Saturday, 27 September 2008

The Enigma of the Absolute

Last night, Ian, Charlie, Justine and myself went down to London to see the enigmatic Australian singer Lisa Gerrard perform. It was her only date in London, indeed in the UK, so I was ecstatic to have got tickets. Gerrard was one of the two mainstays of the seminal band Dead Can Dance, remarkable for their flawless fusion of ethnic and medieval influences with a brooding gothicism. Gerrard's rapt, spectral voice was always a major draw, and now she has forged a lucrative career as a composer of soundtracks, including Ridley Scott's Gladiator, for which she won an Oscar.

The crowd was a strange mix - trilby'd Pagan types, women in paisley sarongs who looked like they wouldn't be able to find their way out of a bag of henna, elegant media lovelies, a few students, and an awful lot of gay men, for some reason. The stage was bare but for two enormous drapes of cloth, which were backlit in various shades as the night went on.

Gerrard appeared at eight o'clock, wearing a figure-hugging mauve velvet dress with a plunging neckline and full-length fitted sleeves. Her hair was bound in braids and elegantly put up. Oddly, she seemed to have trouble negotiating the physical arena of the stage, being gently led by the hand on and off. She seemed so unseeing that at one point I wondered if she had in fact gone blind, but I think the problem might have been a tight dress, a pair of vertiginous heels, and a stage covered in cables and bolts of cloth.

She looked extremely svelte, with the luminous, creamy skin that Australian women who stay out of the sun often have. She took up a position between a pianist and a synth-player, the latter of whom was responsible for recreating the complex multi-instrumental chiaroscuro layers of her music. Gerrard has spoken in the past about her need for centring and balance when she sings, so that she often leans on a stand. I suspect that the extremely long melismas of her vocal style, which can range over four octaves in the course of a single song, leave her feeling light-headed. She is quite capable of sustaining a single vocal line on one breath for fifteen seconds or more.

The concert began with a clash of cymbals as she performed 'Tempest' from the Duality album. Eerily imitating thunder and lightning, it was an electrifying opening. Her voice is absolutely distinctive in timbre, but she has enormous control over it. Quite apart from its sheer range, she can execute chameleon-like shifts of tone and style. (Though Gerrard is basically a contralto, she can go down well into the range of a baritone, and can soar up into the upper edges of soprano territory. In one astonishing moment, she was singing deeper than I could, before suddenly, effortlessly switching to an unearthly, seraphic soprano line, singing over her own echoes.)

Most surprising for Dead Can Dance fans was Gerrard's transformation into smoky-voiced nightclub chanteuse. She did a series of bluesy numbers, revealing a raw, urban edge to her voice that we had not heard before. In one song she did an amazing sequence of jagged vocal riffs, improvising syllables in a powerful litany of abandonment. And in English! This last is remarkble because of her notorious predilection for singing without words, or rather singing lyrics that are not in an intelligible language, but which are clearly intricate, planned series of vocalisations. She clearly has these memorised, as they aren't in the least random. A transcribed Gerrard lyric goes like this:

Anor zhadum...
Anor zhalay kamoor da veheyum....
ooo ee shandolee, ma-a-a-a-h,...lohey...lohey...

The effects are various. It can strongly give the impression that she is engaged in a kind of musical ventriloquism, recreating the sound-worlds of long-forgotten cultures and peoples. (In this she resembles the remarkable Greek singer Savina Yannatou, who also takes on vocal personae from around the world with unerring accuracy.) Her vocal style is often extremely un-Western, with its drones and melismas, its ecstatic ululations and glistening half-notes. She has a vibrato that she can turn on or off entirely as she chooses. But the wordless language also can give her compositions a kind of universal emotional resonance, getting down into the heart without having to be processed by the brain. It is a wise move, as her lyrics in English often seem oddly uncomfortable or cliched. ('Love' was rhymed with 'above' and so on.) Her unnerving glossolalia serves her well, as she is famously ill-at-ease with what she calls 'the prisons of language'.
Only Gerrard could follow a song that sounded like a fragment of Byzantine chant, accompanied by a Hungarian cymbalon, with a jazzy, heartbroken number with a pounding beat.

As she stood on the stage, she held herself very oddly, often looking for something to hold onto to steady herself, or angling herself towards the microphone as though it was a crevice she had to squeeze through. She constantly made strange mudra-like gestures with her hand, as though the shapes of the words had to be physically crafted in gesture.

The set was long - nearly two hours, and there were two encores, called for by the rapturous audience. Gerrard performed a number of Dead Can Dance standout tracks, including the haunting 'The Host of Seraphim' in which she sings like an angel over a dark, chanted background. (There was something oddly Tavener-like about that one, and indeed, Gerrard often sounds like John Tavener's Bombay-born muse, the soprano Patricia Rozario.) It was wonderful to hear 'The Wind that Shakes the Barley', a very famous and dark Irish rebel-song, which she sings in a man's voice.

There is something powerfully spiritual about Gerrard's music, and she knows it. Thoughout the concert, she seemed ecstatic, almost high. Changing halfway through into flowing white, she glowed like an angel or a saint in an ikon. There was a gentleness and a humility about her too, especially in her touching way of clapping along when the audience clapped, and always drawing applause to her musicians. It was quite literally a religious experience for me, and I think, for her as well. From bone and cartilege and breath she conjures something transcendent and unearthly. For all her expressive vocal arcs and leaps and the smoky, many-layered resonances of her work, there is something childlike about her, a kind of Blakean Innocence regained beyond Experience. The world is a greater place for having such a luminous, unselfconscious talent in it.

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