Straight to Hell: Elliot Murphy’s sonic journey through Dante’s Inferno

Berlin-based Irish composer’s new album follows the Italian poet into the underworld

On the surface of this earthly Earth, somewhere in Tipperary, the sun gleams off a country cottage. Gravel scrunches as car tyres rotate. There is the same sound underfoot as a musician gets out and retrieves his cello; it looks like the bespoke box Joseph Beuys made for the containment and convenient carrying of a human. All-seeing X-ray eyes could scan the case but find only a wooden stringed instrument within. A crow sits on a fence and gives Elliott Murphy the evil eye as he crosses the farmyard. The music to be recorded is cinematic and dark and suggestive of Hell. Murphy is the composer.

“The idea of this album is to follow Dante through the underworld. I am layering cellos and getting an orchestral sound. We have double bass, violin and percussion. Dante stops where sinners are punished. I have written music for each place. You go on this journey – even if you don’t know the poem. The music mostly is textural and it describes the atmosphere.”

Richard Byrne is already inside. A thin illustration of a vertical soundwave, he is the engineer deftly scoping the cottage for optimum microphone placement. The bright, choral fizz of the kitchen fridge offends him and he pulls its plug to prime this electro-acoustic blank canvas. Sockets, surfaces and sound-deadening sheets are in good supply.

“This is Elliot’s first absolutely massive project,” he says. “It’s like film music and he has written the score. He is one of the most talented and prepared musicians I have ever recorded. One track has 58 different cello bits that are the exact same, just a slightly different note. He is just banging them out – he is so consistent, it’s scary.”

Violinist Patricia Stepien is still in Berlin. She is about to board a plane and join Murphy and Byrne for the recording. "This work is absolutely magical," she says. "Elliot just filtered the Inferno through his mind and brought it to life. He rewrote Dante not with words but with music. And his imagination."

Circles of hell

The project has nine days of recording. One for each of Dante’s circles of Hell.

“I will take these recordings and, when playing live, improvise over these landscapes – like Dante, narrating as I move through this soundscape,” says Murphy as he rosins up a sturdy bow. “I don’t know if there is anything implicitly musical about Dante but what I found was just how stark the atmosphere is.”

At loggerheads with Rome and the fat cats of Florence, Dante Alighieri wrote the epic Divine Comedy. Seven hundred years on from Dante's death, Murphy has adapted the 33 cantos of the first section into an approximate musical hour.

“The suffering is just at another level,” he says. “You can’t help but feel for these people you meet along the way – fictional or non-fictional. Dante has historical figures there as well as people he would have known and people from myths, from Greek mythology. Musically, as the chords move into each other, it never really comes to a resting place – there is always some sense of unease.”

Early demos of his complex composition draw a vivid freehand sketch of what Murphy has planned. The strident skeletal sketches plunge into final mixes to emerge as fleshed, meaty structures of edge and bombast. Razor-wire shrill pitches cut like cheesemonger cord through your senses. Richter-scale pulsing tones make the soundtrack for Jaws sound like the last-cry falsetto of a shark victim. Murphy’s composition drags you right down into the underworld.

“When there is a sound in the poem, I try to use it as a starting point – an example is insects buzzing past the eardrum. Then I can build up the piece.”

The text itself is a set of instructions? “Compositionally, it is a starting point for me. I can use it as a means of generating ideas.”

He explains one section: “The first violence ring is a lake of boiling blood, guarded by centaurs. The second is a ring of trees with no leaves – a creepy forest. And the third is a scorching desert plain. Each has a different sound palette. The first is very hot so the vibrato is slow and bubbling and the harmony dense. The next one is an empty forest so everything gets sparser, but the rhythm is the same – lots of pizzicato in the strings and playing with the wood of the bow. The last is extremely hot so we are playing near the bridge to get these screechy high sounds.”

Lodz-born Stepien adds counterpoint. “He knows what parts to write for me. Especially the high register of glassy sounds. It is a paradox, but you can imagine icy bits of Hell. Cold. The violin works really well. The highest notes I can play.”

Evil expression

The purpose of the recording is twofold: to create a fixed version which will also serve as a bedrock for live performances. “The difficulty will be deciding when things start and when they end. And then creating loops I can use live.”

The Kilbehenny cottage is transformed into an idyllic studio. Murphy's deep cello rings out. An evil expression crosses Byrne's face. He is briefly perturbed as an orchestral drum's surface simmers under the sound waves emanating from string and bow. "He has everything sectioned out and knows exactly what to play and when," he says. "This makes my job easy. It allows me to focus on the engineering. I listen to what he is playing and adjust. Philosophically or conceptually? I am making it up as I go along. It's just a farmhouse that sounds amazing. This is the smoothest recording session I have ever done."

Murphy and Stepien play together in Berlin as Mein Haus. “We take classical music away from big concert halls and play on bills with punk bands in bars. We are quite violent musicians. We amplify ourselves for those gigs.”

Aleatory counterpoint (repetition of short passages at will) and indeterminacy (where musicians get choice as to what they play) are elements of Murphy's aesthetic technique. He mentions Krzysztof Penderecki, Toru Takemitsu and John Cage. "I can perform this piece anywhere – it's just me, a laptop and an amp.

“The sins are still the same really. Corrupt politicians go to a very special place. It doesn’t strike you Dante’s Inferno is 700 years old because the people seem very familiar. We can find people acting in a similar way today. The thing about music is once you take all the text away, it is completely abstract. If I didn’t call this Inferno, who would know?”

How Dante was hijacked as a brand name for Hell

Seven hundred years of stygian depth and dire warning has castrated Dante into the same pencilled shorthand as "Kafkaesque", "Orwellian", "Chaucerian", "Wagnerian" and "Dickensian". He has been trapped in the convenience of an adjective. Why bother with the bubbling source torrent when you can witlessly sprinkle the bland bottled juice throughout your conversation? Dante's Inferno stars Lucifer, monsters, society figure sinners and mythic characters. He dramatised the punishment and horror that permeate the signifier we call Hell. Delacroix, Dali and Blake painted it into their own distinct visions. Dante was awarded the franchise for all things epic and grim, and has been hijacked as a brand name for Hell. That unspeakable place he set-designed is referred to as Dantesque. The visionary Florentine lives on the same Hades spectrum as the Paradise Lost poet John Milton. For Dante is doomed for eternity to be... Dantesque.

Abandon hope: Dante’s infernal circles

The Divine Comedy has three parts: Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise. The first starts with the author lost in a forest. Midway through life, he has taken the wrong path. Redemption looms when Virgil joins him and leads him into the underworld. They enter through the gates of Hell and traverse the terror of concentric circles. Different sins are punished in fiendish ways. How about having a limb lopped off by a brute? As you stagger off on an eternal circuit, the farther you go the more you heal. By time of return to your starting point, you are intact. But get chopped once again. The more serious sinners suffer ever-worsening torments and Dante witnesses familiar faces the closer he gets to the core. Waiting at the end is a three-faced inversion of the Trinity: Lucifer chewing on Judas and the two assassins of Caesar.

Elliot Murphy will premiere his cello composition for Dante's Inferno in a live video stream Dublin Castle Coach House Gallery on Thursday, September 30th, in the context of Liam Ó Broin's exhibition of Divine Comedy lithographs