Monday, May 6, 2013

The National: A Lot of Sorrow

"I don't wanna get over you."--The National

Listening to The National play the song Sorrow for six hours gives you an uncanny feeling--and it's not just the ringing in your ears, the dizzying dehydration headache and the numbness in your feet.  I felt overwhelmed by the remarkable and epic musical, theatrical and emotional performance of the band. And I just want to keep talking about it to anyone who will listen.

This "durational performance" was the creation of Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson and is titled A Lot of Sorrow.  It was performed for one day at MoMA's PS1 in the V/W Dome.  Inside a white dome, filled with stage smoke, the band The National would play its song Sorrow non-stop for six hours.  "[T]he idea behind A Lot of Sorrow is devoid of irony, yet full of humor and emotion. It is another quest to find the comic in the tragic and vice versa."  Like a large photo image made up of tiny photos of something else, Kjartansson has sculpted a new piece of art out of a series of performances of the same song.  

My friend and I arrived promptly for the noon show (because we are those girls) and stayed for the entire performance which ended well past six.  And for those many hours we could not unplug.  An inexplicable tension was building throughout.  Each movement of the piece was keeping our attention.  Each turn of the song cycle seemed to reveal a new facet to the song.  We became invested in the piece.  As our limbs ached and as our commitment to the work grew, we wondered how it would end and what would we feel when it was over.

This was a six hour plus marathon for the band.  The artist delivered snacks to the band throughout.  I enjoyed watching lead singer Matt Berninger fill his suit jacket pockets with grapes.  He smiled impishly as he tossed grapes into his mouth as he sang.  I sincerely worried as he hydrated himself after every song cycle--would he get a bathroom break?

Even great men have to pee.  The remarkable absence of Matt Berninger.
At 2:45 he left the stage and I wrote in my notebook, "He leaves the stage. One hopes for a pee." 

Snacks for the band which Berninger shared with audience.
Upon returning to the stage Berninger remarked that he "had to go." 

I realized that we'd been going for almost three hours and unlike a regular concert there had been no banter between songs.  No asides to the audience.  It had been just Sorrow in a myriad of permutations.  Berninger would mostly sing with his eyes closed and when not he'd look off into the middle distance with his bright blue eyes. The absence of audience interaction was jarring on some level.  It felt artificially imposed by the construct of this being an art installation calling for a constant loop of music.  But that too was part of the experience. Your expectations for a "concert" were undermined at every turn.  And the venue was intimate.  So it felt strange to have a conversational wall between performers and audience.

But as the day went on Berninger did manage to sneak in a few asides to the audience (including late in the show chiding the audience when they were clapping too fast).   He also made sure the audience got snacks and as the band started drinking wine and beer more regularly during the show, Berninger handed the front row of the audience bottles of wine as well.  

Ragnar Kjartansson handing out napkins to the audience.
This was a marathon for us too.  I had brought one granola bar for an emergency.  That was consumed at hour three.  By hour four I could not feel my feet.  By hour five I had to dance or my legs would have given out.   But by hour six I was singing along, I was dancing, I was screaming (and still no feeling in my feet). 

But there was no question once we started in on this experience, we could not stop.

The song, Sorrow, on its own, is beautiful.  It has a cushion-y velvet sound which I discovered you could burrow deeper and deeper into.  And unlike a frozen album track, the live performance lent itself to being sculpted.  With each cycle of the song, I realized how much difference there could be within the same song. 

I had started out listening closely trying to track and hear the variations in the sound of the song.  If the drummer took a break, the song's rhythm was driven by the guitars.  If the guitarist was quiet, suddenly the trumpet and trombone could be heard.  How the song was orchestrated was constantly changing and this seemed to be driven by the band, in the moment, as they listened to each other.  There were quieter cycles were the vocals dominated and louder cycles were the guitars were clangy and aggressive.  With each turn, an expectation grew.  How would they surprise us this time? 

There came a point, about 4 hours into the show, that I realized the guitarists in the band were identical twins (Bryce Dessner, Aaron Dessner).  Now I say this because I'm not usually an observational idiot but I was so caught up in listening to the work I honestly did not notice until then. 

If my sources are correct, I was standing closer to Bryce Dessner.  This was fortuitous because it gave me the perfect vantage point to observe his deftness with the guitars.  For a while he was bowing on his guitar.  He would sometimes use a metal slide and an electronic pick (I think--Dear Bryce, you were mutherfucking incredible but I do not know anything about the tools of a guitarist so sorry if I have misidentified your techniques etc).  He would literally drop a guitar at certain intervals and massage a sound out of it.  Or burp it like a baby.  I HAVE NO IDEA BUT IT WAS UNLIKE ANYTHING I HAVE EVER SEEN.

He seemed to be conducting a lot of the changing soundscapes and his contribution to the variations cannot be understated.  When the energy was flagging, his guitar picked everyone up.

Not supposed to be a picture of his crotch. More about his finger work. Ok this one is just bad no matter what I say.
Unexpectedly, the pivot point, where the song cycle would end and then begin again, had a breathtaking tension built into it.  Against all reason, your expectation is for a new track to start, but the same song returns every time.  The tikka-tikka-tikka of the drummer was often the signal.  But when the drummer stepped away you suddenly noticed the absence of the drum or cymbals at the pivot point.  The pivot seemed sometimes like a call to arms, jubilantly bringing everyone back into the song, or at other times it was a nagging parent bringing everyone back to their work and ending their break-time. 

By the third hour there had been so many variations.  Every turn of the song was different.  Every loop the band made was unique.  I could not keep up.  I had thought going in I would tune in and tune out and wander around listening only sometimes but something about the way the song was performed, as it kept wrapping itself around itself I was transfixed.  Like a cocoon it was building on itself and growing into something totally new.   Had I not experienced it for myself I would not have thought it possible.  I was enraptured by the new work that was forming.  By the repetition that was not repetitive.   I had to let go of trying to understand every cycle.  I had to just let the sounds wash over me and step back and enjoy it.  The work stopped being about the individual song or an individual cycle.  It was about the evolution of the overall piece, the discoveries I would make as I kept listening, the expectations met and the expectations thwarted.  I did not want it to end.

Boredom was never an issue.  Blood clots and fainting were an issue, but I was riveted from beginning to end.  And if I had been able to sit down I would have stayed forever. 

Late in the show
Being in such an aural bubble, I found my ability to focus sharpen.  I was aware of the transcendent and the mundane and they all were woven together. 

Here were some notations I made to myself as the show progressed:

2:00 He starts to sit
2:20 The bow makes a reappearance
2:49 Trumpet suddenly gets his moment!
2:53 Glasses come off, sweat wiped away.
3:18 Drummer out for full cycle
3:32 Sugar cubes? [Snack delivery]

4:52 Audience clapping incorporated
5:02 He gives wine to us
5:50 His voice gives out--the audience fills in

As the time inched closer to six, the audience's excitement grew.  For the first hour of the performance, the audience did not clap at all--maybe it was the museum setting.  But as the show had progressed the audience shed its reservations and the applause escalated from the end of each song cycle, to BOTH the end of the song and even more enthusiastically at the start of the next one.  It became more and more exuberant as we reached the end.

At 10 minutes to six (with about 25 minutes to go) Berninger's voice started to give out.  He looked pained.  It made me gasp and my eyes started to well up.  We were so close to the finish.  I could not tell if he was in physical pain but suddenly the song sounded more grave than it had before.  His voice was barely able to warble the words.  Bryce Dessner reached out to the audience and beckoned us to sing along.  We all sang the song together through every cycle until the end. 

The role of the audience had blurred.   By this time, after six hours together, we were not mere observers.  We were the energy reserve helping to get this boat into port.  And frankly I would have done whatever was asked of me. 

Second to last cycle through Sorrow. Wine well earned.


  1. Wow! This sounds incredible. It's a great song, I wonder what it would be like to see/listen to in the conditions of six continuous hours. This gives a pretty good idea though :)

  2. this is so beautifully written and puts into words exactly how I feel but could never express as eloquently as you have. I was also there for the entire 6 + hours and would have happily stayed forever! I was lucky enough to be elbows on the stage directly in front of Matt and felt like I was in heaven. he also handed me the wine bottle so I could pour it for everyone after he poured a glass for me--and I am still floating! so happy that I was fortunate to be a part of this completely magical performance