Marlon Williams and Tanya Tagaq show us different shades of darkness

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Two very different Dark Mofo performances force us to confront what scares us most.

It’s not likely anyone has ever really had reason to compare the experimental throat singing squall of celebrated avant-garde Inuk musician Tanya Tagaq and New Zealand alt-country heartthrob crooner Marlon Williams.

But, when both artists went back-to-back at Hobart’s Odeon Theatre as a part of Dark Mofo this week, it brought an opportunity to ruminate on darkness in music and the very different ways these two artists use it in their work.

Tanya Tagaq seemed meek in her friendly opening remarks to the audience, but, when her performance began, she very quickly unleashed, becoming an utterly ferocious performer.

The entire performance, which was largely improvised, felt like a masterclass in the avant-garde. The three key performers - Tagaq, drummer Jean Martin and violinist Jesse Zubot - directed the energy in the room with finesse. Beautiful moments of sparsity naturally built to squalling blasts of noise.

Tagaq’s vocal manipulations, based on traditional throat singing, had her sounding gleeful, terrified, furious and inquisitive. She breaks down in tears during one passage, she speaks just once, during ‘Retribution’, but she commands the stage and won’t let our attention waver.

I almost forgot to mention the 34-piece choir that backed her for the entire performance, because at times we forgot they were there. So incendiary was the performance, that their physical presence meant nothing. Their parts were scarce, but brought a whole different shade of grandiosity to the perfromance that proved hugely powerful.

Marlon Williams offered something completely different; up against Tagaq the singer seemed positively spritely.

But the New Zealand singer deals at length with perhaps the darkest human experience of all, heartbreak. After all, isn’t that the one thing we all fear most?

The jealousy that seeps through each line of the brilliant ‘Can I Call You’, the utter resignation of ‘Nobody Gets What They Want Anymore’, which Williams wrote as a duet with his ex-girlfriend Aldous Harding and the self-explanatory ‘Love Is A Terrible Thing’ all dodge the rosiness of love and go straight for the difficult, uncomfortable bits.

The hard thing about love is that it has to burn all the time,’ he sings in ‘Beautiful Dress’. If you’ve never been in a doomed relationship, then that’s just another line. If you remember heartbreak, it’s a sage one. If you are in the middle of a crumbling romance, it'd be nearly impossible to handle.

Objectively, Tagaq’s performance was undoubtedly ‘darker’. The sheer intensity of the noise emanating from the stage and the unpredictable nature of the performance, not to mention the screaming, the crying and the guttural roars, made it so.

But if you were in a certain frame of mind, if you brought a certain recent lived experience to Williams’ show, nothing would cut deeper. 

Which led me to reconsider something Dark Mofo Creative Director Leigh Carmichael said last week amid the controversy that surrounded the inverted crosses that have been around Hobart for Dark Mofo this year.

“While we respect and understand different interpretations, we cannot be responsible for attitudes that people bring to the festival.”

What’s darkest to some seem innocuous to others.

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