In this blog post, I would like to apply Bernd Brabec de Mori’s (2015) theory on how unspoken music can affect people, to a case study. The case study for this comparative analysis will be the music duo Dead Can Dance.
First, let me briefly give some background knowledge of this duo. In 1981 Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard came together and formed the group Dead Can Dance (“Into The Labyrinth Press-Kit”, n.d.; McFarlane, 1999). Music critics often try to categorize their music, while they state themselves that this cannot be done. They describe their music as a refusal to conform to musical trends and instead describe it as a genre that encompasses just any style that enables expression. These adopted styles come from all over the world. They use, among others, African, Gaelic and Middle Eastern styles (McFarlane, 1999). In addition, the music of the group is characterized by Lisa Gerrard singing in glossolalia (see video below), which is the singing or speaking in unknown words often practiced in religious traditions (Spiros, 2008; Diliberto, 2012).
Video. Dead Can Dance – Anabasis
I will apply De Mori’s theory specifically to Gerrard’s glossolalia, so first I will elaborate a bit more on that. In several religious cultures, glossolalia is considered to be an instrument of song spiritualization rather than an aesthetic feature of the music (Kavan, 2004, pp. 171; Endong, 2015, pp. 14). Although Lisa Gerrard’s use of glossolalia in her music is related to the expression of a religious message, it is not the same (Göransson, 2019). In fact, she specifically disagrees with the idea of religion. Gerrard says that the words that she sings do not have a specific meaning, but when she sings them, she wants to convey the message that God is present without the need for religion. She believes that people should find their own personal spiritual way towards a personal relationship with God without the help of religious institutions. Thus, the words Gerrard sings do not necessarily have meaning as the words of a normal language have (i.e. every word literally means something), but the combination of words has an overall meaning, that of the need of a personal spiritual journey. Gerrard adds to this by saying that any sound she produces has meaning, no matter the sound (4AD, 2007, 4:25). This indicates that aside from the overall meaning she tries to convey, Gerrard also thinks that every sound she makes is meaningful apart from the word itself. Therefore, we could say that Gerrard does not sing in words, but in sounds. While she admits that her sounds have meaning, she never ascribes any meaning to them. This is because her singing is a feeling from her personal spiritual journey to a relationship with God and love (“Fifteen Questions Interview”, n.d.). By never ascribing any literal meaning to the words but by using the sounds to show her relationship with God and the love she feels, she tries to inspire her audience to find their own spiritual journey (Göransson, 2019).
Before linking the music of Dead Can Dance to De Mori’s theory, I will first explain what De Mori has to say about unspoken music. In his article ‘Sonic Substances and Silent Songs’, De Mori (2015) analyzes indigenous ritual music that is used during healing sessions. To heal a person, a song is sung so that the music can enter the body, manipulating internal physiological processes (De Mori, 2015, pp. 27, 37). Even after the song is sung, the music works inside the body. The song can be transferred in two ways: out loud or in the mind (called think-sings) (Ibid., pp. 30). Even when the song is sung in the mind of the healer, the song has an effect in the body of the patient. De Mori explains the effect of these think-sings by stating that the sounds and words they produce in their mind exist although they do not sound at the very moment of chanting. Without any physical waves, the song travels from the healer’s mind to the body of the patient where it is contained.
The glossolalia of Gerrard can be compared to the think-sings De Mori speaks of. In both situations, an incomprehensible song is sung with the intention to help another. I must add here that I mean incomprehensible in the sense that the sounds cannot be literally translated into any given language. The think-sings stay secret until they are sung out loud (which changes the character of the song) and the glossolalia songs of Lisa are in a language no one knows. Despite this incomprehensibility, in both situations, the singer tries to transfer the words to the listener so that the words can work inside the listener to heal or inspire. That the message of the words of Gerrard work inside the body of the perceiver is confirmed by many listeners as the music of Dead Can Dance is mostly described as spiritual (Brazier, 2018; Göransson, 2019). So, without knowing the actual meaning of Gerrard’s words, the audience knows that these words are the embodiment of spirituality.
Besides that De Mori (2015) talks about the power of the think-sings, he also ascribes agency to the songs. Agency is the capacity of an actor to make free choices. De Mori (2015, pp. 31) explains that the words of the think-sings, no matter if they are being heard or not, seem to influence the perceiver. The words of the indigenous healer have broken loose from the idea of the need for sound waves and can still work in the perceiver’s body without them. The same is true for Gerrard’s glossolalia. Despite that Gerrard’s words are incomprehensible, the words are received by the audience, working in the body, evoking a spiritual feeling, or even initiating or inspiring some kind of spiritual journey. The words become their own agent in the spiritual process of the perceiver. Gerrard acknowledges this agency of her words. She says in an interview that her singing in glossolalia comes directly from a response to the music or the heard environmental sounds (JamesSighs, 2012). The singing response is automatic in such a way that she feels subjected to her singing. She simply cannot help it to be overpowered by sounds and her own voice.
However, there are two counterarguments on this idea of Gerrard’s singing words having agency. First, while the indigenous think-sings are not accompanied by multiple instruments, the music of Dead Can Dance is. Even though the healing music might have some melodic accompaniment in the mind of the healer, the singing of Lisa Gerrard is joined by a big musical group mostly consisting of many different instrumentalists or singers (Figure 1). All these instruments might add a little bit of meaning to the overall perceived meaning of the songs. Imagine, for example, that Lisa sings in a minor key, making the song kind of sad. People might ascribe a sorrowful meaning to the song. However, Gerrard does not sing alone. Let us say she is joined by a percussionist, violinist and key player whom all three play in a major key and a fast pace. While a minor key is mostly seen as sad, a major key and a fast pace mainly indicate a happier song (Bruner II, 1990, pp. 100). Taken together the song is not as sorrowful as it was before the instruments joined. Suddenly, the music gets a different meaning even though Gerrard’s glossolalia sounds did not change. This means that in contrast with the agency of the words of the indigenous think-sings, the words of Gerrard have less agency as they are not the only source of meaning. How the words are perceived and received is now also influenced by a different source, namely the accompanying music.
Figure 1. Lisa Gerrard and Genesis Orchestra (Orleff Photography, 2018).
Secondly, while the silent healing sessions mostly take part privately (De Mori, 2015, pp. 28), the live concerts of Dead Can Dance are held for enormous audiences (Figure 2). While the number of people might not influence the transference of meaning of Gerrard’s words, the fact that people join each other in this process probably will. This has also something to do with the actual aim of the music. Because the indigenous think-sings are used for a healing process, only the healer and patient are needed to fulfill the treatment (De Mori, 2015, pp. 28). However, the music of Dead Can Dance aims to make people feel something emotionally, and to inspire them for a spiritual journey (“Fifteen Questions Interview”, n.d.; Göransson, 2019). This idea of an emotional experience or spiritual journey can have a meaning to and use for anyone, and thus, as many people can join their musical performance as possible. Their performance is not restricted to a performer and a specific receiver. In fact, Gerrard feels it as her duty to inspire as many people as possible (“Fifteen Questions Interview”, n.d.). In addition, these people that join each other during a Dead Can Dance concert may be inspiring each other as well. They, for example, may feel a sense of bonding during the performance because they share the same experience. Or they may talk about it and inspire each other after the performance when they get together. In any case, one may conclude here that the agency of the words is also slightly taken away by the audience. Each audience member might change the meaning of Gerrard’s words a little bit by interpreting them differently and communicating this to others.
Figure 2. The audience at a concert of Dead Can Dance (Kuckhermann, 2012).
You could almost say that Dead Can Dance is aware of this loss of agency within their music. They deliberately chose the name ‘Dead Can Dance’ as it refers to a dead musical instrument that can only sound when the musician plays on it (“Into The Labyrinth Press-Kit”, n.d.). Moreover, the musical duo put a wooden ritual mask on the cover of their first album with the idea that it was part of a living tree before it became a dead mask. It was the will of the maker to change the wood into a mask and the mask cannot do anything about it (“Into The Labyrinth Press-Kit”, n.d.). Its incapacity to make free choices is hereby underlined.
Even though the words of Lisa Gerrard somewhat lost their agency due to the mass performances and mass instrumentalizations, they do have a meaning to the audience and can work in the perceivers, even after hearing the music. When comparing the glossolalia words with the silent songs of the indigenous people I can still carefully conclude that the meaning of the words is transferred to the perceivers like the healing power of the think-sings are transferred to the patients. They might not literally hear what they need to hear, but they are exposed to a sound that embodies the meaning of spiritual fulfillment and love. Or as Gerrard herself says: ‘If we open the eye that we don’t see physically with. Then we’re able to dance in harmony with all sounds’ (4AD, 2007, 4:33).
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