“A damsel with a dulcimer/In a vision once I saw… Could I revive within me/Her symphony and song/To such a deep delight ‘twould win me/That with music loud and long/I would build that dome in air/That sunny dome! Those caves of ice!”
When Samuel Taylor Coleridge tried to capture his dream of an Abyssinian maid on her dulcimer on paper, the result was Kubla Khan, one of literature’s most evocative pieces of poetry and yet a declaration of failure. If Coleridge could describe his dreams as vividly as they came to him, the poem argued, then he would ascend to almost superhuman status: “Beware! Beware! His flashing eyes, his floating hair!”
Riga’s Elizabete Balčus knows how STC felt. Ten years ago, as a Latvian music school flautist alumni who “didn’t like to play scores” so joined a band instead, she had her own overnight epiphany. “I remember there was a dream in which I heard music, and that was a push for me to create,” she says of the night she realised that improvising the sounds of her subconscious was the way forward. “I heard very, very beautiful music, there was an orchestra, elegant strings and harps. I try to recreate that dream in my music but it’s not so easy.”
Judging by her debut album Conarium, it must’ve been a pretty amazing dream. Here are thirteen avant garde dream-snippets that weave bewitchingly between classical chamber music and ultra-modern electronica, a collection suggesting that Elizabete’s standard stress dream involves Bjork chasing Sufjan Stevens, Grimes and Anna Calvi back and forth across a gigantic synthesiser keyboard, occasionally beating them about the head with a blunt flute wrapped in chrysanthemums.
It’s a far cry from her earliest solo material, the 2011 ‘Wooden Horse’ EP. “I don’t like it,” Elizabete says. “It was my first recording, I was very young and it’s a very naïve recording. It’s about my first love and it has nothing to do with my life right now.” These days, you’re more like to find her playing flute at the head of a catwalk parade of comedia dell’arte sci-fi mime Popes, or dressed as an art angel in black leotard and hat plastered with rubber gloves, wandering a stage adorned with loop pedals and synthesisers made of fruit and veg. “When I touch the food, out comes the sound,” she giggles, “I bought it in England. For me, music is an art form, it is art. My shows are more like performing arts, it’s not like a usual band playing music. I’m wearing my music. It’s a visual manifestation of my music.”
And when you’re up there looping flutes, clashing genres and squeezing tunes out of radishes onstage, how do audiences generally respond? “If it’s an art festival then it fits, but if it’s a music festival then people don’t get it. They don’t understand what I’m doing, why I’m wearing a big hat, like am I crazy or what?”
If Elizabete treads the fine line between visionary art terrorist and certifiable nutso in a crown made of surgical waste, she makes it sound utterly beguiling. Opener ‘Out’ is an Elizabethan chamber pop beauty brushed with butterfly beats. ‘Tourist’ is the sound of Cate Le Bon getting her hands on the first draft of a 1812 Skylark Sonata and dropping in forboding minor key notes and brooding synth bits to mess it up. ‘The Hanging Garden’ is a delightfully cranky shimmer of a song about a Biblical Babylonian king and his cheating wife, and ‘Jellyfish’ is sheer electro-glitch-jazz oddness that “came from somewhere between dream and reality… It’s two opposite sides of me speaking, a bad one and a good one.” It certainly reflects the album’s title: Conarium is both Latin for the gland in the brain that exudes hallucinogenic chemicals at birth and death and also a type of jellyfish with its head on upside down.
“A lot of stories come from my dreams, I’m trying to figure out what my dreams mean,” Elizabete says, and hence ‘Conarium’ - which comes complete with a 20-page booklet of Elizabete’s art - takes on a deeply surreal and revealing psychodramatic context. So the creeping ‘They’re Coming’ has the feel of being stalked through your dreams, Kruger-style, by a “bad person”, while the gentle future soul of ‘Luna City’ is Elizabete’s name for her own personal Dark Place. “I was a bit depressed I guess,” she explains, “and I have a feeling that Luna City is a place where I’ve been for a long time and I have to move on and come back to this world from there.”
Hold a minute there, Elizabete, we’re enjoying our time in your world. It’s a place, clearly, where you can dine on honey-dew and drink the milk of Paradise.
Elizabete Balčus plays Tallinn Music Week on Saturday 7 April at the Russian theatre at 20:30
Words: Steven Kline