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What: A Lot Of Sorrow - Ragnar Kjartansson
featuring The National
Where: MoMA PS1
Date: Sunday, May 5, 2013
Lowdown: Brooklyn rock group The
National performed one song, for six hours straight. Which was exactly as mundane, insane, and fun as it sounds.
From The Notebook: "Einstein on the Beach
meets Spinal Tap. Or Zero Dark Thirty's torture scenes as written by Jonathan Ames."
Takeaway: In another dimension, Taylor Swift might be Marina Abramović.
A little before noon on Sunday, when the performance was set to start, a line stretched around two blocks of MoMA PS1. Around 12:15 p.m., sound started to leak from inside the giant, white dome erected in the courtyard of the museum, as the handlers started to let people into the courtyard. And that sound? The National's "Sorrow," a three-and-a-half minute song about depression and regret overwhelming everything. But a catchy one.
In the courtyard, the concertgoers/museum visitors/performance art crowd were lined up outside of the dome, on a one-in, one-out basis. At the beginning of the performance, the lines moved quickly: People were going in and streaming out every time the song would end...and begin again. As we made our way into the dome, this writer (a big National fan who's generally skeptical of performance art as a serious medium) and their significant other/reluctant attendee (a casual National fan, but down for performance art wackiness if only for curiosity) did what we do at every concert: Brush by the main throng of people in the center, and headed to the side of the dome where the crowd had thinned out. The gray dome was sparsely lit by a few spotlights that projected the shadows of the band onto the ceiling, with atmosphere provided by the occasionally excessive plume of stage fog. And here's how it would go:
The National would play "Sorrow."
And as soon as the last chords of the song rang out,
The National would start to play "Sorrow" again.
Lead singer Matt Berninger paced around the stage in a suit. The Dressner brothers, on guitar, would generally stay in position. And the Devendorf brothers—on bass and drums—mostly stayed in position as well, along with the horns and keys section the band brought with them. The crowd sat at a low murmer, and didn't applaud the band after each performance. Some people stood in place, some people danced for their first or second viewing of the song, and then left. Nothing much changed from one performance of the song to another.
After watching The National play "Sorrow" for three or four times, we left the dome, put our name on the list for the restaurant at PS1, and joined the throng of people who were sitting on the stairs of PS1, drinking beer, taking in some sun on what was one of the first genuinely great Spring weekends, and listened to The National keep playing the same song, over and over again, by way of the giant speakers mounted outside of the dome.
It was around this time that the performance started to take hold, this weird current that would dictate the tone of the day.
- - -
Inside the restaurant, as the sound of the same song droned on outside, people dined as though they weren't a part of some odd performance experiment, such as it was. The song first became background noise, or "white" noise, to everyone there that day. As if this were a relatively normal thing. Which it's not.
After lunch, we left the museum to walk around Long Island City. We took in the graffiti mecca Five Pointz. We walked by this writer's first New York City apartment, around the corner from the museum, where he lived on a floor for three months, scraping by on busboy tips, in a time sequence that was as terrifying and weird as it was totally thrilling and fun. We walked to the water, and took in the best view of the Manhattan skyline you could possibly get from the ground. And the entire time, we sang, or hummed, or laughed about one song. And as someone else noted, the lyrics—whether they were or were not—just felt appropriate.
I live in a city sorrow built
It's in my honey, it's in my milk.
Don't leave my half a heart alone,
On the water...
We weren't the only ones: Groups of people and couples walked around Long Island City, their pink PS1 wristbands blaring out a common freak flag of the day in this weird industrial area lorded over by shiny, high rise apartment towers, identifying people who paid $15 to see one band play the same song for six hours. Like us, they probably spent a nice day in an underrated New York 'hood aside from seeing this weird spectacle. And like us, they will probably have a tough time ever seperating that song from that neighborhood (or that neighborhood from that song) until they plaster one (or several) memories over it in the years to come. If that.
- - -
We got back to PS1 around 4:30, and returned to one of the lines to get into the dome, which were starting to get longer, a mix of first-time visitors and returning spectators dotted the courtyard, people getting progressively more drunk or more impatient or more excited: Where would things go from here? Inside the dome, The National had started to receive raucous applause from the crowd, who saw the beginning of the end coming. This was still happening:
And the song?
The song had started to change. So had the crowd.
The entire thing was a comic, collective exercise in Stockholm Syndrome. But it actually was, as the billing explained, totally and incredibly devoid of irony, at least on the part of the band. And that's fairly incredible, considering this all comes from an artist who once taped himself to a wall and screamed at people.
Some people talked at full volume. Other people sang along to each version of the song, as if the last one hadn't happened at all. Each version of the song provoked laughs by some, sighs by others held captive by their friends, who wanted to see this thing through to the end. At one point, Berninger crunched carrots into the microphone to the song's opening beat, to loud cheers, which also erupted after the band's drummer Bryan Devendorf would rub his wrists, or when he would leave for one version of the song, and come back for another. And at this point, they were drinking: Red wine, white wine, beer, whatever they could. They handed down bottles of wine to those in the crowd who'd stayed there for the entire time. Someone tried waving at the band, like they were Royal Palace guards, or animals trapped in a cage, both appearances which started to emerge. People shouted at them: "PLAY IT AGAIN!" Each performance got funnier, weirder, more sincere and more cynical. Berninger looked tired. They all did. They might've been playing the song in their sleep. It's hard to tell.
The tempo of the song generally wouldn't change, and neither would the notes. But some members of the band—who went to go take bathroom breaks—would leave a void in the song, which the band would exploit: A louder, more feedback-driven version of the end of the song would play in when Berninger would leave the stage. The crowd would fill the beginning of the song with handclaps—which, at one point, went too fast, and they were chided by the band ("We can't play that fast") before they slowed the handclaps down. While sticking to the same notes, and same ideas, the band started to explore the dimensions of this song. And every detail managed to take on not meaning, but significance: Surprises and disappointments, exciting moments and total lulls. Even Berninger leaning into the microphone and intoning "Free Bird." before the start of one version was received incredibly well. Never has a brass section eating corn on the cob between playing their parts ever been more thrilling, nor will it.
As the band approached 6PM, the applause after each song got louder, and louder. Finally, after 6PM, the crowd was in a full roar, the band was dropping feedback into the mix. They knew the end was coming by way of the crowd (none of them had watches, or checked the time). Shortly after 6PM, Ragnar Kjartansson got on stage to tell the band something—that the end was near, probably—and the band played an even more furiously loud version of the song. Then, a softer one, with the entire crowd singing, as Berninger's voice had started to completely give out. Finally, a bearded Kjartansson approached the stage with wine glasses for all members, who drank their way through the final version of the song. The band finished, put down their instruments, waved to the crowd, and left to a roaring audience.
And then they came back onstage.
"We're going to do one encore tonight."
People shouted titles of National songs at the band. Including the one they'd just heard. After five seconds that felt far, far longer:
"It's called 'Sorrow.'"
And then the band played a version of the song that completely resembled the version of the song they started playing, or the 100-something other versions they played, which is to say it was as utterly distinct as it was indistinct, but it had become impossible to tell the difference by then.
As an experience, the piece worked, and worked incredibly well: The crowd and the band took on roles that were at times both totally oppositional and seamlessly symbiotic. Anybody who was there that day will never be able to hear that song the same way again, but that raises the question of whether or not anybody really ever hears a song the same way again after each listen? It was a work that allowed the audience to unfold ideas about performance, and expectations, about memories and associations, about depression and elation, and where they start, and end, and intertwine, without beating an audience over the head. Or at least without beating them over the head with ideas so much as a single song, and a catchy one, at that. Which, in and of itself, is pretty impressive.