“I want to pour as much of myself into this very uncompromising, often quite ugly or scary human energy, and it’s so important to me.” – Aoife Barry talks experimental music and the catharsis of performance with Vicky Langan.
It was a drizzly Sunday afternoon. There was an imperious cat snoozing behind me in the blood-red kitchen, cups of camomile tea were steeping on the table and, in the room next door, a little girl and her bearded dad were watching Cinderella.
There’s always something different about interviewing a friend. You naively assume you know the answers to some of your questions already, while it’s also the perfect opportunity to put forward all those thoughts you would normally shy away from mentioning. I was in that womb-like room to speak with Vicky Langan, a long-time friend, musician and promoter who is steadily making her presence felt in the realm of experimental music, not just in Ireland, but further afield.
A few weeks before we met, the Galwegian had curated her final show in Cork (her home since the age of 17) under the Black Sun name. These experimental and weirdo music events had been running since May 2009, but Langan felt, after dedicating much energy and finances to the nights, that it was time to bring them to a close. She will continue putting on film events under the same name with collaborator Maximilian Le Cain.
But aside from promoting, Langan is a musician and performance artist whose live shows are raw and primal events that produce moments of electrifying catharsis. A clue is in the genesis of her performance name, Wölflinge (little wolf, or wolf cub), which was inspired by a series of terrifying dreams where she was attacked by wolves. The dreams came after she unexpectedly found herself pregnant with her now five-year-old daughter.
The aftermath of those dreams was her first time “waking up to a very real and powerful spirit inside myself”, she told me. It was something very plain and simple, “that very raw and human decision-maker, or something completely basic,” explained Langan. For her, that is the essence of Wölflinge: “It’s a very vulnerable and raw experience to both perform it and prepare for it.”
Each show is unique – “it’s really, really cathartic expression and I absolutely need it” – and to the audience can seem like a visceral unfolding of the spirit. “I get something, a really incredible feeling from being that open and honest and vulnerable in front of people, and knowing that something is being shared,” Langan acknowledged, draining her cup of tea. “That it can make people feel very uncomfortable; but I think ultimately when it works or when it really hits home to somebody, that everybody is just reset back to that very basic and sometimes very sad way of relating to people, or seeing people upset or going through something.”
At the beginning, she was always very private about performing, and very particular about doing it in the right space and the right frame of mind. It wasn’t until a solo gig in the former Black Mariah gallery on Cork’s Washington St that her own style began to emerge. Playing alongside First Blood Part II, Toby Kaar, Safe and others, it was a musically mixed event. “I always wanted to do something very strong and powerful and once-off for each thing,” she outlined. “So I thought, OK, I’m the only woman playing at this and everyone else’s set means they’ve got this gear and it’s a total head-down way of performing.” She wanted to push against this, and acknowledge the audience before her.
It was going to be about her music, and the audience – nothing more or less. She decided to perform using a foetal listening device, and the focus on corporeal sounds led to her think it was “silly” to perform while clothed. “It seemed very necessary that I be naked for this performance,” she explained, admitting that it was “a very scary thought” to perform nude in front of friends and peers. “But once I had that thought, it seemed so necessary that I was just able to go for it. I felt that it was a job that needed doing.”
That feeling keeps recurring for Langan, and it is this urge, this awareness of these “definite actions” that need to take place during her live shows, that makes them so compelling. Performances involve blood (sometimes unintentionally), or manure, or treacle, or raw meat; contact mics ensure every gasp or breath is amplified. There is a sense of ritualism that makes them feel like a pagan sacrament that you are being called upon to witness. It’s both private and utterly public at the same time. It is not always easy viewing or listening.
While her amplified heartbeat throbbed in the small, candle-lit Black Mariah space, Langan focused her unbroken eye contact with each audience member, one at a time. Her experiment was challenging for some. But it soon became open and communicative. “It felt like I had infinite conversations with them in that space and time. It really broke through something with every person that was there.”
Langan tries to keep things as simple as possible – you won’t see a laptop on the stage, but you will see pedals and instruments she has soldered herself. It fits in with the organic force she summons on stage. “I want to pour as much of myself into this very uncompromising, often quite ugly or scary human energy, and it’s so important to me.”
Though her performances sometimes involve full or partial nudity, said Langan: “The female or the woman-ness or anything like that, it’s never in my mind in the performance, it’s always just very intense emotion”. Audience reaction can vary: “There’s been a lot of interesting feedback but for some reason it’s often women who come marching up to me after a gig and thank me very emotionally for what they’ve seen.”
Langan is happy to bare herself for her performances – “I guess I’m really not afraid of all that much” – but does she consider this brave? “I can absolutely stand behind all the work that I’ve done and yeah, maybe brave is a word to describe a lot of it,” she acknowledged. “Somebody once commented that they find it quite upsetting seeing these performances because it’s very hard to separate the fact that it’s me in front of them, their friend, and I seem to always create these physical situations in the performance that are quite repetitive, and create these obstacles for myself and [am] trying to push through them.”
As dark as her sets can be, there is light too, with humour never letting desperation take over. Langan sees her live shows as “15 to 20 minutes of absolute honesty”. She feels completely alone on stage, and finds it therapeutic “to push myself into these difficult situations or positions”, but noted that it is hard to come down from this private place afterwards. “I feel very shy after a performance a lot of the time. It’s a scary thing.”
Coming from a free improv background, Langan connected with kindred spirits when playing violin (with a double bass bow) and other instruments in Eachtra, a six-piece chamber improvisational group. They met in UCC and initially played for themselves, but soon began sharing bills with acts like United Bible Studies. Langan – then 18 – ended up going on tour herself with the latter collective.
This was a transformative period for her. “My mind was suddenly introduced to experimental music and every day it felt like walls were just tumbling down in my head.” She read and listened voraciously. “It confused me, so I wanted to know more.”
When she met UBS, they were full of questions: “’You must have heard of so-and-so… you must be really into Tony Conrad, [the experimental violin player]’. And I hadn’t come across an awful lot of the people they were jabbering on about. So that’s where the real discovery began.”
Suddenly, she realised that what Eachtra were doing wasn’t completely radical or unique. “It was this amazing simultaneous feeling of being heartbroken that something you thought was totally our own special sound, that it had been done before but back in the 60s,” she remembered. “But it was so inspiring as well because there was so much out there that I couldn’t wait to know.”
Those years of discovering and uncovering music led to a passion for outsider and esoteric music, which in turn led to bringing bands she respected to play at Black Sun nights in Cork. Many got on board to help out, such as fellow musician and writer Paul Hegarty, Plugd Records, and Langan’s partner Dave Murphy. The decision to finish up the music side of Black Sun after three years was tough and sad, she said, “because I wasn’t able to continue financially anymore [and] it was taking an awful lot out of me energy-wise”.
But during its time, Black Sun’s hosting of acts like Jean Louis Costes, Daniel Higgs, Adam Bohman and Sudden Infant was refreshing for Cork. “I don’t think I ever would have assumed that people aren’t ready for this or they might not get it,” said Langan. “I knew that the acts that I wanted to see over here, that I’d do anything to see play over here, that they would… on some level they would without a doubt connect with every single person. That they would bewilder people and make people question things; make people laugh who weren’t expecting to laugh at an experimental music concert.”
Every gig was intense in its own way, and Langan described Black Sun’s spirit as one of “open curiosity”.
Looking back, it’s clear to see Black Sun had quite an impact beyond the city. “I was getting some really lovely messages from different people saying how much it meant to them and it had altered the way they felt about a lot of things,” said Langan. “For me, you know, I was completely moved and genuinely taken aback reading some of the stuff that was sent.”
Despite the challenges, it is a time for gratitude, but also for moving on. Her collaborative and solo performances can now take her focus, as can her film work. She described meeting experimental filmmaker Max le Cain as a turning point that instilled belief in what she was doing.
She may have stopped putting on music events for the moment, but there is no doubt that Langan will return to this again. “It’s just such a great feeling to see exciting stuff happen where you live and to share it with your friends and also with… I say ‘strangers’, but really just people you haven’t met yet,” said a contemplative Langan. “It’s such a rewarding feeling when it all comes together. It just feels the business.”
August: 12: Triskel Cork has invited Langan and Le Cain to work with them on programming a series of day-long experimental cinema events in Christchurch. For more, see: http://triskelartscentre.ie
October: Langan will perform as part of Meitheal (with David Colohan of Raising Holy Sparks and Mike Gangloff of Pelt) at the Tusk Festival in Newcastle Upon Tyne. http://tuskfestival.com/artists/meitheal/
November/December 2012: Wölflinge will play at Extreme Rituals: A Schimpfluch Carnival in Bristol