In December 2018 electronic drone choir NYX and performance artist Gazelle Twin collaborated for the first time at London's Oval Space, exploring themes of anxiety in post-truth Britain through murmured voice and operatic chorus.
NYX are an all female choir with a mission to reshape the role of the traditional choir, instead working with live electronics to manipulate and experiment with the possibilites of the female voice. Seeing this collective voice as an instrument, the choir navigate the realms of both organic and synthetic sound, something Gazelle Twin also explores through her musical practice.
Real name Elizabeth Bernholz, composer and live performer Gazelle Twin merges traditional and contemporary influences, particularly on her most recent album Pastoral. Working with instruments like recorders and harpsichords run through electronics, she creates a musical tapestry which harks back to the past whilst also probing and disseminating the subject of Brexit.
On Wednesday 20 November they meet again at Queen Elizabeth Hall, as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival, to expand on the themes in last year's first performance. In the run up, NYX composer and music director Sian O'Gorman and Gazelle Twin quiz one another on singing processes, what their individual musical pursuits mean to them and how music can influence change...
NYX: To what extent can music have an influence on the world in 2019?
Gazelle Twin: I don’t think the influence of music on people can ever change, no matter what happens to us and our planet. It’s part of us, it’s in us and we need to feed on it. It changed my life, I’ve had the absolute life-affirming honour of having people tell me that my music has changed theirs. What more can we ask?!
NYX: What is your relationship to spiritual music?
Gazelle Twin: I need music like food. I need it to function, and I need to soothe myself when I’m anxious, whether it’s whilst travelling, or after a tough day. I use it to calm my little boy who has quite extreme mood swings. This is usually music which I listened to when I was a teenager, mostly choral music. Choral music, at least certain compositions, have a power to allow travel into a sense of nothingness, not a bad nothingness, a beautiful nothingness. A weightlessness. It’s very very hard to describe, but this is the essence of how music allows me to feel attuned to something vast and timeless.
NYX: When you perform live, how much of yourself is coming through your voice and how much is the characters that you are portraying?
Gazelle Twin: I would say it’s all me in there really. I imitate people, I enjoy “acting” as characters and voices, I enjoy being a bit of a fool and provoking a response. I also really enjoy being aggressive and going mental on stage. There aren’t many places that allow that to happen in an acceptable setting, for a 30-something middle-class white woman. Also, when you’re only drawing on one’s own identity and experiences, well, that has its limits. Not being linked with any one identity means I can go anywhere with it.
NYX: In what ways has being a female artist defined the character and career of Gazelle Twin?
Gazelle Twin: Being a female musician, generated experiences which made me turn my back on my original, fairly vain ambitions to be a composer/performing artist. There’s this requirement to be like a model, fashionable, but fresh and individual, all these pressures at every turn of the industry. I was so happy to leave it all behind, and do the opposite, make myself as uncool, unattractive and visceral and mad as I could muster. I’ve never looked back, and I’ve never felt compelled to start changing that. There have been a few shows I’ve done with my face revealed, one recently where I wore a sort of futuristic Nun’s habit, I always have to make sure that there’s an element that is not the norm.
NYX: Can you describe your ideal environment to create music in?
Gazelle Twin: I actually mostly create alone, even when collaborating. I enjoy my own space to make noise and crazy mess in. It needs to be quiet though. If there’s any noise other than that I am making, I can’t achieve anything.
NYX: Outside of music, what art forms inspire you the most?
Gazelle Twin: I enjoy anything that takes me far away from my comfort zone and into a deep, immersive place. I get major kicks from weird films, also installation art by artists like Mike Nelson, Mark Leckey, Gregor Schneider, Jordan Wolfson, Patricia Piccinnini etc. I also really enjoy playing video games.
NYX: What species is this? ;)
Gazelle Twin: Fuck knows!
Gazelle Twin: What’s your most memorable performance?
NYX: Our first performance with Iona Fortune at the Pickle Factory last year. It was our third ever show (the first two being with Hatis Noit and of course yourself as part of the same series!), and it felt like a huge shift in confidence and musicality was being made by all of us in that moment. Shireen, who before this project had never sung in a public environment, just seemed to come out of nowhere with this ancient, powerful voice, and it took all of my strength not to break down in tears at the sheer proud friend feelings that were taking over me beside her. Everything seemed to really weave seamlessly together and each singer was just in an incredible space with their voices and their energy! And that’s been present in every show we’ve done, but it really sticks out as a powerful memory to me, that particular gig.
Gazelle Twin: What power do you believe singing possesses, especially as a choir/group?
NYX: Singing in a group can conjure the power to transcend the barriers of the individual and enter the zone of becoming more than the sum of our individual parts. When the music is in flow, when voices are blending in states of vibrant harmony (or a lovely bright disharmony), when every singer is pouring their soul out into that musical cauldron, I honestly don’t think there is anything I've experienced that tops that. It resonates with people on a cellular level - for a moment they are part of something bigger than themselves’. And in that power is the knowledge that your voice, no matter how big or small, makes a difference - it is a necessary part of the overall shape of the sound. It’s real life magic, and ANYONE can do it.
Gazelle Twin: What does NYX mean to you as a singer and composer?
NYX: NYX for me is a beautiful experiment in how to evolve, create and flow with the people you love. I really love to compose and arrange music on my own, to experiment with voices and effects in a tiny quiet space (preferably out in the woods, far away from anyone). When I then go to send it to my creative team (Philippa and Josh), and then onto the girls to expand out into their own voices and vocal ideas - that part for me is terrifying. It preys on all my fears of “oh, is this good enough?”, “what if it doesn’t work in real life?”, “what if they don’t love it??”, and that is so important to me, too push through those fears and do it anyway. And NYX provides me the space for this - its a constant work in progress and we hold that space for each other, to fly and to fall.
Gazelle Twin: Is there a piece of vocal music from any point in history that is especially important/meaningful for you?
NYX: There are honestly so many to choose from, but what first comes to mind are the Masses for 3 / 4 / 5 voices by William Byrd. I used to absolutely annihilate a CD I had of them on my discman as a teenager. And the reason why I loved it was because it was perfect. The soaring vocal lines all woven together in these lush resonant harmonies - the suspense and release in the cadences, it is just sonic heaven to me. And its funny because its now that type of harmonic perfection I am trying to let go of on a day to day basis - my interest is becoming more focused on the glories of imperfection and chaos…But ask anyone in the choir what gets me the most riled up and it's always pitching and the aim to push perfect tuning. So for that, I blame Byrd ;)
Gazelle Twin: How do you find being a musician in the UK right now?
NYX: For us it's the perfect climate to be making the music we’re making in the way that we’re making it. There is a strong interest a’brewin’ in the collective vocal power of women, and people are really getting something from attending our shows. Philippa and Josh are paving new roads in creative producing / and what the music experience can be - getting funding and real support from incredible places like Help Musicians UK & the Arts Council, setting up our own record label, collaborating with multi sensory artists, expanding our collective to include community workshops, opening ourselves up to collaborating and celebrating fellow female / non-binary artists - this is our way of evolving music making, and it is helping to develop our musical skills beyond singing.
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