. But more often than not these ventures are no more than half baked attempts at shock or transgression. Conversely, there is a scathing honesty and compassion to Himukalt, even as the project dredges up the ghosts that haunt stained mattresses, filth strewn alleys, or the bruised body of a victim.
Perhaps the most overt of these is Kärkkäinen’s two part Sex Worker series, which is not only conceptually based around the very existence and realities of sex work, but almost forces us as the listener into a dialogue with real individuals living that life through recorded interviews that reside amidst the tangible sonics.
“I reached out to all of these women online through various outlets, and struck up conversations based on our shared histories. I used to be a stripper, and I was deeply involved in a sordid relationship with a woman who was a full service sex worker. Some of these conversations were transactional, as I deeply respect their decisions to enter this profession and I paid them for their time. But some of the conversations went further. There’s an tantric massage therapist named Johanna from Romania who was comfortable sharing the sadness and brutality, along with the joy that she can get from the work. I’m still sifting through all of that material for the final chapters of The Sex Worker series, and I am still negotiating with a few women. It takes a lot of patience to build trust.”
The visual face of Himukalt seems to be as vital an implement in Kärkkäinen’s hands as the actual noise. Photographs of both Kärkkäinen herself or other, obscure individuals, locked in states of sensual vulnerability, but also eliciting an aura of foreboding in their heavily xeroxed and collaged composition, silently reflect Himukalt’s doomed carnality.
“One of my first “normal” jobs after stripping was night managing a motel south of Reno. There was an older xerox machine / printer that kept on printing copies even when the toner was almost empty, creating all of these spooky auras and traces on images. That machine is no more, but I got a lot of texture that I can apply through digital means. Again, the imagery is a mix of photos I’ve taken and of images I’ve found elsewhere. Before I considered making noise as Himukalt, I had an early desire to be an erotic photographer first and foremost, and the first explorations into that realm were through implicit and explicit nudes of a woman named Marie. She was the woman I mentioned early who I had a tragic relationship with. She committed suicide in late 2014. That series of photos is very personal to me, and I’ve been slowly working through those images, incorporating them into Himukalt. Sometimes it feels like I’m ripping open an old wound, but other times, it feels very therapeutic. Scream therapy. Since then, I’ve worked with other models. And of course, I use my own naked body too. So, there’s a lot of nude women, but the nudity is not entirely the point. I’m drawn to images, poses, gazes that leave a lot of room for interpretation, where the charged sexuality of a nude woman has something else going on. Maybe there’s hostility, maybe sorrow, maybe resignation. I’m absolutely not interested in the archetypes of mainstream pornography from ’90s onward, with women shaving their pubic hair, surgically sculpting their bodies, bleaching their assholes, seeking some sort of unattainable ‘perfection.’ “
It is an uncomfortable and, frankly, stupid reality that it felt worth asking Kärkkäinen what her experience has been as a woman in the underground world of harsh noise. Ester seemed to agree with my sentiments.
“I have had the good fortune of only working with people, publishers, galleries, and labels who I respect and trust. That’s not to say there haven’t been shitty situations I’ve found myself in. And I know of female noise musicians who have been seriously trolled and harassed for their opinions. That needs to stop. But, my experience may be an outlier. However, there is uncomfortable truth that I’m even being asked this question of my role as a female artist. In reversing the genders, it’s so obvious that such a question would never be posed to a white male. As a woman, anything I put forward into culture is politicized, even if I don’t want that. At times I feel like I have to be careful in how I contextualize my work or even what content to use. But then sometimes, I’ll say to myself “Fuck it,” and make a collage from xeroxed images of women fisting each other, because I want to.”
The best of art is multifaceted and able to be interpreted in a multitude of ways. Like a funhouse mirror it shifts with each new witness that takes it on, touching on our individual past and present selves. In this way, Himukalt qualifies without doubt amongst those heady ranks, heralding intense emotional reverberations of varying shades for those who have known trauma just as well as for listeners who have been blessed with relative ease in their lives’ passage. Of course the abject horror and atmosphere that Kärkkäinen is able to conjure is palpable and attractive to any with a taste for noise and darkness. But there is so much more than that here, and it’s what makes Himukalt special. For the victims and survivors, one hopes they find recognition of their suffering within these many works. For the unblemished and those fortunates, Himukalt stands as a vehicle of profound empathy for the sufferer and the victimized.
“The list is very long of planned albums. A Third Fantasy is next to be released, and that will be on CD / LP from Found Remains. I’m also working on the final components for the Sex Worker series. Reissues for the earlier albums – Conditions Of Acrimony, See One Dark Eye, and Come October – are all on the agenda too. There will be bonus material and lots of artwork. There were talks of an art exhibition in Berlin through Total Black / Sentimental Youth. And Harriet and I are working slowly on a second Scopophilia album to be released on Old Europa Cafe.”