What is ‘Gothic’?
It all depends, says singer, songwriter and composer Andrée Greenwell. An architect might think of a medieval cathedral. An avid reader might think of Wuthering Heights, and a film buff might see the long shadow of Dracula about to pounce on his latest victim.
It depends on what rattles you, what makes you shiver: dark nights, thunderstorms, ghosts or murderers. And, she says, it depends on what drives you: love, desire, death and sex.
Greenwell’s song cycle Gothic explores some of her favourite moments of gothic in art, literature, music, film and real life. From spooky Edgar Allan Poe stories to film noir to Michael Jackson, this mix of live music, words and images is a ghost train ride through visions of gothic old and new. It’s dark, it’s dramatic and it dips between moments when you are delightfully, ghoulishly scared, through to moments of genuine horror.
It’s not Greenwell’s first work to find inspiration in dark places.
In a career spanning three decades, Greenwell has confronted issues including slavery, gender politics and suicide, and has written scores for some of Australia’s leading performing arts organisations including Sydney Theatre Company (School for Scandal, starring Judy Davis), Bell Shakespeare (Venus and Adonis), Belvoir and Queensland Music Festival.
An early work, Medusahead, is, as she describes it, “a video clip for a decapitated soprano”, and her music theatre work The Hanging of Jane Lee tells the story of the last woman to be executed in Australia in 1951.
Greenwell’s latest work, Listen to Me, is a choral work on the tough and timely subject of domestic – or, as she prefers to call it – gendered violence. It’s important work but, she admits, the seriousness of the subject takes its toll.
“It’s a lot of pressure as an artist. You’re living with it. How do you deal with it and not be didactic or naff? Figuring out a ‘good’ way to do it, an effective way to do it, is up to the artist. We don’t solve problems but there’s still an advocacy through art.”
One of the darkest songs in Gothic is an original composition by Greenwell, with words by director and dramaturg Maryanne Lynch. Chosen is about Elisabeth Fritzl, the Austrian woman who was held captive for 24 years, raped and abused by her father, who brought up three children in an underground bunker beneath the family home.
Greenwell and Lynch grappled with how to tell the story without being indulgent, ghoulish or insensitive. In the end, they opted to use the voice of one of the children, talking about their experience of growing up and, eventually, being set free.
“It’s actually a very beautiful song,” says Greenwell, “… and quite ironic.”
Indeed Gothic, although it goes to some dark places, is often unexpectedly playful, existing in that unpredictable space between storytelling and schlock horror.
And it’s a feast for the eyes as well as the ears: when Greenwell started working on the show in 2013, she quickly realised that she wanted to involve an artist to add a visual dimension.
After a few false starts, she began working with UK based Australian artist Michaela French, who has created a stunning series of animations framed by three Gothic windows for a backdrop. She also teamed up with writers including critic and poet Alison Croggon, playwright Hilary Bell, and rock musician Hugo Race.
This dizzying range of music, of sources, the different collaborators and multidisciplinary approach is key to Greenwell’s approach: she is fluent in many different styles, from traditional to experimental, and she’s not afraid of switching from one to another.
“There are juxtapositions of emotion,” she says. “That’s what I do in my work … terribly! It’s still so goddamn …” She searches for words to describe what she’s trying to do. “Difficult!”
“I go back to the 1980s, being inspired by people like Laurie Anderson and Meredith Monk. Those models still hold for me. That’s the world, the possibility that I wanted to do here. Of course, my work’s different, but I see it in that kind of zone.
“It’s interesting that these artists are women, they are composers, performers and they have the freedom to move between invisible worlds in arts practices. It’s what I’ve tried to do here.
“I wanted to make something that I could perform in, so the work is informed by what I can do. I’m a limited singer, but I thought bugger it. I am going to do something that I can be involved in … I just think to myself that a lot of my favourite singers, such as Nick Cave and Tom Waits, are not very good singers, so it’s OK. And Laurie Anderson, too. She’s not a good singer, but she’s a compelling performer.”
As is Greenwell. Prepare to be horribly, deliciously scared.