The year of uncomfortable listening

With headliners including US drone metal band Sunn 0))), kids TV phenomenon Yo Gabba Gabba! and avant-garde musician Diamanda Galás, Tasmania’s Dark Mofo festival has something for all the family. Well, for some families. The high priestess of gyno-fury, Galás’ performance is an Australian exclusive but she is no stranger here, having played in 2001 and 2005 at venues including Melbourne’s Hamer Hall and the Sydney Opera House. Interviews present Galás as intelligent and friendly – but not everyone has embraced her charms. In 2005, Andrew Bolt developed a hate-on for her so random and passionate that it verged on romantic, illustrating how the unconventional Galás can confuse as much as delight.

This has been a big year for those with a love of music on the more unusual side. Many of us recovering weirdos have discovered that the tastes we once thought set us apart are now nestled firmly at the centre of the national arts calendar.

In March this year, the Adelaide Festival featured four nights of performances by New York sound icon John Zorn. The Village Voice’s Michael Tedder declared:

John Zorn’s career has been a kamikaze against stasis wherever he can find it, from horrifying classical music audiences with compositions that sound like Daffy Duck’s failed experiments in autoerotic asphyxiation to proving to jazz and Napalm Death fans that the saxophone is the most menacing instrument on earth.

Along with his first and only Australian shows in Adelaide, Zorn’s sixtieth birthday last year sparked a celebration of his career commemorated by events at venues including New York’s Solomon R Guggenheim Museum and Museum of Modern Art, London’s Barbican Theatre and Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art.

Zorn was a perfect fit for Adelaide Festival director David Sefton’s mission to open that city’s major arts event up to a new and younger audience. Some friendly locals I met at one performance told me they only recognised about half the crowd as the usual festival-going audience. The rest, they assumed, were either from interstate (like me) or were people who had never been to the festival before.

While I only saw one of Zorn’s four Adelaide shows, his Triple Play provided as close to a ‘greatest hits’ as an artist this prolific and diverse could permit. The piece ‘Blade Runner’ saw him joined by bassist Bill Laswell, drummer Dave Lombardo (from thrash metal band Slayer), and vocalist Mike Patton (from alternative rock group Faith No More). What impressed me most about Blade Runner’s beautiful onslaught was the unabashed joy these musicians displayed playing together: I’d never seen musicians pause to hug before.

This camaraderie continued throughout the evening, particularly with the closing round of Zorn’s legendary improvisational ‘game’ ‘Cobra’ with his Electric Masada orchestra. The real Triple Bill treasures, however, were the live scores to seminal American experimental films like Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart (1936) and Maya Deren’s Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946).

Zorn’s relationship to film music stems back to his 1985 Ennio Morricone tribute album, The Big Gundown. Described by Wire magazine as “one of the 80s’ most crucial albums”, The Big Gundown first established Zorn’s reputation as a key figure from New York’s experimental music scene.

Diamanda Galás collaborated with Zorn on The Big Gundown but I first discovered her through the video for ‘Double Barrel Prayer’ on Rage one night during my insomnia-riddled teens. To describe it as devastating is an understatement: until then, the closest I’d seen of incandescent female fury on Rage was Sinead O’Connor’s ‘Troy’. Spasmodically cutting between footage of a blood-covered Galás and her writhing like a drunk snake around a revolver, she screamed with her five and a half octave vocal range ‘the trick to saying prayers / when the Devil’s in the way / is to help God pull the trigger /on the dogs this Judgment Day’.

For a teenage girl who (like many) struggled with the puberty’s vicious onslaught, Galás was a visceral awakening. Years later, I discovered her use of blood did not originate in menstrual rage but related to her status as an AIDS activist. This had permeated her work since 1984 (she has a knuckle tattoo that says ‘We Are All HIV+’), and was compounded in 1986 by the death of her brother, the playwright Philip-Dimitri Galás. AIDS was a continuing theme across the works that first brought her to the public’s attention: her Masque of the Red Death trilogy (The Divine Punishment and Saint of the Pit from 1986, and 1988’s You Must Be Certain of the Devil), and 1991’s Plague Mass.

With 2004’s Defixiones, Will and Testament, Galás’ weaponised compositions and performances did not weaken. She launched a full sensory assault as she explored the Turkish genocides against Armenians, Assyrians and Anatolian Greeks that took place between 1914 and 1923. But Galás is known as much for her upbeat and often hilarious take on traditional rock in 1994’s The Sporting Life (a collaboration with Led Zepplin’s John Paul Jones), and her ongoing fascination with the blues (1992’s The Singer and its cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell On You” is arguably still her most famous work.)

When I first moved out of home and entered that bizarre interzonal chaos of share house living, Zorn and Galás were patron saints for those of us who thought our tastes sat beyond the mainstream: we felt they marked our difference.

But headlining national arts festivals today, these artists clearly hold a different place. One of my fondest memories from a Galás show was seeing a young woman in a leopard print cat suit, GPs and a pale green mohawk accompanied by an older woman (whose similar bone structure suggested a mother or an aunt) in a pearls and a twin set, the latter in exactly the exact same shade of green. At the Zorn show, skaters and metal heads sat comfortably next to those obviously visibly aligned with the Adelaide Festival’s more traditional offerings – and no-one blinked an eye.

This is of course simply the result of generational dynamics: some outsider tastes have moved inwards over time, finding a wider audience. Where I once felt my love of artists like Zorn and Galás marked my difference, I now cherish the experience of sharing their beautiful, difficult work with a larger community of like-minded others.

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a film critic, research academic and the author of seven books on cult, horror, and exploitation cinema with an emphasis on gender politics. She has recently co-edited the book ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May for Edinburgh University Press, and her forthcoming book 1000 Women in Horror has been optioned for a documentary series. Alexandra is also a programming consultant for Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, the largest genre film festival in the United States.

More by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas ›

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