UNFLESH – BY GAZELLE TWIN
For the 16th instalment of the Alpha-vlle podcast series we asked Elizabeth Walling, better known as Gazelle Twin, to let us into her strange and intriguing world.
An unsettling, deeply intense 44 minutes, Walling teases out similarities between a diverse group of tracks – from the psychedelic primitivism of Musicians of Bukkake to the avant garde performance piece ‘Sigh’ by Meredith Monk. It’s a piece of music which feeds into Walling’s ongoing interest in nature and the human body, a theme which she also tackled with her well-received 2011 debut The Entire City.
Accompanying the mix is a set of 25 images chosen by Walling, based on her interpretation of the theme of this year’s Alpha-ville Festival: Unfinity.
- Tell us a bit about the podcast you’ve put together – did you have an idea of where you wanted to go with the mix or was it more freeform than that? Why these particular tracks?
At the moment I am researching and creating work focused on nature, more specifically, the human body and its inner workings and outer appearances. It’s an ongoing theme for me, but fitted in nicely with the festival theme too. All tracks are by artists whom I admire and have a long standing interest in, so I scoured within the things I like for songs which bore some relevance to the theme.
- There are passages in the mix which are quite unsettling, and these tracks, when brought together seems to intensify and heighten their qualities. Do you like to challenge the listener? To revel in their awkwardness a little?
Perhaps I do. I like to contrast musical styles and sensibilities and to try to find connections between them. There’s various links between the tracks I have included. One example is ‘A Mist of Illnesses’ by the Musicians of Bukkake and ‘Tear Out My Eyes’ by Tricky. They may seem totally at odds stylistically, but for me they share many qualities.
- Likewise, your own music creates a sense of low-level unease, something which you heighten through costume. Have you always been drawn to darker, stranger sounds and images?
My external world as a child had a lot to do with shaping that. We lived in quite a strange house. It was on a roman road and always felt uneasy. All my memories from that place are unsettling. I had terrible nightmares, a few of which I remember as clear as day. There were books I was afraid to look at, films I probably shouldn’t have seen, adult conversations about strange things happening in the house which I shouldn’t have heard, and places I shouldn’t have played such as the enormous barn full of abandoned vehicles and strange, dark shadows.
I see no difference between these experiences as a child and how I operate as an artist now – I still play, only the context has really changed. I use my fear and anxieties to drive my work, so that’s probably what makes it dark. I enjoy the sensation of a disfigured reality, twisting and warping.
- You have a classical background, what prompted you to move away from that world?
I never moved away from the music, only the limitations I felt I came up against in writing for other musicians and specific audiences. I disliked the formality of it all and I never really felt I was good enough, nor willing enough to become a composer in that particular setting. I wanted to perform myself and utilise more visual elements, feel less restrained by certain protocols.
Gazelle Twin has been a very important project in helping me combine my love of classical music with the more unconventional creative sensibilities I have – which are really at the heart of everything I do. It feels like a very natural resolution to a lot of discomfort I encountered with live performance, not just in the classical world but in popular music as well, where the focus on the individual and the ego is even greater – this also creates problems all of their own. It’s an endlessly problematic thing for me.
- How does a formal background alter the way you approach making music as Gazelle Twin?
I taught myself almost everything I needed to know before I really began learning the technicalities or methods behind composition or singing. I wrote a Mass when I was about 17, before I really knew anything about harmony or writing for voice. It was all done through a love of the music, a love of listening and I found my own ways to achieve my own version. I think this obsession I had with certain music at particular periods really benefited me too.
The formality of studying at degree level never really surpassed my natural intuition to make music, which I consider to be the most important thing, although I really do value my education. It helped me find the missing links and enforced a stronger understanding of the lineage of music – its history and its context. That was extremely important for me to grasp.
- You’ve accompanied the mix with 25 images inspired by the theme Unfinity. All of which seem to challenge the boundaries and limits of the body, presenting it as something quite strange, sometimes abject, sometimes unreadable or alien. Why these works?
My own body has only ever seemed alien to me, but not in a macabre way. I am constantly amazed by its strangeness, its autonomous functions. It’s not a blood and gore obsession, but I am interested in cases where this strangeness is heightened or where the autonomy ‘malfunctions’.
Working on a new album and researching into this area specifically for it, I have been confronting a lot of very difficult images; cases of mutation, disease, neurology and medicine. Spending so much time up close to these things, I begin to notice that my initial reactions eventually adjust and calm. Being more objective, like a doctor or scientist, letting the initial shock or physical response pass, I begin to see all kinds of fascinating things, for example, the many visual rhymes and connections between the body parts of animals, plants and humans, even in non-organic things like technology and architecture. Everything seems to share a kind of physical harmony.
This is why I have included images which I feel communicate some of these ideas and connections. For example, the medical documentary image of a person suffering from multiple tumours forms has various connections with one of the images by Lucy (McRae) & Bart – the man with the blue face. It works on various levels – from the surface aesthetic of the photographs themselves (the colouring, the composition) to the richer subtext about the human body and what we consider to be ‘abnormal’ or not. Also, the image ‘Slaughterhouse’ by Berndnaut Smilde shows industrial tubing, cleverly representing entrails in an abattoir.
- It seems to be tying into a similar theme that your debut The Entire City tackled – the idea of biological adaptation and limitation…What is it about that theme which holds a fascination for you
I think we exist in a very strange way and in incredibly strange times in terms of consumerism, advances in medicine, science and technology. I’m interested in everything on that spectrum, and how evolution has (and continues to) shape us as a species. The in-built mechanisms which prevent us from danger or emotional trauma and affect our behaviour in all kinds of strange, destructive or sometimes superhuman ways.
What’s also interesting is realising how unadaptable we can be towards aspects of our physical existence – things we are not used to looking at or experiencing very often such as our internal organs or difficult emotional experiences. I am particularly interested in how children up to certain age will adapt autonomously – whereas in older age we have greater difficulty, particularly with trauma, illness, mental health etc.
UNFLESH (Visual Gallery)
- As well as being a musician you’re also a visual artist and photographer. Do you see a distinction between making visual art and making music, or do you approach them in the similar way?
Visuals can pose problems as they can be seen as absolute and permanent. Photographs can easily be misconstrued or can misinform, and so can music or sound on it’s own. Both need each other if the message is important enough. This is why film is so important to sound and vice versa.
In terms of how I approach them. There’s distinction only in what I can say and how I am able to say it from one form to another. I approach the creation of both with the same freeform and slightly erratic working method unless I have a very specific idea which I know how to achieve technically, but that’s quite rare. I feel my way through and learn as I go.
- Who are the musicians and artists pushing the boundaries at the moment? Should boundaries always be pushed do you think?
Yes of course but it should do more than just to shock or impress on a basic level. There’s plenty of vacuous work out there which appears to push boundaries but really says nothing particularly worthwhile, or unique. I won’t name names.
I really love what Matthew Herbert has done with One Pig. Musically, technically, politically and philosophically, its a fascinating and monstrous piece of work with a witty edge. I see some similarity between his work and that of the sculptor Patricia Puccinnini whose image (Balasana) I have included in this podcast. A lot of her work is about body horror and mutation in animals linked in with children / childhood. I find her work endlessly fascinating and clever. Herbert and Puccinini both have a similar thing going on; on the surface their imagery seems gratuitously horrific, but really, they are confronting dark, dirty realities – the consumerism of flesh, the reality of flesh, animal or human, fear of the abnormal.
- What inspires you to make music?
Gazelle Twin is the first creative project I have ever worked on where I feel completely at one with my own abilities and influences. I am totally free in what I create and I draw upon all my sensibilities and experiences in order to do so; from illnesses and physical sensations to books, dreams and memories.
I’m also, obviously inspired by the work of others who force me to think, see, listen or feel differently.
- What have you got planned next? And when can we expect the follow-up to The Entire City?
A lot is planned for 2012. I have a new EP entitled ‘Mammal’ coming out this summer and hopefully my new album will be ready for the Autumn.
Other than those things, I am working on various collaborations some in music, some in film, some in art – taking a step away from the music world, which is quite important to me from time to time as it can get repetitive and sometimes shallow.
(Interview by Louise Brailey)
Listen and download (for the next 3 weeks) the podcast below:
A Mist of Illnesses – Master Musicians of Bukkake
Bloodlines (excerpt) – Bruce Gilbert
Fatter, Slimmer, Faster, Slower – Matthew Herbert
Semen Song for James Bidgood – Matmos
19 Headaches – Autechre
Tear Out My Eyes – Tricky
Sigh – Meredith Monk
Face On Breast – Scott Walker
Describing Bodies – Oneohtrix Point Never
Heartbeat – Wire
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