A Sonic Summoning of the Muse

dead can danceToward the Within: Dead Can Dance. Three words that, for better or worse, carry a lot. Have you heard of them? If not, I’ll tell you about them in a minute. But this post is really about a special kind of magic, and for you, perhaps Dead Can Dance will have nothing to do with it. Writers often speak of inspiration. But for me this post will go just a bit beyond inspiration and slip into the realm of magic.

Dead Can Dance is the talented duo of musical artists Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry. Their music is truly unique, blending Turkish, Balkan, Celtic, Bretagne, and Persian modal traditions into a unique and varied artistic vision all their own. They came together in Australia in the early eighties, later moved to London, then went on to create their own studio in an abandoned church in Ireland. They disbanded in the late nineties to pursue successful solo careers. To my great happiness, Lisa and Brendan reunited in ‘12 for a new album and tour.

They coined their name to imply how cultural history, and even instruments, made of wood and animal skins, could still conjure human emotion and bring about joy—how something that was rightfully dead could still dance. Early on they were surprised and chagrined to find that, probably in part because of their name, they had gained a large following among Europe’s gothic youth movement. You know, the goths I wrote about here a while ago—the ones my mom doesn’t like.

“Our inspiration comes from within. It’s a voice, an inner voice, a primal voice; it’s one that’s been inside of man for centuries, for millennia. It’s a small key, in his heart, a reminder of who he is, you know? And it’ll be replaced, across the generations. My part will be replaced, when I’m dead, and some other artist hears the voice, and carries on the work.” ~Lisa Gerrard

Indoctrination (A Design for Living): Being a Cocteau Twins fan from early on (which I wrote about here), I was vaguely aware of DCD because the two bands shared a record labelDCD Into the Labyrinth Cover in 4AD Records. Both bands had been musical guests on the popular This Mortal Coil collaborations. But I hadn’t collected their albums.

When I first started writing fiction, I knew music would be a part of it. I’d always read with music on, and had long known that certain kinds of music enhanced the experience. And I knew which music worked for my chosen genre of historical fantasy. I know music is a distraction for some writers, but I’ve never been distracted. Quite the contrary. Very early in my writing life I found that the right music, especially at the start of a session, aided my immersion into the world of my story—even into a certain scene itself.

Windfall: During one of my earliest writing sessions, I was listening to This Mortal Coil’s song, Waves Become Wings, which morphs into another song, Dreams Made Flesh. Not only was the mood of the two blended pieces perfect for the scene, the female voice in both songs almost seemed to be that of my character, speaking to me about the scene. The experience blew me away. I wanted more. I immediately googled the songs, and found out the singer was Lisa Gerrard, of Dead Can Dance. A musical obsession was born. I think I own every track ever recorded not only by DCD, but by both Lisa and Brendan as solo artists. Many of you may know Lisa’s voice from her work in movies such as Gladiator and Whale Rider. Many of these tracks have over 200 plays in my iTunes library. As with the Cocteau Twins, I even love their song titles. [Note: all of the subtitles in this post are DCD song titles.]

Anywhere Out of the World: I have listened to hundreds of other songs by scores of other artists while I work, and I have been inspired by them. And yet, to this day, certain DCD songs will instantly evoke a certain scene or scenes, some of which I wrote almost a decade ago. In mere moments, I am transported. Lisa Gerrard’s voice, often chanting incantations in a dead or unknown language, has become the very voice of the Skolani (my all female warrior tribe). Other songs, mostly sung by Brendan or instrumentals, evoke the world of the imperials in my story.

Dead Can Dance 1996 SpiritchaserMesmerism: For example, Lisa’s chanting accompanied by tribal drumming in the song Bird immediately puts me in the lush forests and mountains of the Pontean Pass, where Skolani Blade-Wielders prowl in stealth, diligently watchful for intruders to their homeland from the seacoast cities of the imperials. The live version of the song Cantara tiptoes in like a hunting war party, then gallops into an encounter with the foe, building to a battle-frenzied finish, perfectly emoting the rush of combat and the thrill of victory. Hearing it, I am instantly transported to the culminating battle of book two (the Battle of the Oium Plains, for those in the know). And this has happened with dozens of scenes and DCD songs over the course of my four manuscripts. Not only were they an inspiration, a part of creation, but the music is an instant portal to another place and time–another world. Hopefully, another world that can become a touchstone for others.

Compassion: “…If your heart is hurt or lonely, [the musical artist is] someone communicating to you who is not your friend, or neighbor, or mother, and they peel back the membrane of superficiality or mediocrity so that you can connect with it, and you can become a member of the human race. It says, “You have a right to be here.” You are not being patronized. There is a feeling that you can connect with something. I think that’s what God wants us to do. It isn’t necessarily about how we speak, or whether we look glamorous. There’s this essence that is sincere. When an artist makes something with sincerity, and is willing to make this journey while facing up to the horrible reality of their limitations and still manages to do this work, that becomes a safe place for others to come to and build from there.” ~Lisa Gerrard

In the Wake of Adversity: Perhaps the most transporting of all the DCD songs to a certain scene for me is the gorgeously mournful The Host Of Seraphim. I am listening to it as I type. I can immediately see my character in the scene, weary from her efforts, desolately surveying the wreckage, the waste and death in the aftermath of battle. Then, at 1:50 into the song, she sees a fallen comrade, someone dear to her. She runs to them. She believes it is her fault. For me, her grief and regret float on that ethereal chorus. But I know that for a hundred other writers, a hundred different scenes could be wrought by this haunting orchestration.

Mother Tongue: Even now, having the scene I just described brought to life through music, my neck pricks, my eyes instantly glassing. This amazes me. I am aided to a state of joy, DCD Concert postersorrow, or awe by the art of another, in hopes of inspiring joy, sorrow and awe in others. As I said at the onset, music truly is a special magic—one of mankind’s finest achievements. It is a triumph which sets us apart. Even when I don’t know the language Lisa is singing, I am connected. That, my friends, is art. And, for me, magic.

Dead Can Dance shines a light for me, guiding me to another world—a world of my making. What a special gift they have bestowed. Like storytelling, music brings us together, lets us know we share the human condition, that we are a part of something larger. One day I hope to pass along this gift to my readers.

Don’t Fade Away: Tell me how music relates to your journey. Do you listen while you write? Who is your DCD?