Lisa Gerrard (Dead Can Dance)
by Niklas Göransson
Lisa Gerrard is an Australian vocalist and composer known primarily as one half of the legendary duo Dead Can Dance, as well as from her work with major film scores such as Gladiator – a candid conversation about music, memory, and spirituality.
– I know that I’ll be singing for the rest of my life. For as long as I live, I will sing, because I believe it’s a God-given gift to share with others. It has nothing to do with materiality and everything to do with making that lovely connection with people. It is so difficult to be alive. It’s so difficult. Every imaginable adversity will come up against you just because you’re alive, it’s almost as if you didn’t choose to be. But, for some reason, you’re here and your senses enable you to embrace nature, to love your children and your family – as well as face the horrors of having to work and earn money to create places of safety so you don’t end up starving outside in the freezing cold. There are all of these systems. But outside of that, as an artist, you’re constantly searching for these small cracks which are defiant in some ways; the anarchist of systems. And it’s quite remarkable because once you discover this crack, you find unity with others and share something profound together. This is what I believe music to be, especially in the state of concert.
I was fortunate enough to catch DEAD CAN DANCE in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, in June 2019. The concert was held in an old Roman amphitheatre built in the 1st century which, perhaps needless to say, made for an extraordinary visual setting. I’m wondering if there’s any difference for the musician performing in a two-thousand-year-old stadium of great historical importance, as opposed to modern venues.
– No, I don’t think so. It was very nice to be outside and, you know, feel the fresh air but I’m not sure the place you’re playing in affects… maybe from the audience’s point of view, every stage is the same from my perspective. The way the crowd sees the stage is very different from how we do because we don’t actually see the stage. Performing the concert, you’re not aware of where you are. In the geographic sense, that is – you know where you are because of the audience and the connection you share with them. It’s not really about the theatre, it’s about connecting with the attendance. I’m sure it looked spectacular from where you were sitting but we don’t see that. I know we make a great effort, the lighting and sound and so on are very magnified and special but, at the end of the day, it’s really about establishing that connection with a group of people who’ve come to embrace something you’ve held close to your heart all of your life. You understand, it’s not a spectacle.
Come autumn, I’ll get another chance to see Lisa Gerrard ply her trade; in Sweden this time but not entirely bereft of Bulgarian connotations. On October 19 Lisa will be performing in Stockholm with an all-female choir known as The Mystery of the Bulgarian Voices, a world-renowned ensemble who perform modern interpretations of traditional Bulgarian folk songs. Their style derives from a unique hybridisation of various vocal traditions found throughout the region and is known for dissonant harmonies, diaphonic singing, and modal scales. Young women are selected from villages all across Bulgaria and then trained extensively to master the archaic vocal style. In 1975, Swiss ethnomusicologist Marcel Cellier released through his own label, Discs Cellier, a set of field recordings taped during his many years of studying the craft. The release became a hit and the style attracted great renown from musician circles. The Bulgarian Voices were then brought to further fame when British label 4AD – who also released the first seven DEAD CAN DANCE albums – reissued anthology albums in 1986 and 1988.
– The Bulgarian Voices are everything I ever wanted from music. What’s so interesting about their singing is how it makes you burst into tears, it’s just beautiful. That’s what moved me so when I first heard them. I felt pure joy, pure beauty. Why wouldn’t I want to bask in the light of that? I love the fact that they have in their mouths the most angelic cathedrals I’ve ever heard in my life, yet they’re just ordinary women. They don’t go around like gurus with philosophical explanations of what this and that is. Just regular people who work in factories during the day but when they sing, they break your heart because it’s so beautiful. And they’re the most amazingly humble people I’ve ever met; no expectations besides coming together to sing. Fantastic. You can be in a room with four or five friends and share music and sing songs and feel like you’re sitting next to the flames of a fire on your heart. Singing is, in a sense, a medium where people can join together. They don’t really know what it means – they don’t really care what it means – they just know that’s where they want to be. Because that’s where they feel well and forget their daily problems, all the shit that’s out there. It’s innocent and beautiful, and that’s all it is. You know, it’s not complicated.
Have you performed in Sweden before?
– Gosh, many years ago… with DEAD CAN DANCE, probably in the late 80s. I remember Stockholm at the time as seemingly cut off from the rest of Europe, highly insular. I felt a very different energy. And the people, especially the younger generation, were slightly oppressed. That’s my honest opinion. I was a bit concerned because I felt they were being in some way controlled by outside influences, that there wasn’t… for instance, let me give you an example. I noticed some in the audience who had like one drink and then went crazy. And there were these super-strict rules about how many beers we could have. I also remember a street that was very old and slightly haunted. Stockholm in general felt that way, as if so many things have happened there. I can’t recall the name now but there was a square where all the executions had taken place and blood flowed down the street.
The Stockholm Bloodbath was carried out on a public square called Stortorget in November 1520. The Danish king, Kristian II, had besieged Stockholm until the defenders yielded on condition of full amnesty. However, with so many bitter rivals gathered in one spot, King Kristian saw his opportunity to dispose of the lot of them once and for all. With old foes now invited as guests for his coronation as king of Sweden, King Kristian trotted out Archbishop Gustav Trolle – leader of the Swedish faction seeking to remain part of Denmark. His primary nemesis had been Sten Sture the Younger, the regent who spearheaded the fight for Swedish independence until his death in the Battle of Bogesund eleven months earlier. The archbishop announced that Sten Sture’s former allies were under arrest on suspicions of heresy for their erstwhile conspiring against him, a representative of the Catholic Church. Canonical charges allowed King Kristian to neatly circumvent his promises of absolution from secular law. The carnage began on the afternoon of November 8. ‘The king let sound trumpets and announced that none should leave their house; all must remain inside, where they were’, observed a young priest named Olaus Petri as he watched two bishops being led out on the square. The executioner, Jörgen Hormuth, later recalled that Bishop Vincent of Skara asked him what was about to happen. ‘No good news just’, responded the headsman, ’Your Grace must forgive me. It has been commanded of me to strike the head off Your Grace.’ Between eighty and one hundred people were either beheaded or hung, their bodies left on the square for several days until collected and dumped in bonfires. The decomposed corpse of Sten Sture was dug up and burned along with his followers.
– This place did have such a history and you could really feel it. I was totally… I’m very sensitive, you know, and I felt truly touched. And I was just a child… I mean, it was more than thirty years ago. I would’ve been twenty-three or something. But Stockholm has so many old memories which can’t be explained. Sometimes I think this is what happens when you speak in a language that can’t be interpreted, it wakes up all these distant recollections.
By now, Lisa has amassed an impressive resume of motion picture scores, she’s even been awarded a Golden Globe for her work with Gladiator. I personally don’t like soundtracks, never have – for some reason they feel fake to me. It’s as if they were written for someone else’s experience based on commercially oriented themes, as opposed to a genuine artistic expression. As such, I’m curious if there’s any difference in the compositional process for film projects as opposed to DEAD CAN DANCE or her solo albums.
– At first, I was of the same opinion. I never liked film scores and considered them music written for people who don’t like music. But the thing is, my understanding is far better now and I’ve become fascinated by doing films and really enjoy it. Because to write a score is to create an atmosphere. There are many layers with multiple levels of atmosphere you can embrace; the mood of the room or the emotion of a situation. Or, you can go to the core tissue and do something which really brings you to the content of what the human being is, but it’s all about storytelling – from each individual character’s point of view, within the film plot, or as a broad stroke of the whole picture at once as we go along in creating the story’s atmosphere. That’s why in film scores… say, for instance, if you’re doing a film in Polynesia you’ll want to use Polynesian instruments to create the appropriate ambience. But then, afterwards, you must create the emotional context of the characters and what they’re facing within. It’s interesting and I enjoy it, I like doing film scores.
Many refer to Lisa’s main ensemble, DEAD CAN DANCE, as spiritual music. In last week’s feature, Dan Capp of British neo-folk project WOLCENSMEN referred to some of their material as ’religious experiences’. From reading past interviews, I’ve gotten the distinct impression that Lisa herself vehemently disagrees.
– DEAD CAN DANCE has nothing to do with spirituality, it’s about unlocking the soul tissue. Soul and spirit are so different. And that’s the thing, music comes from the soul whereas spirituality doesn’t need music. Spirituality is an evolution of experiences from which your spirit has grown. Music is of the soul, it’s a soulful experience. I don’t mean to sound tricky or like a smartarse, it’s just the way it is. I’m not telling you how to think here but my understanding of spirituality is that when making decisions, you don’t do something out of selfish behaviour; you do it because you love a concept more than you love yourself. And you grow in this concept because you grow in love which is outside of self. Self is not love. When you do something because you love another – when acting in love and you grow in sincerity and purity and truth – that is a spiritual evolution. That’s why all religions are based on that spiritual evolution. And if you can go past all religions and have this personal growth, then you’re developing spiritual life. Spirituality doesn’t have anything to do with religion. I don’t think it’s good, I really don’t.
While she usually doesn’t speak about religion and spirituality to any greater extent, Lisa has previously made remarks which sound almost Gnostic in nature. If I’ve understood her correctly, she believes God to exist – but as a divinity with which one maintains a personal relationship, free of meddling intermediaries such as the clergy.
– Well, this is only my own understanding, but no religious concept – New Age, Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam – has anything to do with spirituality. Nothing. Because it’s only philosophy and philosophy is not spirituality. Dogma is not spirituality. Memory is not spirituality. You are developing your spirit because you’re growing in an abstract that’s no longer self. And that is spirit. When you grow in spirit, it’s not of the material. When you grow in soul it’s of the material and your emotional experiences. It’s because of your natural experiences you grow and share them in the soul pool, which is where your music comes from. Spirit is born of love. Which is selfless. So, all things which have grown from selfless love is spirit. And you make decisions when you do this, if you walk in the lights with spirits. And that’s what I’d prefer to do. But I don’t want to speak too much about spirit because it’s a very personal thing. Everyone must find their own source of development.
A longer and more in-depth interview with Lisa Gerrard, focused exclusively on DEAD CAN DANCE and the project’s history, will be featured in Bardo Methodology #6.