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The last time dark sonic conceptualists Dead Can Dance wafted through the Bay Area, in a velvet-draped show at Zellerbach last year, a strange thing happened, befitting the band's penchant for high drama. Brendan Perry, the deep-voiced, guitar-strumming half of the duo, had just plucked the opening filigree of a typically medieval dirge, when -- horrors! -- a backing keyboardist thumbed an off-key note. Enraged, Perry spun around to face the offender (who, terrified, scampered offstage), swinging his acoustic like a battle ax. The song ended there, and Perry plopped down on a stool to stew, his head in his hands.
Enter Lisa Gerrard, his longtime creative partner, who -- looking like an angel in plaited locks, white face powder, and a flowing white robe -- raced from the wings to console him. She placed her hands on Perry's slumping shoulders; he grinned, shook his head. Then Gerrard fluttered over to her instrument of choice -- the yang ch'in, an ancient Chinese dulcimer -- and began to sing, in a rafter-raising alto that seemed to whirlwind up from within her. Perry played along, eyes closed, totally immersed in her siren song.
Today, Gerrard has a hard time recalling the beast-soothing incident. "Those sorts of things happen so often in this business, darling," she vamps in her best Norma Desmond voice. "Especially with the delicacy of the music we do, if something does go wrong onstage, point one: You're extremely tired; point two: You want nothing less than perfection; and point three: When you're working in a monitor situation -- which can sometimes be like the Twilight Zone -- it's completely different than what the audience is hearing out front. So when these things collectively fall to bits at one point, poor old Brendan, bless his heart, responds in the same way anyone else would."
In the 15 years Dead Can Dance has been together, Perry's compositions have gravitated toward earthy Middle Ages minstrelsy, while Gerrard (of Irish descent but raised in a Turkish suburb of Melbourne, Australia) has sailed of into the Middle Eastern clouds of late, her golden throat always a calming influence.
"I don't know if Brendan would agree with that," she giggles. "But definitely in the live situation, yes. In fact, that's an interesting point, because for the first time I'm working with material I've written myself, and I don't have Brendan there to take the bull by the horns, so to speak, because he was usually the one who takes on the high-pressure situations," she adds, referring to a current Perry-less tour in support of her lissome new solo release, The Mirror Pool (4AD).
In concert, Gerrard makes her unusual singing style seem nursery-rhyme simple. But the Mirror Pool repertoire -- some of which dates back seven years -- is deceptively complex, based not in the king's English, but in a mantric phonetic system that she believes to be "the language I was born with, not the one I learned to speak in -- I think it comes to all of us naturally, but we just don't care to do it."
Musically, the record blends bells, woodwinds, and synthesized orchestral pieces with a colorful array of ethnic instruments, like tablas, derabukkas, bouzouki, camel drums, and, of course, the vibraphonish yang ch'in. Vocally, too, Gerrard is all over the map, skimming rooftops with the grand guignol-styled "Violina: The Last Embrace," tumbling into throaty bellows for "La Bas: Song of the Drowned," a Huysmans-inspired tale of witchery, then swooping skyward for intimate interpretations of Handel's "Largo" and a traditional "Persian Love Song." Like Gerrard's best Dead Can Dance efforts, these numbers are hypnotic, simultaneously operatic and cutting edge.
Gerrard is unsure of her exact vocal range, but knows she can hit a high C if she uses "open-throat Bulgarian technique." "I use all kinds of techniques," she adds, "half of them, I couldn't even tell you what they were. I don't dwell too much on what's happening in the practical sense. I tend to be driven by something that motivates me from within the work, as opposed to technique. It's more a surrendering than a being in control."
"But the song form is a very powerful medium, and it's been there since the beginning of time," she continues in her curious Irish/Australian accent. "And it has the ability to bring us back to our beginning. It's ancestrally interesting to look back through time via different musics -- it helps you to understand the psyche, what people were experiencing at the time."
Pondering the pending millennium for a second, she adds, "But this time we're living in now is actually more interesting, because we're mixing cultures and different people are living together on different lands, especially in America. And people like myself are, in a way, starting a culture that's a mixture of many cultures, and re-finding the essential things that exist within other men."
Indeed, you never know which culture The Mirror Pool will access next. "La Bas" plugs into 19th-century France. "The Rite," a classic Grecian number, was taken from Gerrard's two-hour libretto for a 1991 production of Oedipus Rex. The surprising "Celon," which strings fluid, extended syllables together into a cryptic, almost sacrificial chant, is easily the spookiest song of the set.
"But it's not meant to be!" Gerrard moans. "I wrote that piece about two days before I went in to have my daughter. I wasn't feeling particularly happy at the time, though, as most pregnant women will know. And there's this weird thing that takes place, thinking about procreation, sex, and death -- you get very morbid just before you have a baby."
Lest fans get morbid musing the demise of Dead Can Dance, Gerrard stresses that the release is merely some downtime experimentation, like Perry's forthcoming solo project. "But I think there is a division in our work -- there always has been," she says, chuckling over the band's unlikely genesis. "When we first started working together years ago, we never intended on really working together. I was called in as an extra pair of hands needed to play a bit of syn-cussion or a drumbeat if the drummer didn't show up. I had no intention of working with [Perry] full time, because our music was so diverse. And he definitely wasn't that keen on what I was doing, either.
"It's funny -- we've learned so much from each other, and I can honestly say that the discipline in the work I do today, I've learned from Brendan. He's a very hard worker, and once he has a focus on something, he sees it through." Everything perhaps, but that one annoying concert number last year.
Lisa Gerrard plays Tues, Oct. 24, at the Palace of Fine Arts in S.F.; call 567-6642.
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