On The Australian Gothic

Following on from the Sunlit Noir Roundtable in October, composer Heather Shannon reflects on the concept of the Australian Gothic, exploring and imagining how this European aesthetic translates and transmutes within a southern landscape.

Eucalyptus branches by Kelly Sikkema, via Unsplash

I am currently undertaking a research degree in composition at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. The area of my research is the Australian Gothic. Most people are aware of the gothic form through architecture like the Notre Dame Cathedral or English literature like Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Because of Australia’s English colonial experience, I have personally found it helpful to use the English literary gothic to approach the Australian Gothic.

Researching the Australian Gothic will give me a chance to reflect on being an Australian artist while learning about some of Australia’s social issues. Although the gothic is an imported cultural expression, its themes have been used to explore unique Australian concerns. I’ve always been interested in the gothic mode’s subversive tendencies, and as I read more about it I’m starting to see a tradition of its use in Australia that seeks to challenge our sunny, carefree disposition.

Some gothic tropes include horror, melancholy, romance, the uncanny, the abject or the ‘Other’ and haunting. These aesthetic examinations often explore suffering and oppression because of the undeniable trauma in our colonial history. Melancholy is often projected onto the landscape to conjure up traumatic memories and denied versions of history. This inevitably links the Australian landscape to a gothic aesthetic. Because of the way that the Australian Gothic explores historic and ongoing trauma within the landscape, it is extremely important to approach this area with ethical consideration and deep sensitivity.

Revisionist attitudes to Australian colonial history are prevalent in Australian Gothic expressions. For example, Kate Grenville’s novel Secret River (2005) re-examines the colonial experience through stories of personal trauma and hardship while also taking into account the wider frame of Australian colonisation and its violent manifestations. Another gothic depiction, The Nightingale (2019), is a film by Jennifer Kent. She describes the film’s graphic violence as an “honest and necessary depiction” of a brutal historical moment. Relaying colonial experiences through the eyes of persecuted individuals offers honest depictions of the realities of colonisation and tells the stories that history often denies. Grenville and Kent’s gothic depictions highlight the political significance of the individual voice within overarching historical narratives. The gothic mode offers a nuanced and dynamic framework in which these personal stories are imbued with emotion and empathy. Individual experience does not always align with official accounts of collective history and these experiences recounted through a gothic lens have the potential to grate against the traditional and dominant historic nationalism displayed on Australia Day and at other patriotic events.

“The gothic mode offers a nuanced and dynamic framework in which these personal stories are imbued with emotion and empathy”.

My current research has given me a sense of the way historic narratives are told and reinforced through art, and how the telling of one narrative can potentially lead to the forgetting of another. These thoughts have preoccupied me as we draw nearer to the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook’s landing at Kurnell. The Australian government is planning extravagant celebrations worth millions of dollars. This is happening at a time when the dispossession and destruction of Indigenous cultures by colonial explorers and settlers is not widely recognised and Indigenous Australians still have no constitutional recognition.

Because of the ongoing fight for Indigenous rights and recognition, the mythologising of colonial explorers and heroic war tales by the Australian government works to divide the Australian community. It seeks to dominate other historical perspectives and perpetuate a culture war. The violence of colonisation and the dispossession and displacement of Indigenous Australians is our history and its effects are still being felt.

To me, all of these factors reinforce the importance of the Australian Gothic. The gothic mode offers a contrasting aesthetic framework which has powerful political and ethical potential. It is engaged in to express frustration against the silence of history and to document ongoing awareness of past events in order to move mindfully into the future.

As an Australian artist, I align my values with the gothic mode’s progressive undertones. The development of the Australian Gothic documents a growing sense of awareness of historical trauma and violence which reflects changing attitudes to history and identity. In music gothic aesthetics are not so easily recognised. Music is open to interpretation. Its beauty lies in its ambiguity. However like any artistic discipline, its forms are steeped in history. Through my research I hope to connect my compositional practice with my wider social interests. Although I do not wish to represent trauma or historical narratives in my music, I am inspired by the tradition of the Australian Gothic and its ability to reflect and examine the Australian condition.

Heather Shannon is best known for her work as one quarter of internationally renowned independent rock band, The Jezabels. Their music has been described as Bronte-esque gothic and melodramatic. They have sold over 300,000 albums worldwide and have performed in venues such as The Sydney Opera House, The O2 Arena (London), Webster Hall (New York) and at festivals such as Lollapalooza (Chicago), and Glastonbury (UK).

Over the last few years Heather has moved into other areas of composition. She scored her second Feature Film in 2018 and has had orchestral works performed in Australia by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, the Australian Chamber Orchestra and The Metropolitan Orchestra. Heather is currently researching the Australian gothic as part of her Masters degree in Composition at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.