Performing the Sounds of Darkness: An Exploratory Discussion of Musical Instruments and the Gothic Aesthetic

Will Connor 

Gothic subculture is an extremely broad term used to describe the community of people who embrace a wide range of popular culture, that exhibits a particular set of traits. The popular culture considered Gothic, consisting of media, fashion, literature, and more, encompasses a plethora of styles and contains within itself multiple subsets of groups, all unique and varied. Despite the inherent variety among the subsets, the traits that associate any given group or cultural event, product, or work with “the Gothic” retain a high level of consistency. Some of the more prominent attributes (despite their potential to be vague and difficult to define succinctly) are darkness, bleakness, romantic tragedy or romantic survival in spite of tragedy, associations with the supernatural or the inexplicable. Obviously, this is a very truncated list, and the Gothic community certainly possess many other traits (for instance, Gothic studies scholar Micah Issitt states creativity, imaginativeness, and humor would also fall within the realm of Goth culture[1]), but the underlying, uniting sensibility within the Gothic subculture is the ability to find beauty in the dark and disturbing[2]. I would even go further and suggest that embracing death as an integral part of life, be that positive or negative, is also essential[3].

These sensibilities valued by the members of the Gothic community have developed dialectically with the culture with which it is associated, and a portion of the influential culture (Gothic literature and film, primarily) was cultivated prior to the Gothic subculture emerging and establishing itself beyond a mere trend[4], but Issitt points out that the formulation and solidification of today’s Gothic community was and is heavily reliant on its own music scene[5]. Music within popular Gothic culture is often described as also possessing the same defining traits. There is, of course, a broad spectrum of Gothic music spanning various styles. However, Goth bands, film soundtracks, audiobook backing music, the current trend in drama to present Gothic-influenced theatre, and even Gothic websites, video games, and art installations all seem to be recognized as Gothic through these associations, disregarding the tremendous differences between the specific composition of the music and how it is presented.

What, then, makes music Gothic? Van Elferen presents an extensive and definitive initial study in her book Goth Music: Sounds of the Uncanny[6], clearly explaining the ways in which the Gothic imagination and connected aesthetics work dialectically to unify various types of music presentation to form the cannon of Gothic music composition and performance, and her arguments are sound and fascinating, thus I have no intention of rehashing (beyond the brief introduction below) or challenging them here. Instead, what I hope to achieve with this paper is to point out that it can also be said that, in part, it is the musical instruments involved that assist in constructing, maintaining, and propelling the concepts of the Gothic aesthetic through various performative aspects, including both sonic and visual elements and a network of associations that link the instruments to the Gothic community and subcultural values.

To better understand the specific aesthetics musical instruments are employed to perpetuate, it is useful to present a short overview of the development of Gothic music (again, see van Elferen for a more detailed discussion[7]). Jerrentrup writes that the emergence of the Gothic popular culture scene and the subsequent development of Gothic music was a product of a split in the punk rock scene between community members circa the late 1970s, specifically those members who valued an anarchist attitude and those members who valued a subversive, education-based approach to rebellion[8] (each in reaction to current affairs, primarily in the United Kingdom, and soon to follow in the United States). Musically, this lead to the Anarchist Punk music movement, led by bands like the Sex Pistols, and to the Noble Punk movement that eventually was labelled Goth music by members of the press and some of the band’s managers when referring to bands like Suzie and Banshees, Joy Division, The Damned, and 45 Grave. The development of Gothic music from that point onwards cultivated a specific style that has been both constantly evolving, and simultaneously consistent in the traits embraced within the styles that emerged.

The spectrum of Gothic music today spans from Gothic “trad” rock (short for traditional, meaning styles of rock employed by the bands who first were deemed part of the Gothic scene), to Goth metal, Neo-Medievalist Goth, Electro-Goth, Dark Ambient Soundscapes, Industrial Noise, Classical/Romantic period Influenced composition, and a variety of combinations of these styles that fall in between, with new styles emerging constantly. These styles, however diverse, still maintain traits of the Gothic aesthetic through many factors, including compositional choices, visual reinforcement, and sonic-based semiotics, and they do so, in part, through the musical instruments on which the music is performed.

Aesthetics and associations from Gothic literature published in the late 1800s and the following horror and pulp fiction published up through the 1940s (which has now developed its own movements and styles, which continues to feed into the contemporary Gothic aesthetic), and subsequent Gothic film releases (such as “monster movies” released by Universal Studios based on Gothic literature or presenting stories in the same vein, including Dracula, Frankenstein, Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Mole People, and many others) have provided a rich source of influential material for Gothic music (and the subculture in general). Many stories from the body of Gothic literature include subject matter that links to the spiritual or magical (or to use the term van Elferen cites regularly, spectral[9]), relaying tales that evoke mystery or unimaginable horror; impart a sense of eternity or longevity (or the reverse, meaning a truncation of what should be eternal); and love beyond the grave or connections between characters that spans life and death (similar to the theme of longevity or eternity, but with a specific emphasis on the romantic). There are many superb works about Gothic writings which explain their traits, background, and development in far greater detail (i.e.: Punter and Byron[10]), so I will not expound further here, but I should point out three of the main associations upheld by the Gothic community that translates directly and indirectly to musical instruments chosen to be incorporated into Gothic music (and some of the techniques used to play them): associations with the exotic or unknown; associations with historical, ancient, or folk culture; and associations that evoke nostalgia or the romantic, all of which often take on a melancholy, grim, or horrific air.

How do musical instruments, then, evoke these emotions or assist in creating these associations? It certainly cannot be said that standard rock instruments be categorized as Gothic simply because they are being used within a Gothic music setting. By taking a closer look at some atypical or non-rock musical instrumentation being used in some subsets of Gothic music, a potential distinction arises that can, perhaps, point out more decisively how instruments used in various genres can be seen as being more Gothic and become accepted, and even iconic within certain circles of the Gothic community.

Lovecraftian Fear and Unfamiliar Sounds

As van Elferen discusses at length, Gothic music is strongly associated with Gothic literature, primarily via a sense of style that evokes the elements inherent in both forms of expression[11]. Gothic literature is an extensive subject that has many subsets, as does Gothic music, but as mentioned above, there is a unification of the written media through the common aesthetics and narrative elements found somewhat consistently throughout the body of works. Specific examples, therefore, can be made of any particular subset, and here I will address the use of musical instruments in the context of Lovecraftian Mythos horror, a subset of Gothic literature made popular by American writer Howard Philips Lovecraft, considered by some to be the “grandfather of modern horror”, and other pulp fiction and Gothic writers who drew from his original works and style.

As mentioned above, the Gothic music spectrum is not limited to rock or dance forms, nor is it restricted to performance settings that demand a concert, festival, or nightclub venue to present the music. Film soundtracks, video games, art installations, and theatre sound design can also be valid mediums for presenting Gothic music when the focus of the narrative or creative endeavor is deemed Gothic or Goth-related (by the creator of a work or the body of peers engaging with the work). The works, then presumably would possess traits accepted as encompassing elements of the Gothic aesthetic for the work to be considered Gothic by the community of peers, and would attempt to include musical composition or performance that reinforces these aesthetics by employing instrumentation that would afford recognizable support. One specific example (and certainly, by no means is it the only example), is the use of experimental instrumentation in Dread Falls Theatre’s production of Father Dagon.

soundsofdarkness1 Figure 1: A half human, half fish creature from Dread Falls Theatre’s immersive Gothic play Father Dagon ©2015 Sarah Koury

Father Dagon is an immersive theatre piece written and directed by Victoria Snaith, owner of Dread Falls Theatre. The company is known for their Gothic, Steampunk, and Folklore/Fairytale related presentations[12] and Father Dagon is no exception. The piece that was recently toured throughout the U.K. is based on the works of horror writer H. P. Lovecraft, in particular, his Innsmouth cycle of stories, that tells of a small fishing village inhabited by cultists who worship an ancient sea god called Dagon. In the stories, so as to worship their god more fully, some of the cultists have undertaken a supernatural transformation to become half human, half fish creatures. Outsiders who discover Innsmouth’s secret either go insane, get killed, or join the cult, often undergoing this horrific transformation (typically, as a result of a romantic encounter with one of the cultists). The play not only covers all of these story lines within the show, but also is set in spaces converted into full-scale surreal environments where the audience, instead of sitting comfortably in seats during the performance, move freely within the set, with the ability to roam and experience the village, actors, and music firsthand, as if they are newcomers to Innsmouth and can see the characters’ tales unfold around them.

Snaith chose to include live musicians along with the general backing soundtrack to create what she considers a more intense experience for Father Dagon’s audience[13]. She states that she based her aesthetic decisions on Lovecraft’s own Gothic mentalities, citing one of his more famous quotes as inspiration[14]: “The oldest and strongest of Man’s emotions is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”[15]

Her approach to accomplish embracing Lovecraft’s sensibility of fear and the unknown through music is to have the live musicians improvise with homemade instruments or use extended techniques on more conventional instruments to create a sonic elements consisting of sounds with which the audience would be unfamiliar. (In addition, the musicians react to and influence acting and motion by the other performers, as well as they relocate at points during the show, and sometimes, conceal their instruments; all of which can assist in building the sense of unfamiliarity that Snaith seeks[16].) The unfamiliarity, too, can serve to support the parts of the narrative that contains supernatural and monstrous aspects. Given that the elements of the supernatural and horrible monsters in Lovecraftian tales are primarily indescribable (both because Lovecraft would recount beasts and fantastic magical happenings in his works as being such, and because in a practical theatrical situation, these things would be impossible to describe, especially without text or specific props or costumes, which the show purposefully uses sparingly, also as a conscious choice to embrace the unknown). Sounds created on instruments that are unique, or generated through unusual performance techniques would lend themselves to being more difficult to describe, and therefore fitting to support a desire to present something regarded as also difficult to describe, that being supernatural happenings or horrific creatures.

Musicians and sound artists who took part in the performance included raxil4, Mu, Seesar, Charlie Collins, Anton Mobin, and (in a recording capacity only) Akoustik Timbre Frekuency, and each of the them employed a variety of homemade instruments and “extended techniques” to create their sounds. Raxil4 and Mu both created instruments specifically built for the performances, in fact, citing that they would be able to make new sonic contributions beyond that of traditional instrumentation. (Raxil4 built what he calls “The Bone Guitar”, and Mu created what the show’s crew dubbed “The Spine of Darkness”) Both artists utilized cattle and goat bones in the construction of the noise-makers to add to what they considered to be the “horror” or “Gothic” nature of the instruments[17]. Mu imparted in a private conversation that she knew the new instruments would be seen as well as heard, and therefore wanted to build something that would add to the spirit of the performance visually and sonically[18].


Figure 2: Sound artist Andrew Page aka raxil4, one of the musicians performing in Dread Falls Theatre’s Father Dagon, seen here with his homemade “Bone Guitar”. ©2015 Pierre Kettering

Mu and raxil4 (as well as Seesar and Akoustik Timbre Frekency) are also members of a collective of composers and performers called the New Leaders of the Eldritch Cult, who engage in creating works related to and inspired by Lovecraft and Italian Futurist composer, instrument builder, and self-professed occultist Luigi Russolo[19]. The group calls for artists to compose and record dark soundscapes that reflect a Lovecraftian sense of the unknown through the incorporation of Futurist musical instruments, many of which are either self-made acoustic or electronic instruments, or re-functioned household items. Seesar, an all-percussion project, professes to use performance techniques and employ items not intended to be used as musical instruments when built (i.e.: bicycles, shelf brackets, metal mixing bowls, large springs) specifically in order to undermine the listener’s sonic expectation of what a percussionist may produce to further engage with the creation of unknown, fearful sounds[20]; and Akoustik Timbre Frekuency regularly adds ritual instruments from various religious settings (Shaman drums and rattles, Tibetan rolmo orchestra instruments, et cetera) with the intention of connecting his music to Pagan rite practices or cultist worship akin to rituals described in the writings of Lovecraft[21].

To reiterate, the examples given here are quite specific and only reflect a very small subset of Gothic music, however, the notion that instrumentation choices are being made to conjure a particular aesthetic and further engage in a commonly accepted set of sensibilities deemed Gothic is clear in this case; and it is this mentality that informs performers’ decisions to employ certain instruments and playing techniques, regardless of the way in which the instrument itself is seen as being unusual or not, upon which I will elaborate further below.


Figure 3: Akoustik Timbre Frekuency live in London, 2012, shown here with Himalayan singing bowls, a Tsimshian shaman rattle, and a type of fipple flute often used in Pagan rituals. ©2013 Kevin Wright

Neo-Medievalist Goth Music and Early Music Instrumentation

Returning to van Elferen’s text on “Sounds of the Uncanny”, she states that “the Gothic” renders nostalgia audible, and thus Gothic music embodies that nostalgic association[22]. In this section, I suggest that composers and performers of nostalgic-driven Gothic music must consider the instruments and the associated performance techniques played on those instruments in order to realise the feeling of nostalgia valued amongst the Gothic community.

Gavin Baddeley points out that Goths often look centuries into the past to find inspiration[23], and specifically, according to Jerrentrup, the Gothic scene pays special attention to the European Middle Ages, aesthetically speaking[24]. Historically associated art[25] as well as Gothic architecture[26] is a primary area of influence from which scene members draw bleak or “darker” outlooks on music and fashion[27]. From this area of influence, another form of music that lies within the Gothic music spectrum developed, known as Neo-Medievalist Goth music. As the name implies, performers in the Neo-Medievalist scene (sometimes called the Medieval Gothic folk scene, Medieval Pagan rock scene, or Mittlealtern/Middle Ages Goth scene) draw material from historical sources, in particular that which evokes a medieval or ancient era, and rely on evoking ancient times whilst simultaneously embracing the present. As with the overall genre of Goth music, the range of styles within the scope of Neo-Medievalist music spans from rock to electro to chamber ensembles and dark ambient projects, but regardless of their style, Neo-Medievalist Goth bands typically use a combination of Early Music-style instruments and instruments regularly heard in contemporary rock bands (although there are certainly a large number of performers who choose to restrict their instrumentation to historically associated acoustic instruments in projects that lean more towards being an Early Music ensemble whilst targeting a Gothic audience). Typically, instruments played by Neo-Medievalist Gothic bands include lutes, recorders, frame drums, medieval-style double-headed bass drums, bagpipes, dulcimers, hurdy gurdies, shawms, schalmei, and/or various fiddles such as rebecs or kits.64 In some cases, players will use Early Music instruments without alteration (meaning acoustic instruments whose makers attempted to maintain a high level of perceived historical accuracy) whilst some performers choose to play instruments that have been modified in some way, presumed at the time to make them more functional or aesthetically acceptable.

Groups that include these elements are not necessarily Neo-Medievalist Gothic projects. In addition, a project that is not considered Neo-Medievalist Gothic by the artists, themselves, may well be embraced by members of the Neo-Medievalist Gothic scene[28]. Neo-Medievalist Gothic performers and their music share defining sonic or visual traits with the main styles that influenced them, namely Early Music and traditional European and Middle Eastern music. Similar instrumentation, clothing that reflects historical associations, or traditional melodic content may all be present. The differing factor which the Neo-Medievalist Gothic community member commonly embraces is a purposeful departure from historical accuracy, either with visually related fashion or sonically related musical elements, that firmly plants the presentation within a Gothic subculture context.

Members of the Neo-Medievalist scene have differing tolerances for various levels of perceived historical accuracy within musical presentation. It would be unfair to say that all members of the community disregard historical elements as long as the performers wear black clothing and suggest pre-Baroque eras with their song titles; however, historical accuracy typically takes a secondary position among the hierarchy of values placed on the genre’s presentations. A listener, it seems, only needs to be reminded of an earlier period of history for the Neo-Medievalist connection to be made. Also, any level of Gothic crossover is acceptable, no matter how tangible, and it need only be perceived by the fan base, not the performers themselves.

The band Dead Can Dance, for instance, performs works taken from Medieval songs and based on performance styles informed by texts written in the Middle Ages, using a multitude of folk and Early Music instruments, such as hammered dulcimers, Arabic goblet drums, and lutes; yet they freely incorporate electronic keyboards or modern trap drums on occasion and often alter melodies to suit a dance-friendly aesthetic the value. Visually, Dead Can Dance may wear medieval style garments or something derived from a more Gothic rock fashion. Brendon Perry and Lisa Gerrard, forming members of Dead Can Dance, have stated in interviews time and time again that they do not categorize themselves as either Gothic or Neo-Medievalist (although they admit the musical influences from both, and to appreciating the large number of fans from the Gothic subculture community)[29][30], yet arguably, the majority of their fan base is the Neo-Medievalist Gothic community. It is not a sense of historical accuracy, then, that is important to the Neo-Medievalist Gothic community, but rather an impression of authenticity that places the artists within the genre as perceived by the fans, and this is done, in part, through the choice of instruments made by the performers.

soundsofdarkness4Figure 4: Lisa Gerrard of Dead Can Dance performing on a hammered dulcimer. ©2005 Chad Barka / New York Times

A historically accurate instrument can be an attractive resource for the Neo-Medievalist Gothic performer, as much as it could be considered too dissimilar to the genre’s accepted aesthetics. Evoking a historically early era can be achieved with greater ease and more convincingly through the medium of a period instrument: conveyed through its visual aspects, its unique timbre that differs from commonly used modern instruments, and/or its ability to appeal to a sense of tradition. Commonly two or all three of these traits are inherent in an Early Music instrument. Because Neo-Medievalist Gothic fans tend to conflate the historical eras from ancient to the end of the Renaissance as being acceptable, historical association with an instrument is not limited to the Middle Ages.

Nor is association limited to European history, although it is the primary region of interest. Tradition for other geographic areas can be seen in Neo-Medievalist Gothic music, especially if the tradition with which the association is being made can be linked to a specific historical era or European history indirectly. In particular, Near Eastern and Middle Eastern traditions appear regularly in the scene as a reminder of the spoils of Christian crusades. Goblet drums, sistrums, and other instruments brought back to Western Europe made their way into common use during the end of the Middle Ages[31], and thus in turn have been adopted by the Neo-Medievalist Gothic music scene. For example, both Czech/U.K.-based band PerKelt and Bulgarian group Irfan add a range of Early Music, folk music, and Middle Eastern percussion to their line-ups. At the 2016 Castlefest, currently the largest Neo-Medievalist Goth festival in Europe, instruments the two groups used between them included Egyptian tablah, Celtic harp, non-keyed clarinet, cimbalom, recorders, Ghanaian dhun-dhun drums, Native American shaman drums, and ouds alongside acoustic and electric guitars, keyboards, and vocals sung in a wide range of languages evoking archaic styles[32].


Figure 5: Irfan performing with oud, tablah, harmonium, and vocals, and electronic (drums out of  frame) at the 2016 Castlefest, Lisse, Netherlands. ©2016 The Seventh Chakra / Castlefest NL

Hybrids of historical and modern instruments also appear within Neo-Medievalist music. Michael Popp, for example, is a multi-instrumentalist who performs what he calls “Medieval electro music” in his two projects Estampie and Qntal. Typically, with these two bands, he performs either modern Goth-influenced renditions of Medieval material, or original compositions that make use of Medieval style, melodic content, and instruments. Popp performs on keyboards, guitar, electric bass, lute, and several bowed string instruments (Early Music instruments and modern instruments), including an electric viola da gamba called a Ruby Gamba[33]. Estampie is primarily acoustic whilst QNTAL is more of a Gothic rock band, but both bands incorporate electric and/or high volume instruments, which would render an acoustic viol too quiet to be effective without amplification of some sort, thus Popp’s choice to play a Ruby Gamba[34]; the amplified instrument maintains the modern functionality needed whilst also being able to evoke historical association through the instrument.

soundsofdarkness6Figure 6: Michael Popp performing on one of his Ruby Gamba with the Neo-Medievalist Goth band Qntal. Reprinted by permission of Michael Popp

The historic association afforded through the use of Early Music or related instruments is a major part of how Neo-Medievalist Gothic musicians engage with the Gothic aesthetics. For many, even if unconsciously, the reference to ancient times bears underlying tones of both the eternal or archaic as well as sounds that may be deemed romantic, the combination of which fits squarely within the realm of Gothic sensibilities. Often Neo-Medievalist lyrics, album covers, and clothing impart narratives that tell of life beyond death, love that lasts forever despite tragedy or impending doom, and recount tales of magic from eras long past, all of which can be supported with a strong historical association; Neo-Medievalist performers understand this and purposefully select their instruments accordingly. As above, it should be pointed out that the Neo-Medievalist Goth scene is a thriving, but smaller subset of the overall Gothic rock community, however, as with the aesthetics associated with Lovecraftian music, the traits exhibited by Neo-Medievalist Gothic performers support the argument that Gothic aesthetics inform instrument choices, in this case evoking a sense of nostalgia.

Evoking the Gothic with Rock Instruments

As to be expected, a genre of music that stemmed from punk and related rock styles from the late 1970s would generally employ standard rock instrumentation, and such was definitely the case with the most or all of the first wave of bands who were part of the Gothic music movement. I do not suggest that standard rock instruments be considered specifically Gothic, because in terms of the instruments themselves, they have a much wider range of association (blues, Javanese kroncong, country rock, and many forms of jazz often also include electric guitar, for example) and thus it may be considered to be less the type of instruments and more the ways in which they were played or presented that makes them Gothic (or rather made the music Gothic). However, I do feel that it is necessary to point out the means by which these standard instruments became perceived as Gothic, at least in some cases, is by emulating other instruments and embracing specific non-sonic attributes which helps construct and maintain the Gothic aesthetic.

The song Bela Lugosi’s Dead by Bauhaus[35], often seen as the first or “flagship” song of Gothic rock[36], performed entirely on “traditional” rock instruments, contains an excellent example of Gothic association, even beyond the obvious lyrical content that evokes connections with vampires and indirectly with Gothic horror films. The band creates a melancholy soundscape with a strong, underlying rhythmic and melodic element driven by the drums and bass, whilst guitarist Daniel Ash performs waves of unusual sounds generated with the use of multiple guitar pedals and extended performance techniques. The intermittent lack of melodic material present in the guitar performance combined with the experimental sounds is purposefully being used to conjure a sense of darkness, the supernatural, and the unknown, as with the example above of the improvising musicians in Dread Falls Theatre’s Father Dagon. Additionally, the consistent, prominent “dry” drum track, is contrasted by a duplicate underlying drum track being processed heavily with similar effects to Ash’s guitar sounds to further support the construction of these aesthetic traits.

Another example of standard instruments being used to perform Gothic music come from the composers and musicians who are part of the New Leaders of the Eldritch Cult, mentioned above: All of these performers purposefully embrace timbres intended to be considered unusual or unfamiliar by the artists as the root of the musical constructions, as opposed to an intention to enhance the basically rock-oriented music, such as that of Bauhaus; yet not all the members of the New Leaders collective make their own instruments or use found objects or household items. In fact, some members do not depart from standard modern instrumentation at all. For instance, Michelle Eris Price aka R’Lyeh uses a variety of rock instruments, primarily electric guitar, keyboards, and trap drums[37]; Chris Courtney aka Hell Is Carbon is primarily an electric guitarist[38]; and Benj Arcane aka Yog Sothoth plays keyboards (and some homemade electronics)[39]. However, due to the methods they employ for creating sounds, either performance techniques, tunings, or electronic filters and effects, the end results of the music forged is similar in nature to the other New Leaders projects – ambient with a decisive intention to be harmonically and melodically ambiguous and dissonant, purposefully to fulfill the requirements of Gothic aesthetics, whilst still using commonly-played modern rock instruments.

Nostalgia can also be evoked using standard rock instrumentation. An instance of this comes from another Bauhaus-related recording by singer Peter Murphy in his song Cuts You Up from his solo album Deep released in 1990[40]. The song generally is a straight-forward rock song, but bassist Eddie Branch employs a cello bow in certain passages to evoke a feel of a classical instrument when playing his fretless electric bass. The aesthetic of the fretless bass already contains associations with upright double basses, but the additional use of the bow for compositional emphasis and dynamic changes brings forth a feeling of nostalgia by relating the instrument to something that can be seen as having a historical association. Obviously, cellos and many other bowed instruments are contemporary and modern, as is definitely the case with a bowed electric bass, but it is the placement of this performance technique and the melodic presentation it affords within the rock context (and specifically Gothic rock context) that supports the Gothic aesthetic by contrasting other rock genres in favour of a darker, romantic period music feeling that in turn builds an association with the archaic and thus upholds the value placed on  vampires, death, and romance, as discussed above.

soundsofdarkness7 Figure 7: Eddie Branch bowing his electric bass in the video for Peter Murphy’s song Cuts You Up. ©1990 Beggars Banquet

When embracing Gothic aesthetics is not possible sonically, through either creating unfamiliar sounds or evoking nostalgia, or additional associations with Gothic aesthetics are desired, another method of engaging “the Gothic” can occur. Visual aesthetics are also a large part of Gothic music presentation, and musical instruments are not exempt from this. One way in which makers and players of what may be considered standard rock (or any type of) instrument converts them to meet a Gothic aesthetic is through the ways these instruments look. The Las Vegas-based luthier Roman / Abstract Guitars, for example, makes a line of electric guitar marketed as being their Gothic model that features sharp protrusions from the points on the guitar where a more standard guitar would have none, rendering the instrument reminiscent of an indescribable creature a la Lovecraft, and it is only available in all black[41] (including the metallic parts which are black chrome) adhering to a sense of darkness or death.  Abstract even sell the guitar in a special case (most likely because it would not fit into a standard case), and have chosen to shape their special case in the form of a coffin.

soundsofdarkness8Figure 8: Roman Abstract Pagan Guitar’s Goth guitar in its coffin case. ©2015 Roman Abstract Pagan Guitars

Standard rock instrument makers are not the only builders who embrace this mentality when designing instruments being specifically targeted for Gothic performers. Jan Goorissen, Early Music performer, instrument designer, and owner of Ruby Gamba (mentioned above), has come forth with a Gothic model. The all black model is similar to the Abstract guitar in that all its metallic parts are also black and its shape is somewhat distorted in comparison to other Ruby Gamba models, and is intended to be used within a Gothic context. The instrument sonically has only one difference from his other models; a different pickup system that is meant to allow the instrument to be used in higher volume settings. Goorissen has also designed a new seven -stringed model geared towards the neo-Medievalist Gothic market. It consists of a mahogany body and neck lacquered black with an ebony fret board, silver hardware, and red trim and a red Celtic style cross on the pick guard. These models of Ruby Gamba both cater to the visual aesthetics of the target demographic, that being the Neo-Medievalist performers. The choice to use a black finish can be argued as being a conservative colour, but Goorissen specifically calls this model a Gothic rock model[42], so I infer the decision was deliberate in attracting players of Gothic genres, specifically via visual aesthetics as well as sonic aesthetics that match those of the Gothic subculture and music scene.

soundsofdarkness9Figure 9: Jan Goorissen’s all black Ruby Gamba marketed as the first Goth model on display at the 2007 N.A.M.M. show in the United States. (The second model with the red cross on the pickguard is still in production at the time of writing.) Reprinted by permission from Jan Goorissen.

Further Investigations

The ways in which Gothic music constructs the aesthetics associated with the genre is partially achieved through the musical instruments incorporated. Fear of the unknown, nostalgic views of past lives, and romantic outlooks on magic and the supernatural are all sensibilities that can be supported with specific musical instruments through their sounds, shapes, and associations. This may be achieved through inherent timbres, extended playing techniques, or implied via visual and physical traits. In turn, it seems the instruments, through the agency of the makers and players, engage dialectically with the community and evolve alongside the generation and development of the scene’s aesthetics. The few examples given here are but a mere starting point for the research needed to fully unravel the entangled web between instruments and the Gothic scene, however, and many additional examples and unaddressed lines of discussion await further investigation. The aim of this paper is merely to suggest a skeleton of a study that takes into account the basics of the Gothic aesthetic and music performed within the Gothic scene in an attempt to open a dialogue that can provide a base for an initial line of questioning, and is by no means a complete project with concrete findings. The discussion still holds value, however. By addressing the possibilities of associations of musical instruments with the Gothic aesthetic and community, a further understanding of this important subculture can be brought to light; as well as putting forth encouragement for parallel studies of musical instruments in other groups can show the ways in which material culture engages dialectically with social groups to formulate value systems partially influenced by specific creative trends and movements.

* * *

[1] Micah L. Issitt, Goths: A Guide to an American Subculture (Oxford: Greenwood Press, 2011), p. xvi.

[2] Ibid. p. xvi.

[3] Drawn from multiple conversations with members of the Gothic community between 2005 and 2012 during research for Ph.D. thesis.

[4] Catherine Spooner, Contemporary Gothic (London: Reaktion Books, 2006), p. 165.

[5] Issitt, (2011), p. 2.

[6] Isabella van Elferen, Goth Music: Sounds of the Uncanny (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2016).

[7] Ibid. [2016]

[8] Ansgar Jerrentrup, ‘Gothic-Forms and Backgrounds’, The Worlds of Music, 42.1 (2000) p. 25-26.

[9] Isabella van Elferen, Goth Music: Sounds of the Uncanny (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2016), p. 4, 135-136, 147, 168, 169.

[10] David Punter and Glennis Byron, The Gothic, (London: Wiley, 2004)

[11] Isabella van Elferen, Goth Music: Sounds of the Uncanny (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2016). p.11-33

[12] Victoria Snaith, Dread Falls Theatre Official Website. [accessed 18 February, 2016]

[13] Victoria Snaith, Interview with the author. [5 November, 2014]

[14] Ibid. [2014]

[15] Howard Philips Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature, (Boston: Booklassic, 2015), p. 1.

[16] Snaith, [2014]

[17] Andrew Page (raxil4), Private conversation with the author. [2 March 2014]

[18] Lydia Morgan (Mu), Interview with the author. [3 March, 2014]

[19] New Leaders of the Eldritch Cult Facebook Group. [accessed 17 August, 2016]

[20] Seesar Official Facebook Page. [accessed 18 March, 2016]

[21] Kevin Wright (Priapus 23 from Akoustik Timbre Frekuency), Interview with the author. [12 December, 2015]

[22] Isabella van Elferen, Goth Music: Sounds of the Uncanny (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2016). p.5-6

[23] Gavin Baddeley, Goths: Vamps, and Dandies, (London: Plexus Publishing Limited, 2010), p.7.

[24] Jerrentrup, (2000), p.37.

[25] Nancy Kilpatrick, The Goth Bible, (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin Press, 2004), p.207-236.

[26] Catherine Spooner and Emma McEvoy, ‘Gothic Locations’ in The Routledge Companion to Gothic, edited by C. Spooner and E. McEvoy (London: Routledge, 2007), p.51-53.

[27] Spooner (2006), p.10.

[28] Kirsten Yri, ‘Medievalism and Exoticism in the Music of Dead Can Dance’, Current Musicology, 85. Spring (2008), p.57.

[29] Brendon Perry, Interview, Arcane Delights [accessed 15 March, 2012]

[30] Lisa Gerrard, Interview, Barcode Zine [accessed 15 March, 2012]

[31] Music of the Crusades Era, [accessed 15 March, 2012]

[32] The author attended and performed at Castlefest 2016.

[33] Michael Popp, Interview with the author, [07 September, 2011]

[34] Ibid. [2011]

[35] Bela Lugosi’s Dead, Bauhaus (Small Wonder Records, 6 August, 1979)

[36] Issitt, (2011), p. 6.

[37] Michelle Eris Price, Email conversation with the author, [20 February, 2016]

[38] Chris Courtney, Email conversation with the author, [15 April, 2016]

[39] Benj Arcane, Skype conversation with the author, [27 July, 2016]

[40] Cuts You Up, from Deep, Peter Murphy (Beggar’s Banquet, 1990)

[41] Roman/Abstract Pagan Guitars [accessed 17 February, 2016]

[42] Jan Goorissen, Interview with the author [7 July, 2011]

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