The lights make a dream space, slicing horizontally through the fog. The room loses its geometry: no horizon lines, no corners, no walls. There’s just haze, and Nicolas Jaar stands in the middle of it, lit from behind and lit by his laptop screen, wearing a jacket even though the lights must be hot up there. The young Chilean producer warps electric currents through his synthesizers. He sings a little. Twice he cries into a baritone sax, breathing the breaths of an enormous dying animal through the brass.
It’s November 9; the United States has known the name of its next president for almost 24 hours. Jaar doesn’t say much — “Thank you all for being here” before he begins; “This one’s called ‘No’” before he plays “No.” He looks mostly at his gear, at the equipment he manipulates. When he sings, he sings into one of his stage monitors, as though he were looking to his own voice for cues.
At the end of September, Jaar released Sirens, his first studio album since 2011’s Space Is Only Noise and the third in a trilogy of full-length projects (following the soundtrack Pomegranates and the three-EP series Nymphs). The works harmonize with one another. Nymphs is tight and dense and focused, Pomegranates is sprawling and playful and spacious, and Sirens is both in equal, alternate measures. It’s hard to ignore the names. Nymphs, pomegranates, sirens: All, if you’re not careful, can trap you in hell.
Downtown, outside Chicago’s Trump Tower — one of many structures in this country bearing the name of America’s next leader — the architecture melts a little bit. There are so many people gathered outside that the line between the sidewalk and the skyscraper disappears. The president-elect’s name blares out at us in huge electric letters. We flash our protest signs against it. We hold our middle fingers to the light.
Streets I’ve walked for years become alien now that they’re filled with people. Downtown Chicago is usually calm after dark on a Wednesday, but now it’s alive, awake, enraged. Protesters climb on top of bus stops, stare down cops on horses, chant together as one voice: The people, united, will never be divided! We clog Michigan Avenue, blocking cars from driving past the high-end boutiques, the penthouses, the Apple store. People watch from the elevated train stations, cheering and chanting along. Bus drivers smile and honk in support. Motorcyclists immobilized in traffic high-five marchers as they pass. Protesters will continue marching for more than an hour after Jaar wraps up for the night. The news will say the last of the crowd went home at 1:30 a.m.
In Pilsen, Jaar sings. Most of the lyrics embedded in his music emerge as oblique missives from half-sleep. They follow their own logic — rhythmic logic, poetic logic — but rarely stick to stories outside themselves. “Replace the word space with a drink” — or maybe he’s saying “dream” — “and forget it / Space is only noise if you can see.”
Sirens is different. Its first song, “Killing Time,” was written about Ahmed Mohamed, the 14-year-old Muslim high school student who was arrested and taken away in handcuffs for bringing a homemade clock to school, because his teacher thought it was a bomb. Jaar finds resonance in the object itself, its intended purpose: “He was just building his own sense of time,” he sings. “We are just waiting for the old thoughts to die."
Like many artists this year, Jaar had already been processing the problems that erupted into full view on election night. On Sirens, he dreams in frustrations — the burn of progress, the apparent immobility of power and its manifestations. “We’ve allowed for a wheel of loss and desire / Now there’s no way to put out the fire,” he sings on “The Governor,” whose beats break more aggressively than any music he’s made before.
At Thalia Hall, Jaar’s hand is nimble. He used to perform in a band called Darkside with Dave Harrington, whose concerts involved plenty of improvisation. Here, Jaar must talk to himself, building a beat, modulating it, splattering it with noise. His grooves are huge and supple, with plenty of room for failure as he goes. He works playfully and with confidence; the work takes both precision and muscle.
Yeah, we’re all just rolling
The mothers have sunk
All the blood’s hidden in the governor’s trunk
At one point, he incorporates a sample of a chant from what sounds like a protest: “The whole world is watching.” Other moments in the music also feel rather prescient for a tour that began weeks ago, an album that was recorded months ago: “If every now and then you feel like you’ve seen it all / Then be sure to remember there’s always two sides to a wall,” he sings on “Three Sides of Nazareth.” The song “No,” too, his encore — multiple signs at the Trump protest read only the word “NO."
Then there’s his merch, sold in a room just outside the concert hall. The t-shirts and hoodies don’t say his name anywhere. The sweatshirt I buy blares the word “LIVE” three times across the front, in the same style that announces Jaar’s album titles on their covers. I think it’s written as an adjective, with a long “i,” as in “live music.” Later, when I wear it, I’ll take it as a command: “Live through this.”
Before the final votes were tallied on Election Day, I visited Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Nicolas’s father, Alfredo Jaar, who speaks to his 2-year-old son in Spanish on home recordings sampled on Sirens, has an installation on display there, the centerpiece of a photography exhibit called Witness. The artwork is a box the size of a small room. One of its outer walls is covered in fluorescent tube lights. Inside, the room is dark; there’s a screen onto which words are projected, flanked by dormant flashbulbs. In lowercase text, it tells the story of Kevin Carter, the South African photojournalist who won a Pulitzer Prize in the 1990s for a picture of a starving toddler crawling toward a food center in Sudan.
The flashbulbs go off when the photo appears on the screen. The moment is startling. The room feels unsafe. Then the image fades, and we hear Alfredo Jaar’s voice telling us of Carter’s suicide one year after taking the famous photograph. He quotes the note Carter left behind: “The pain of life overrides the joy to the point that joy does not exist.”
The next day, the marches feel as much like a funeral procession as a protest.
Music — especially loud, live music — offers catharsis, but catharsis relies on a stable returning point. You get the stress out of your system, then you go home. But what happens when the stress infects your home, when the screams and the skirmishes with cops wearing “TRUMP” pins don’t fade when the scheduled protests disperse?
Jaar’s music is beautiful, lush, and intricate, but it’s not especially hopeful. Even in his dream states, he repeats words that seem to be issued from a breaking point. “Why didn’t you save me?” he whispers in the song of the same name. “Why don’t you fight?” he asks on “Fight.” The beauty in the songs originates in his instinct to avoid pain or to wrap points of irritation in something comforting, like an oyster making pearls. His songs quiver with a restless energy that never settles. A problem, to Jaar, is better to dwell inside than it is to solve.
Those half-dreams offer space for a healthy ambivalence. In Jaar’s music, hope and sorrow are not mutually exclusive, nor do they cancel each other out. In America, same thing. We walk the streets mourning a life that is not quite gone, dreaming of a life that might not continue. The grocery stores and hospitals, the movie theaters and concert halls, they stay open. The buildings stay upright. We can see them as they are now, as they have been — but with a trick of the smoke, we can just as easily see them dissolve.