The Mirror Pool (4AD) 1995
by Jason Edward Becker
If her collaborative music with Brendon Perry incites the deceased to dance, her solo music is capable of making angels descend from the heavens and quiver.
For the last five years, Lisa Gerrard of Dead Can Dance has sung me to sleep with her whispery myths and invaded my dreams like a succubus with her enchanting incantations.
Though her voice flutters, cries and occasionally falls, it ultimately soars to majestic, implacable heights.
Seeing her at the Guthrie Theatre was like coming face to face with one of those atavistic shadows that appears in your most vivid, albeit most puzzling dreams.
Adorned in a chaste white gabardine, her hair twirled round her head in Princess Leia like braids running down to the small of her back, Gerrard floats gracefully onto the stage and is greeted by a reverent audience, one she proceeds to transfix for most of the ninety minute show.
Her white gown creates an interesting paradox. At least half the audience looming around the Guthrie before the show is wrapped in black raiment—black tights, black leather, black nylons, black lipstick, black tie, black hair, black eye shadow.
The other half are Guthrie season ticket holders preoccupied with their $4.95 plate of antepasto salad.
After waiting ten minutes for it to cool, I drink my $1 dixie cup of hot apple cider and wonder where I fit in with khaki pants and a plaid oxford. Admittedly, two of my friends have joined the antepasto sodality, wolfing down their dinner as another friend of mine, garbed in black silk, gawks at a couple doing strange things with a maraschino cherry.
As part of Dead Can Dance, Gerrard has attracted a following of gloomy gothic mopers as well as a strong plinth of impressed critics. Upon first listen, Dead Can Dance's music, especially Gerrard's pieces, seems pretty dark.
Is there meaning behind the moaning, or is it just a mask?
I tried to find this out and just a little bit more in the fifteen minutes granted to me by one of her agents.
"Actually, I take offense to that." (When fans assume she is as dark as her music). Gerrard said over the phone, in what appeared to be a mishmash of an English and Australian dialect.
"Whenever I've been in a state of despair, it's always been one of the most enlightening periods of my life."
Perhaps many fans and critics interpret Gerrard's music as dark because compared to the large chunk of "alternative rock music," Dead Can Dance is sandwiched between, it is seemingly abstruse.
According to Gerrard, many of the pieces she explores aren't so esoteric as some of her fans think. "I've always wanted to do really exposed pieces," Gerrard said.
On her recent release The Mirror Pool (4AD), Gerrard explores Handel's "Largo" besides composing traditional pieces from Southern Iran and Ireland. Otherwise, the album is chock full of slow, meditative pieces that are her own. There are no light floaters like "Ariadne" or thunderous harangues like "Cantara." The ambitious work is mostly dense and gray.
Looking down at her concert itinerary, I was a little puzzled to find Gerrard performing only eleven shows. ("Some sort of mini tour?" I wondered.) According to American rock ‘n roll standards, if you're not playing sixty shows in fifty states in fifty days minus a stick of deodorant, you're a wuss.
Gerrard blew out a charming laugh when asked to explain her skimpy tour.
"My, it's not like we're a rock group. The work is incredibly strenuous."
Gerrard also played seven dates in Europe. Most of her performances have been in very old or very modern theater halls. When I told my sister's boyfriend I had the good fortune of interviewing Gerrard and seeing her at the very posh Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, he looked a little frazzled; then a bulb went on.
According to Frank, who lives in Kansas, four years ago he was slobbering drunk one night and decided to blow a show at the premier club in town to go see Pavement at the local frat bar. The first floor of the club (Bleachers? Players? Shooters? Mac's? Muscles? Baseballs? I can't remember) was booming with popular dance tunes. Pavement played in a stinky, damp basement along with none other than, Dead Can Dance.
Frank said about four virile drunks teetered from side to side as two faceless musicians performed behind a drum machine, keyboards, and "maybe a guitar."
"Pretty weird music for a frat bar," Frank mumbled.
Obviously, the 1990 fraternity tour wasn't a smashing success and Gerrard and Ferry have found their niche elsewhere.
Gerrard indicated that it wasn't necessarily the ambiance so much as the sound quality, which turned her toward theaters.
"Because of the delicacy of the music, I think most people would prefer to be comfortable," Gerrard said.
On stage, Gerrard is no Courtney Love. She stands still, austere and concentrated, though she rations out a slight sweet smile after each song in appreciation of the audience's attention.
Her body shows no life other than when she taps away at the Yang Chin, a small rustic looking keyboard that is played like a xylophone, but emits noises far more haunting and exalted. Gerrard's vocals soar as well laterally as they do vertically and are the sole signs that she is a part of this performance, though at the same time she is the performance.
I am stunned by how effortlessly Gerrard pulls it off, though at one point she wrestles with a limp microphone, giving it a brief scowl before one of her percussionists comes to her aid.
I always thought Gerrard would seek transcendence during a show, but that's not the case. "Actually, I try to become as close to the work as possible and through that I might become more of who I really am," Gerrard said, carefully releasing her thoughts. Gerrard's selections point to Eastern, Gothic and Medieval influences. She conceded that her upbringing as a child might have streamlined her tastes. "I grew up in a Greek-Turkish immigrant area in Australia. My father was Irish," said Gerrard, pausing to collect a thought. "Those things have affected me. They must have." Gerrard fondly recalled her first encounter with music. "When I first started playing music I picked up the piano accordion and I instantly felt grabbed. A surge of urgency hit me—as if something had been woken within." Gerrard still lives in Australia with her parents, husband and two daughters, 4 and 8 years old. Has she sent them postcards or do the kids trollop along by her side when she travels to the states? "You can't bring children on this for the whole time. You're basically stuck in hotels and they get terribly bored."
When Gerrard entreated her children to join her on the tour they responded with a round of "no's." Just because they don't care to be holing up in the Hyatts and Ramadas of the world doesn't mean they don't appreciate what their mother is doing.
"They love the music," Gerrard said with fond affection, noting that she wrote "Majhnavea's Music Box," a beautiful instrumental, for her children.
Gerrard's first noise of the night is a low gurgling chant that makes me shudder. She begins the evening with several songs that appear to be stripped off The Mirror Pool. They are slow droning numbers which appeal to the narcoleptics in the crowd, though Gerrard eventually discards them for a series of spirited percussion-accented tunes, pleasing not only the audience but the members of her band who look like they are itching for something to do. (Gerrard toured with five percussionists from Dead Can Dance. "To not use their percussive abilities would be insane," she insisted).
Though only a few spots of Gerrard's show truly touch me (one is when she finishes the night with a song on the accordion), she retains her mythic appeal, saying nothing to the crowd but a whispery "good night," before picking up an assortment of flowers from a few young male suitors. Two late bloomers are crushed, holding the thin stems of their roses between their fingers as their ageless princess breezes a kiss to the audience before vanishing behind the curtain.
BIOGRAPHY: Jason Edward Baker recently graduated from the University of Wisconsin/Eau Claire with a B.A. in English and German. For the last eight years, Becker has been writing reviews about popular music and local bands. Currently, Becker writes a column called "Scratches" which appears in the Eau Claire newspaper, The Leader-Telegram.