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From the Archive: 581 cover me
The National, Grouper, and Feist
In 2013 The National performed “Sorrow” repeatedly for six hours in an art gallery in New York City. The song is about three and a half minutes long, so the show shook out to be roughly one hundred iterations of “Sorrow,” like a live broken record. They conceived this project in collaboration with the Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson, whose work mostly centers around the intersection of music and visual media. This bit of performance art, these six manic hours in the lives of the band and crew, produced a video comprised of shots from six different cameras and a nine disc LP, clear vinyl in a box set. They called it A Lot of Sorrow (2014).
I’m fascinated by this project for the reasons that the band and Kjartansson set out to create it: repetitive performance can eventually result in the euphoric, meditative state upon which all practices of religion and spirituality are built. The work poses the question: can anything be holy, if you start to believe in it?
I’ve never been religious, but I am fascinated by the practice of religion, specifically the intense experiences sometimes brought on by nothing other than belief. The power to alter one’s mind through thought itself has fascinating evolutionary implications; there are some researchers who prescribe meditation as a treatment for depression and anxiety and have made comparisons between meditation and the effects of psychedelics. Modern science has proved that the brain is porous and its pathways are malleable, and artists like Ragnar Kjartansson have sought to explore the boundaries of the flexibility, stretch the mind to its limits.
Endurance art isn’t necessarily new, but it’s been largely centered on the ability of the performer to bear pain, the foremost example of which is Chris Burden’s piece Shoot (1971), in which he had himself, you guessed it, shot. Kjartansson draws from the gentler tradition of Laurie Anderson’s Duets on Ice (1972), violin performances she gave while wearing skates encased in blocks of ice that ended when the ice had melted. If endurance art always requires a stimulus to legitimize the passage of time—Burden’s bullet, Anderson’s ice—then The National’s stimulus is themselves, each other. Playing any amount of time, but especially for hours on end, requires acute awareness of the other people in the room—you have to know when to step forward or step back, when to provide support so someone else can rest, when to lay out to create space. Simultaneously, the mind cannot withstand normal, conscious thought through such an act, which is when the euphoria starts to take hold. A Lot of Sorrow is both a practice in intense focus and complete lack thereof.
Indie musician Liz Harris, who performs under the name Grouper, was raised in a cult called the Fourth Way. In an interview for her album Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill (2008), she talks about inspirations: her moniker by her childhood in “The Group” and the title of the record by the experience of carrying around the weight of the past. This kind of religion, the kind that results in cults and childhood trauma, is impossible to separate entirely from the elation chased by Kjartansson and The National, although it can be tempting to do so. Devotion to that intensity, worship of the feeling itself, is what leads to cults in the first place.
This playlist closes with the opening song from Feist’s Metals (2011), “The Bad In Each Other:”
When good man and good woman
Can't find the good in each other
Then good man and good woman
Will bring out the worst in the other
The album was recorded in a studio built into the side of a cliff in Big Sur, California. As someone whose closest relationship to religion is a deep faith in both music and nature, I can only imagine how divine this process must have been. You can hear Big Sur in the music, the rolling vistas and breathtaking majesty of those cliffs. The lyrics are imbued with natural imagery; Metals is deeply rooted in place, in landscape. Connection to land that deep can be something to believe in.
I honestly set out to write this newsletter with the intention of addressing the Feist-Arcade Fire tour, the sexual misconduct allegations against Arcade Fire lead singer Win Butler and the subsequent departure of Feist from the remaining dates. I unfortunately am not feeling any more clarity on the situation than I have since I heard the news; on a personal level, I’m devastated. Arcade Fire has long been one of my favorite bands, and it’s hard to feel like there are simply no good men. While I thought I should address the controversy on this platform, I’ve found that I’m rather wrung out and have nothing of any import to add to the conversation.
In all this discussion of faith, I’ve thought about the extent of my obsessions, the slippery slope of idolization, the construction and projection of personality onto celebrities. Are we all doomed to discover that our heroes are terribly flawed human beings? I’m not sure how much more I can take.