“It is through Art and Art only that we can realize our perfection; through Art and Art only that we can shield ourselves from the sordid perils of existence.” —Oscar Wilde
a reed stylus in soft clay
sings the mind alive—
gods and lions tumble
and stars breathe fire
into the furnace
where worlds are born.
—ink and ashes, Sean Arthur Joyce
“There is geometry in the humming of the strings … there is music in the spacing of the spheres.” —Pythagorus
1. Music of the Spheres
I have just heard the music of angels. If I were to die tomorrow, I would be content. I have heard Dead Can Dance perform live in Vancouver’s glorious Orpheum Theatre (August 9, 2012).
If any current musicians could be said to have created the modern equivalent of ‘the music of the spheres,’ it is Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry, collectively known as Dead Can Dance. ‘The music of the spheres,’ also known as ‘musica universalis,’ is the “ancient philosophical concept that regards proportions in the movements of celestial bodies—the Sun, Moon, and planets—as a form of musica (the Medieval Latin name for music). This ‘music’ is not usually thought to be literally audible, but a harmonic and/or mathematical and/or religious concept.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Music_of_the_spheres) The concept was first articulated by Greek philosopher Pythagorus, who “proposed that the Sun, Moon and planets all emit their own unique hum (orbital resonance) based on their orbital revolution, and that the quality of life on Earth reflects the tenor of celestial sounds which are physically imperceptible to the human ear.” Although the concept seems to have lost traction since the Renaissance, at some deeply innate level, artists and musicians have been striving to create echoes of it for thousands of years.
Given the rate at which humans now seem to be ravaging the very fabric of life on Earth, it’s hard to imagine that the pure beauty the Pythagoreans envisioned can still exist. But it does, in artists like Dead Can Dance. From the very beginning of their career, Perry and Gerrard have striven to create music that exists outside time. Although their music has spanned nearly three decades, no one will ever say, “Oh that album was so eighties,” or, “that album was so nineties.”
Incorporating elements of Turkish, Moroccan, Greek, Arabic, Celtic, and even Renaissance music, their songs lift the soul into that sacred space occupied by musica universalis. While the eponymous first album (1984) didn’t quite capture the DCD sound, by the time Spleen and Ideal (1985) and Within the Realm of a Dying Sun (1987) were released, it was obvious that something wondrous and unique had been born. Within the Realm of a Dying Sun will stand the test of time alongside the great classical composers. It’s a one-way ticket to the sublime.
I’ve had the great fortune to have seen Dead Can Dance twice now—once in Seattle’s beautifully preserved Paramount Theatre on September 18, 2005 and now in the equally resplendent Orpheum in Vancouver, BC. Since disbanding DCD in 1998 to concentrate on solo careers, they have only toured twice, making it an event on the order of a royal wedding. To me it’s more like a religious experience than a concert. Indeed, for many of DCD’s tours, Lisa Gerrard wore a long white gown that, combined with her spine-tingling voice, reminded us what it might have been like to consult the Oracle at Delphi 2,800 years ago. Though one wonders if even that revered Oracle would have had at her service such a divinely inspired singer. In a modern, secular sense, Dead Can Dance serve a similar function—to connect with that universal stream of consciousness we name variously God, The Source, The One, etc.
This may seem to be hyperbole, but trust me—or better yet, trust your ears. Watch the marvelous film Baraka, with its scenes of desperate poverty scored to DCD’s The Host of Seraphim and see if you can hold back tears. That and Severance—performed in Seattle in 2005—were the high points of yet another amazing album, The Serpent’s Egg (1988). Severance qualifies as an anthem for the era of Global Climate Change, with its elegiac, mournful tone: “When all the leaves / have fallen and turned to dust, / will we remain / entrenched within our ways. / Indifference, / the plague that moves throughout this land / Omen signs / in the shapes of things to come.” Hearing The Host of Seraphim in The Orpheum, amplified by its magnificent soaring ceiling of gold leaf and orphic paintings, was no less incredible.
2. Dead Can Dance at The Orpheum 2012
The Vancouver concert featured a fine balance of songs from the new album, Anastasis, alongside material dating to the 2005 tour. The show opened with a brief but spellbinding set by percussionist David Kuckhermann playing the hang, a steel drum-like instrument that looks like a chrome UFO model. Kuckhermann performed an Arabic piece on tambourine that blew the audience away with its sheer range of tones. I’ve never heard anything like it. Brendan Perry has infused the music of Dead Can Dance with percussion drawn from multiple rhythmic traditions so it’s no surprise to see such a world-class percussionist as part of this tour’s ensemble.
When Perry and Gerrard took the Orpheum stage the crowd rose to standing ovation before a note was played. Perry took the lead vocal on show opener Children of the Sun to majestic effect despite sound system glitches that had soundboard staff scrambling. The new song set the tone brilliantly as the album’s iconic sunflower imagery wheeled behind him. “Anastasis is the Greek word for ‘resurrection’ and the seemingly dead will dance again,” writes Martin Aston in the tour program. Perry thought the term appropriate for DCD’s reunion album, adding that, “anastasis also means in between two stages. Regeneration comes with the next season.” If Bruce Cockburn could boast that Wondering Where the Lions Are is probably the only Billboard charting song to say ‘petroglyph,’ Perry has expanded the pop culture vocabulary with songs like The Ubiquitous Mr. Lovegrove, also performed at The Orpheum. But this is no skin-deep attempt to appear erudite. As Lisa has said, hanging out with Brendan is “like going to school.”
Lisa’s pipes were in fine form, though she seemed a little hesitant at times to fully let loose. For any band the first show of a world tour can be a little shaky but she overcame it with her usual grace. Anastasis is structured similar to Within the Realm of a Dying Sun, with each getting half the album’s vocal leads. In addition to the new songs Anabasis, Agape, Kiko and Return of the She-King, her trademark vocal pirouettes had us tingling in songs from the 2005 tour such as Nierika and The Lotus Eaters.
The audience was as much a part of the Vancouver show as DCD itself. Brendan and Lisa have never seemed comfortable crossing the barrier between artist and audience. They rarely engage in between-song banter, so the Vancouver fans stepped in with shouted comments and compliments—sometimes endearing, other times annoying. Male voice: “Marry me, Lisa!” Female voice: “Marry me, Lisa!” And: “Don’t leave us!” “You have to come to Vancouver more often!” Well, I’m on board with the last comment. I do wonder sometimes why DCD maintains such a distance from its adoring fans. My partner Anne and I have now traveled a total of 2,800 kilometres to see this divine duo on two occasions and I’m sure others have done the same. Would it kill them to write a little thank-you note to their fans on a blog once in awhile?
In any case, their Vancouver fans forgave them mightily for any aloofness, cheering and whistling for three encores. Perry sang a moving version of Song to the Siren, the Tim Buckley tune that got me interested in the offbeat artists at 4AD. I first heard it through Elisabeth Fraser’s (Cocteau Twins) ethereal brilliance on This Mortal Coil’s It’ll End in Tears album (1984). Perry’s version at the Orpheum reminded me that he is one of the best and most overlooked male vocalists of our time.
Mention must be made of DCD’s current line-up—musicians drawn as usual from top-flight backgrounds. Astrid Williamson and Jules Maxwell held down keyboard and backing vocal duties while David Kuckhermann and Dan Gresson kept the rhythmic pulse that gives DCD its energy and drive. Music of the spheres it may be, but this ensemble is born of Earth and human culture. Which brings us as close to eternity as we get in this life.