by Joseph Burnett
The term grand guignol, taken from a notorious Parisian theatre that ran from 1897 to 1962, once meant a form of horror play or film that was naturalistic to the point of ferocious realism. However, as methods for terrorizing audiences evolved, either into nuanced suggestion (intriguingly at the hands of French filmmaker Jacques Tourneur, whose technique can be seen as anti-grand guignol) or buckets of gore and blood, the term has slowly evolved, taken nowadays to mean a horror style that is over-the-top, slyly humorous and, at its worst, somewhat camp. French composer Ghédalia Tazartès clearly doesn’t care if grand guignol is viewed thus. When I saw him perform at London’s Café Oto about five years ago, live soundtracking the pioneering horror film Häxan, he did so with a permanent grin on his face, even as the sounds he produced suggested menace and fear.
For Schulevy Maker, another Café Oto live performance, this time from 2013, Tazartès paired himself with remarkable composer and singer Maya Dunietz, who reveals herself to be a perfect foil for the cult master. Like him, she likes to use her voice to unseemly purposes, and composes using non-traditional instruments as often as those one might expect. The single piece that makes up Schulevy Maker (split across two sides of vinyl, to be released September 25 on Holotype Editions) is a creation in permanent flux, shifting and shuddering as the whims of the two musicians dictate. What’s perhaps most remarkable is how the duo manages to keep in sync throughout. In lesser hands, chaos could have erupted and, though I’m sure both Dunietz and Tazartès would have relished that, they’re too talented for such an occurrence to be possible.
With a gravelly rumble, Ghédalia Tazartès gets the dank ritual that is Schulevy Maker underway, his rumbling vocalizations (throughout the album, both he and Dunietz sing what are clearly words, but not in any language I recognize) immediately pitching proceedings into abyssal darkness. There are hints of Tuvan throat singing, or the mantras of Russian band Phurpa, in his delivery, but Tazartès never lingers unduly over the vocals. They are instead part of a broader tapestry, which explodes into focus at the end of this first vocal rumble with a series of seesawing string drones and industrial shrieks, over which he is joined by Dunietz’s high-pitched ululations. Both vocalists share an impressive ability to shift pitch and timbre seemingly at ease, with Dunietz at one point dragging her vocals downwards to release a series of gruff barks and huffs, whilst Tazartès soars from low bass growl to mournful countertenor in response. These strange chants, which shift from call-and-response to mutated harmonies, form the backbone of the album, creating an elusive narrative to drive the performance’s evolution.
If the vocals are the driver for Schulevy Maker, they are bolstered by a dizzying palette of instruments, performed either live or via computer. After the initial blizzard of dark noises and string stabs fades away, a startling drum machine beat kicks in under what sounds like a mixture of accordion and steel drums. This unexpected carnival atmosphere may seem like a burst of light in an otherwise sombre adventure, but with the two singers continuing their strange vocalizations, it feels more like the soundtrack to Ray Bradbury’s circus horror novel Something Wicked This Way Comes than a moment of celebration. The first segment does conclude with a duo of harp and flute that at least injects calm into the proceedings, but it’s short-lived, as a blaze of harsh noise, accompanied by chiming bells and Tazartès’ grim reaper growl, quickly takes over. The album then proceeds to get darker and darker, with strings, singing bowls, grandiose operatic percussion, digital effects and even harmonica all coalescing together in service of Dunietz and Tazartès’ ever-shifting vocalizations. There’s a moment at the close of the first part when the harmonica blares out a morose blues motif as Prurient-style harsh noise crashes around it and Maya Dunietz launches into a baleful howl that is truly terrifying.
And yet, it’s hard not to see beyond such ritualised, horrific drama to the theatrical bloodstream below. First and foremost, Schulevy Maker is a performance, and a fine one at that. The album’s title is a playful distortion of the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet, which collided with Jupiter in 1994. Does this reference come up much on the album? Not really, although no doubt it’s in there somewhere. Like the best grand guignol cinema, such as Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, there’s a grotesque, overblown side to Schulevy Maker, one that is driven by the sardonic humour both artists clearly display. And yet, again like the best grand guignol cinema, the sly grins and deliberate theatricality are in service to something serious: a love for boundary-pushing art and the challenging of audiences and listeners. It’s what allows Maya Dunietz and Ghédalia Tazartès to transcend genre archetypes for the album’s duration, revealing something that is certainly odd and unsettling, but also fresh and exciting.
Stream excerpts from Schulevy Maker: