Acclaimed electronic composer and performance artist releases most personal work to date By Stuart Rolt.
“I think I’m just one of those people who likes to know how we did things before all the mundane, everyday technology we live with.” Elizabeth Bernholz, the face behind pioneering multi-disciplinary electronic artist Gazelle Twin is determined to understand how society deals with common emotions and experiences. “Folk culture tells you what the mindset was at that time in those places and communities. Their collective fears for example. And how those fears become articulated in culture, music and costume. That’s my template for everything I do. If I was living in a pagan community, and we were scared of this thing; what would it look and sound like? How would we cope with it?” She describes humanity’s fondness for ritual as being a form of confrontation and control. This habit can be found throughout civilization, as art and observances seek to make sense of a mysterious world.
The need to quantify and explain the most fundamental of human responses rampages through much of Gazelle Twin’s new long-player, Black Dog. With that title we could justifiably conclude it addresses the spectrum of depression. But the work’s core themes might draw from a more supernatural place. “What I started out with was an idea of making an album about ghosts. That was in 2019, on the last show of my tour. I didn’t know where that was going to take me, but usually the way I make albums is I start with a theme that I can’t escape.” Like most of us, the following two years offered a range of different experiences and emotions.
She started exploring memories of seeing a black dog in her parents’ bedroom. Describing it as some sort of shadow, she says it never caused her to be afraid but still can’t explain what caused the apparition. “I didn’t know until I was older that there was a bit more to it. Other members of the family had seen it. There was this whole strange history which captivated me.” The project evolved into more of a personal journey through the fears and anxieties which have been with her since childhood. She describes her creative process as being like making a film, pulling together a mass of research and establishing a world to inhabit before any actual music is composed. The resulting object is packed with double meanings and open-ended stories, with themes evolving or doubling back at every turn. “It’s quite similar to haunting, the way depression comes in loops and doesn’t really leave you.”
Sonically, many tracks on Black Dog sound like a séance, with Bernholz assuming the role of a medium attempting to break into a different realm, while certain things push back from the other side. “That’s sort of what I do… as Gazelle Twin anyway… a vessel that sends different messages and narratives. This was just a more literal version of that. There are loads of things connected with spiritualists. They’re cliches really, but I’m really interested in them. At face value and in terms of what they meant and were trying to do.” With so many strands going into the record, she didn’t realise where the recordings had been subconsciously taking her until much later. There are undoubtedly some themes coming through which explore emergent electronic music technology and its indelible connections to the Victorian spiritualist movement, along with why there were so many spiritualist mediums who were women.
There’s been a slight development in her craft with Black Dog. While previous albums have dealt with looking at the complex nature of England’s heritage and collective perspectives, this new work sees more of her own experiences projected out. Becoming a parent during lockdown has certainly had an impact, as Bernholz adapts to a new set of responsibilities and amenities. Obviously, the experience also takes you back to your own childhood and the issues which may not have been properly processed back then. “There was quite an urgent need to create something which made some kind of sense of it. I don’t know if it’s a shift, or if I’m operating in exactly the same world I always have been. If anything, this is the most cinematically influenced album I’ve made.”
While Black Dog might summon the unseen malevolence occasionally keeping us scared and alone under the night time’s bed covers, there’s no dispute that her music is expensive and alluring. Its expansive use of layering, clashing together the familiar and the angular, makes it perfect material for the make-believe worlds of film and TV. Gazelle Twin recently composed the soundtrack for Sky’s critically-acclaimed euro-thriller, Then You Run. It follows a group of young friends travelling to Rotterdam, who subsequently become involved in a brutal criminal enterprise. This startlingly original series draws much of its raw energy from the performances, slick editing and Bernholz’s dynamic and innovative score. “I got to do my own thing really. It uses music from my 2014 album, Unflesh, and some more recent ones. I also got to score in my own style around that, which was a mixture of horror and teen dark comedy. It was a brilliant one for me to work on.” Producers always had her music in mind for the show as it aligned with their ambition to create something vibrant, punchy and stylish.
Her studio process involves a blend of computer-based synthesis and analogue instruments. For this album there was access to a theremin, and the Moog Studio Lab; an assemblage of classic mythicizers. “I had sessions which I sampled, and used these gnarly sounds on my DAW. I often use my voice to build synths in Ableton. I never want to be stuck in one place. I like to have real sounds and vocals, so they’re not digital clean things. I like there to be a bit of a mess and a bit of ‘real person’ in there.” There was also a foray in deploying string arrangement. Alexander Painter, a fellow member of Brighton’s Anti-Ghost Moon Ray collective, provided some ethereal cello work for several tracks. This took the form of drones, along with rising and dropping noises which only add to the spooky atmospherics.
Perhaps most interesting, samples were lifted from an old cassette tape of her sister playing piano. “It’s from before I was born, in the mid-70s. There was just this amazing tape, with my late grandparents in the background and this tinkly piano. I used that on a few tracks for the album, just to have that crazy thing where you have the acoustics of your childhood home.” This house also features on the album’s artwork, with many of the songs referencing growing up there in their endless kaleidoscope looping. The echoes of the past theme often became even more literal, with discarded songs surviving as brief samples hidden away in the mix. “I really wanted to carry on that idea of haunting as far as it will go.”
While this album was more concerned about story and narrative, the Gazelle Twin output gives equal importance to music and performance. Bernholz is now preparing for a string of live shows, including a visit to Brighton’s Attenborough Centre For The Creative Arts on Fri 24 Nov. “I hate the word ‘theatrical’ and all it conjures, but this show is more like going to see a film or play. There’s a whole visual element.” She’s working with visual designer Danial Conway on creating wonderful live video feedback effects. These are being combined with projections and atmospheric lighting to create an immersive séance environment. She admits to subverting some familiar spooky staging but the show promises to offer something unusual within the performance which makes the audience feel they’re entering a different, dream-like world.
“Sometimes when I make albums, the persona becomes one of the first things before any music. Maybe I should have been a filmmaker or something. Often, the way I do it is not always about the music.” Bernholz cites Bowie as a huge influence particularly in the sense of his live performance and how she presents herself. There’s also much love for the unorthodox output of singer-songwriter Scott Walker. “There’s these people who have this presence… who are singing about quite complex, psychological things.”
Like both of those artists, Gazelle Twin is telling a story which is ultimately a version of Bernholz’s own personality. Walker in particular was cinematically expansive, while managing to remain abstract and strange. “He had this really big 60’s voice but was singing without an orchestra. He was just a real, believable powerhouse artist. Bowie was a bit more playful. He had more of a sense of humour, and I love that.”
The ACCA show also sees Bernholz return to her alma mater, having studied music at Sussex in 2006. She’s developed a great relationship with the venue, with them giving her time to develop work in their superb performance space. There remains other ties to the university, with its Music Technology department now offering the Gazelle Twin Scholarship for Women. Intended to address a profound imbalance in the industry, it came after several seminars covering her own career. “I learnt how to produce on my first record, it became a necessity. So, I do wish I’d taken that route sooner.”
She says more women are becoming involved with the production side of music, but it can still be exclusive. “While a lot of women want to be involved in it, there is a fear. It can be very cliquey. Anything technological like that tends to lean towards one gender. It’s funny really, because when you look back at the greats of early electronic music, like Delia Derbyshire and Daphne Oram, there were a lot of women doing this. They were doing it by themselves.” These two pioneers were mainstays of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, a unit established to provide sound effects for radio drama which evolved into creating experimental music.
“They were technically minded and massively progressed everything. It’s kind of bizarre that it wasn’t that long ago and things have shifted so quickly into a male dominated industry. It’s starting to change and technology helps that, by shifting what’s available away from institutions and clubs. People can just do it themselves. There are some really amazing people out there who are sharing their skills, and teaming up with other women who want to learn and make that environment more welcoming.”
While developing her own set studio techniques, Bernholz says she’s reluctant to become too obsessive about how everything sounds. “I’m sure there are people who are audiophiles who will have stuff to say about it, but for me it’s about the ideas. So much of the production side is secondary. I appreciate incredibly produced music, because that is an artform; but I try not to get bogged down in that. I don’t go over my tracks and painstakingly smooth things out.” She says she’s comfortable leaving in small mistakes, believing the small glitches are what makes music sound unique. That’s the danger when we live in such a digital world, that things start to sound artificial.”
While it’s all down to personal taste, she says people becoming involved with music technology often feel they’ve got to live up to something. Which might be something else putting others from getting into the industry. “I made my first record as a demo and thought it didn’t sound good enough, because I hadn’t worked with a producer who sorted it all out and made it like a professional record. Over time, I came to see the songs are still good and it sounds OK. I still grew a career from that point. I could have easily not done that. But that is what makes things interesting – what happens naturally. In all art forms. Making mistakes, and those mistakes becoming part of their identity.”
Gazelle Twin comes to Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts on Fri 24 Nov. Her new album, Black Dog, is available now, via Invada Records.
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