People have always used musical drones and repetition to achieve trancelike states through which they might achieve some sort of peace or understanding. Something about being bombarded with sound until you can barely remember your name really does it for shamans, neo-hippies and Lightning Bolt fans alike. But what if you replaced the drone with a well-constructed and slightly boring song from the National's second-to-last album High Violet (their newest, Trouble Will Find Me, is out this week), and the shamanic faithful with a bunch of bourgeois bohemians from Cobble Hill? You would get "A Lot Of Sorrow," an installation "by" Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson that closed out MoMA PS1's Sunday Sessions series earlier this month. (I use scare quotes because some haters refuse to recognize "Getting the National to come play the same song over and over for six hours" as creating a piece of art.)
To heighten what would no doubt already be a profound experience, my repetition-loving friend Reed (whose idea this was, and with whom I am engaged in a never-ending cycle of bluff-calling) and I brought a little art appreciation aid along in the form of some magic mushroom peanut butter cups: one for each of us, plus a few to share. This, we hoped, would help tease out the true meaning behind the piece, for better or for worse. We also brought some costume pieces from our fun shelf, because there's nothing worse than blasting off into mushroom land, only to find yourself without the proper gear.
We arrived to find a line of people patiently waiting to get into the big white dome in which the National had already been playing for two hours. "I'm so bored already!" said Reed. We noticed a few people had brought their kids, because it's never too early to start pretending you understand art. "I hate white people," Reed said for the first time of many.
Once inside, we joined the somber crowd of people who were standing there silently watching the performance with their arms crossed, just like at a real National show. Some people were making bootlegs. They clapped politely after each performance, and I made the obligatory joke about how all the National's songs sound the same anyway. (Though in actuality, I didn't have strong feelings on the National either way going into this. I still don't.) The band, composed of some well-dressed, handsomely aging indie rockers named Matt Berninger, Aaron and Bryce Dressner, and Bryan and Scott Devendorf, did not look particularly happy (the song is called "Sorrow," after all), but I thought they had a certain dignity about them, especially considering they were probably all wearing diapers. (If they weren't, I don't want to know about it.) The horn section looked especially bored, as they only got to play a little bit towards the end of the song.
"The band did not look particularly happy... but I thought they had a certain dignity about them, especially considering they were probably all wearing diapers."
A couple of "Sorrows" in, we found our friends Shaun and Ahmad and commenced eating our drugs in a way that bonded us together as a group, i.e. out of each other's mouths. This got a few dirty looks and some quizzical ones from our fellow art-o-nauts, but nobody said anything. A few minutes later, "A Lot Of Sorrow" was making Ahmad feel sensual, so he started booty dancing and making out with Shaun as a woman next to him glared daggers. Lost in his own world, Ahmad didn't notice. Was it the drugs or the songwriting?
As might have been predicted, the tickly feeling of shrooms kicking in made us restless, so we wandered outside in search of stimulation. The dome's homogoneous, unchanging sights and sounds were functioning a little like a sensory deprivation tank, making us trip harder, but not in a way that made us want to stay. "Don't go in there, it sucks," said Ahmad to a nice looking couple on his way out.
We wandered over to a gravely area boxed in by grey cement walls covered in little black pockmarks which were turning into mystical, vibrating black holes before my eyes. It was there that we encountered the first of two reprimands of the day from a PS1 employee: "No smoking." Cigarettes extinguished, we conjured up enthusiasm for the perfect weather, if not the background music, which didn't even sound like a song anymore. Just kidding, it totally did. It was the same fucking song it had always been. Utilizing all of our props, we vibed out on it as best we could. "This is what art looks like, children," explained Ahmad to a couple of kids walking by with their dad.
Just then, another PS1 employee came in. Were we in trouble? "You should go do that in there," he said, so we headed back to our white dome of purgatory. "Lose your mind, dum dum," Ahmad said cheerfully to a woman passing by.
Reed was starting to freak out a little bit from being so bored, so I put a hat on him to try to calm him down. "I HATE WHITE PEOPLE," he repeated, louder this time. "ME TOO," said Ahmad. "Stop being racist! Only I'm allowed to say that!" said Reed, and we giggled for a good 1.5 "Sorrow"'s. "This is actually pretty fun," I said, and everyone agreed. Just then, we were availed of rule #2: no flash photography.
As "Sorrow" entered its final hour, they started to change it up in little ways; a bit of feedback here, some overdriven, shoegazey guitars there. Johnny Marr was referenced. Beninger disappeared, then reappeared with a bottle of wine. The crowd cheered each tiny change like it was a techno concert. At one point, Berninger clapped off the beat, which was jarring. Was he losing his mind? Were we? No, nothing that exciting. Back to our regularly scheduled programming!
I felt I was finally starting to develop some strong feelings on the music, but I couldn't tell if they were positive or negative. What what it even about? One man's lifelong hatefucking affair with sadness? Drinking milk? Taking birth control pills? Being trapped in purgatory? "This song is definitely about drugs," offered Ahmad, whose balls were poking out of his shorts a little.
I am told the final moments of the performance had the dubious distinction of being the most interesting, with Berninger crunching carrots into the mic (carrots!), tromboners eating corn (corn!), and a hilarious encore performance of, you guessed it, "Sorrow." But our friend was offering to spirit us away in his van, and we knew taking the subway would be difficult for us, so we climbed aboard to seek out further adventures. "How was it?" he asked, scanning our maniacal expressions of relief. "It sucked!" we all yelled without hesitating or consulting one another. The spell of Stockholm syndrome had been broken. Goodbye, white people, we all thought together in an infantile mushroom mind meld. It's not you, it's us.
In the end, the experiment worked about as well as I thought it would back when Reed had first floated it as one of those jokes that you know you have to carry out, whether you want to or not. But I still came away with a few key findings:
- Playing the same pop song over and over again might be funny in an asinine, Dadaist sort of way, but it sure as hell ain't "sculptural sound."
- Or maybe the psychedelic effects of mushrooms just cancel out the natural high of a sound sculpture, like so much cocaine ruining your ecstasy roll?
- My friends and I are geniuses at talking ourselves into having good trips, even when we should be having terrible ones.
- The National has a pretty good sense of humor.