Hear the crushing steel: Zola Jesus and J.G. Thirlwell perform at the Guggenheim
As a sculptor working with scrap, John Chamberlain spent his whole career trying to escape car-accident references, and elevate base metals through alchemy.
So it was with the musicians who played the Guggenheim's Divine Ricochet series, which came to a close last night with a concert from recent coldwave favorite Zola Jesus (Nika Danilova) with longtime industrial experimentalist J.G. Thirlwell.
All of the artists in the series, chosen to complement Chamberlain's work on view at the museum, were examples of twisting out of genre: Juliana Barwick, Grouper, Cold Cave, and Zola Jesus and Thirlwell all bust both sides of art and pop, and play both sides with refuse and art as such. But why these particular artists? What do they have to say about Chamberlain's work?
Sam Brumbaugh, who programs music for exhibits at Guggenheim, said that it can be a bit of a “shell game” as to who plays with what exhibits, so the sonic relations develop only after a number of people shape the idea.
“We meet with the curators and have a chat, talk about what kind of orchestration we are looking for.” Then “we try to approach people who are doing something site-specific, because it's a bizarre space” and after that “whatever bubbles up and makes sense” becomes the bill. For this performance, Jim Thirlwell, a foundational figure in industrial music best known for his work as Foetus, was already interested in working with Zola Jesus, and the harsh, abstract aspects of Thirlwell's instrumentation coupled with Danilova's voice made sense relative to the art on display. After a site walkthrough by both, Thirlwell returned to "listen to the space." His eyes, Brumbaugh said, lit up with the possibilities in the grand emptiness.
The blunt information of a wall text can sometimes betray, reveal, or undo a work: name, author, year, materials, ownership. Take Chamberlain's Ultrafull Private, a seven-foot-high sculpture in two distinct pieces, the one stuffed into the other like a deli wrapper in a trash can. Knowing the proper name of the materials—corten steel and galvanized steel—may bring no one closer to understanding, but perhaps closer to marveling at the artist's ability to speak through a deeply challenging medium. Music is one step further removed, having no material being, and it is a brave thing to try to put one in dialogue with the other. Once Brumbaugh brought sound and sculpture together, he left the rest to trust: “We don't tell them what to do, like 'You've got to have a grinding sound because it fits in thematically.'”
Last night the Temptations' “Just My Imagination,” played over the P.A. as the crowd gathered at the museum for the final attempt at that dialogue, the luxurious psychedelic strings of Motown filling the air with unexpected warmth. The stage was small and, as at the earlier shows, curled in the apex of the museum's downward spiral, requiring musicians to arrive through the throng of (well-preserved) post-punks and (well-coiffed) coldwave kids. Thirlwell brought on the Mivos Quartet, donning headphones and positioning himself in between as the laptop trigger and the show's conductor. The quartet stood and stayed standing, including the cellist, in a semi-circle around the main microphone, to which Danilova arrived barefoot in a long white jersey dress, slit at the hips and shoulders, that morphed into an illuminated, sculptural collar wrapping up and around her head. Yet it was decidedly un-couture: looking like street clothes cut into a costume, with a neck ruff fashioned from rope-lights and lantern-like gauze.
Though capable of a vast vocal range, Danilova stayed in the smallest, strongest part of her alto, where she polished, shredded, and molded phrases to conjure a temporary, ice-cold, and tortured creature worthy of such a grand cave. The same couldn't be said of Thirlwell. The Australian-born industrial/noise artist and fixture on New York City's avant-garde and pop fringe has recently emerged as an art composer. While his composition work, such as the Kronos Quartet-approved “Nomatophobis,” has been passable, yesterday evening's performance revealed a disappointing lack in the depth in his compositional sensibility, at least in his role as an arranger.
Zola Jesus's music, as evidenced on her critically praised third album, 2011's Conatus, moves idiosyncratically through large swaths of unmetered vocalese (her exceptional vocal abilities are her primary asset) to spirited moments of danceable new-wave drum programming. While clearly coming from a grand goth/industrial tradition, she struck forth as a singular, unwavering new musician from the first promising single. Thirlwell's arrangements for last night's performance were often mere harmonic copies of the synth parts of Zola's songs, filled out by samples and the quartet's deployment of uninspired tremolos, pulsing eighths on the root, or wandering arpeggios that were meant to add movement but instead sounded plain and unadventurous.
With so many long, sensuous notes in Danilova's vocal repertoire, Thirlwell could have taken more liberty to experiment harmonically, to reinterpret her melodies, or to change the general tone of the pieces. His electronic elements played to the room's acoustics, with the uptempo elements removed—the long decay would have muddied the beats into an ugly mess. Instead single toms or kicks marked middling time, the crowd responding not with their usual Zola-show frenzy but a stilted Zola-show sway. Nothing was lost from Zola's terrific songs, but nothing was gained either.
Brumbaugh said that the main considerations for the night were how to create enough volume to envelop but not overwhelm Danilova's voice, and indeed the space was filled with sound, even though it was just a quartet and some electronics. The audience had been warned in advance to chat minimally, and, though it seemed at capacity, with spectators packing the ground floor and lining the spiral up several levels, everyone did their best to accommodate throughout the brief set. Perhaps the amplification was even too loud, but I suspect the performers erred on that side rather than risk a quiet show, punctured by audience noise.
The most surprising effect of the evening was how consonant everything was, from songs to voices to presence. Danilova's choice of white costumes is often reported to be a symbol of the hope underlying her dark music, and indeed her voice always returns to its home even when her lyrics have no such sense of solace. Thirlwell certainly wrote for the Mivos Quartet to underline the optimistic element in Zola Jesus' music, even if the resolutions were more pat than hers would ever be, despite the difference in years and the supposed wisdom that goes with that.
However purposeful or accidental their meeting was at the Guggenheim, they gave some voice to the chrome and sparkle, sounded the violence it takes to make steel twist into a cube.
Photos by Jack Jeffries, © The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.