The New Yorker Festival is a celebration of ideas, with provocative discussions about politics, business, film, theater, and literature. But how do you best present poignant ideas when they are sung rather than spoken?
For the 2009 edition of the festival, I decided to set out and discover the answer to that question by sampling the musically-themed offerings at the three-day extravaganza. What I discovered about the New Yorker magazine’s attitude toward culture was just as telling as what I learned about music.
I would love to meet the person who had the three bands featured at “Brooklyn Playlist” on his or her iPod prior to the October 16 event at the Bell House. Metal band Liturgy began its set with an introduction resembling some strange, distant cousin of Gregorian chant, which would soon segue into an apocalyptic din. The sonic thrashing that the quartet gave us never degenerated into inconsequential noise, but it didn’t translate into recognizable harmonic structures or melodic lines, either. Instead a blistering repetition consumed the musical landscape, seldom with the relief of “breakdowns” or grooves.
The crunk trio House of Ladosha was next on stage, providing one of the most disparate musical juxtapositions possible. A more distinctive and compelling live concert would be difficult to find—a Gothic, urban-burlesque, drag-queen show, this was performance art for all the scattered club kids out there. Visually, House of Ladosha projects a joyful hedonism and unapologetic homoeroticism that is only enhanced by the group’s sunken electronic grooves and swaggering rhythms. Sasha Frere-Jones, pop music critic for the New Yorker and co-curator (along with Kelefa Sanneh) of the concert, recalled meeting some concertgoers who weren’t won over by the spectacle: “There was one disgruntled pair of fairly drunk girls [who] didn’t like Ladosha because they weren’t playing instruments. I said, ‘It’s not that easy to walk around in heels on stage, so I think they’re working pretty hard.’” Regardless of your musical predilections, this group is a must-see.
Finally, Dirty Projectors presented an intriguing acoustic set that, while uneven, revealed the band to be the proprietors of a new paradigm in independent music. Like House of Ladosha, the group prompted a strong reaction from the inebriated. This time around, it was an unabashed supporter whose disruptive adulation of the band prompted frontman Dave Longstreth to cleverly call the young, frat-tastic man up on the stage and put him on the spot by briefly thrusting him in front of the microphone. The severely buzzed gentleman proceeded to stumble through an awkwardly assertive speech of praise in which he accidentally called the music of Dirty Projectors both “tasteless and timeless,” before quickly reminding the crowd, “The Jack & Coke touches me.” I think it’s safe to say that everyone came out of that experience a winner.
Once the music continued, the Projectors went about confirming their unidentified fan’s alcohol-soaked suspicions. While Longstreth’s classical-inflected guitar-picking gave the songs a firm footing, Amber Coffman, Angel Deradoorian, and Haley Dekle provided enchanting vocals that alternated between dulcet earthiness and nasal wailing. Despite an ungrounded “Cannibal Resource” that suffered without the use of a full drum kit, inspired renditions of “Temecula Sunrise” and “Remade Horizon” proved that these musicians are making perhaps the most sophisticated indie music anywhere. Listening to Dirty Projectors forces the listener to reconfigure his or her ideas about what a feasible pop structure is—simple verse-chorus-bridge formats are discarded in favor of a structure that draws from hip-hop’s use of two- to four-bar hooks and R&B’s “slow jam” melodic themes.
It seems to go without saying that this concert was not the New Yorker Festival–as–usual. Reflecting on his hopes for the festival fans in attendance at “Brooklyn Playlist,” Frere-Jones said, “I would like someone to think, ‘Oh, Liturgy—maybe I should check out more black metal,’ or ‘Oh, House of Ladosha—I should go rent Paris Is Burning.’”
On October 18, an equally eclectic assemblage of artists was orchestrated into a panel entitled “Radical Opera,” moderated by the New Yorker’s classical music critic, Alex Ross. If the music world fielded an all-star team of the most quirky and colorful artists in contemporary opera, it would look an awful lot like the lineup presented on the City Winery stage: opera director and frequent John Adams collaborator Peter Sellars, NYC composer-prodigy Nico Muhly, renowned singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright and prominent composer Lisa Bielawa.
Ross opened by saying that what followed would be a “wild, unstructured, and spontaneous event,” suggesting that, given the personalities assembled, he knew he would do best to simply let the panelists’ sparkling banter take its course. And indeed, Ross gave the panel more than sufficient freedom to direct the discussion in a way that felt organic and personal.
If you had previously operated under the assumption that opera and pretension went hand in hand, to hear the quintet’s conversation was to realize your hasty mistake—what followed was a nearly uninterrupted string of money quotes, brimming with vitality and irreverence. It became abundantly clear that the ideas expressed through opera, and not the institution itself, were what was valued here. “Most art is the art of the autocracy,” said Sellars, a proponent of opera as an environment of sharing and democracy. “We need to create our own oxygenated space for our generation.”
Muhly seemed to be picking up this thread when he compared opera to an enormous, rotting whale carcass within which a thriving ecosystem can survive. (So much for the sterile, grandiose bluster of the art world’s aristocracy.) Muhly, currently working on his first opera, the gay-themed Two Boys, would go on to call opera “a lot of straight Italian people’s bullshit.”
The panel seemed to suggest that it’s the creative process behind opera that makes it dynamic. “The work itself is the utopia,” said Sellars. Bielawa corroborated this when she later said, “Making the work is what makes us who we are.” Wainwright—who recently witnessed the world premiere of his first opera, Prima Donna—declared that the “agonizing process” of writing an opera requires you to be “dominated and obsessed and ruled by your characters.” Appropriately, four years after his direction of the premiere of John Adams’s Doctor Atomic, Peter Sellars still seemed compelled by his obsession: As video of lead character Robert Oppenheimer’s aria “Batter My Heart” played on several large television screens, it was as if Sellars were directing from his chair, reliving every complex emotion, gesticulating loudly so as to more wholly internalize the gravity of the scene.
Ultimately, the title “Radical Opera” proved to be somewhat of a misnomer for the panel. The majority of the musical excerpts from the artists’ work felt more run-of-the-mill than groundbreaking—particularly Wainwright’s opera-ending “aria” “Les feux d’artifice,” which more closely resembled a second-rate recitative—lovely but not compelling.
What did strike me as radical were the attitudes toward opera expressed by those poised to have a hand in the creation of new works for the next few decades. The music they were talking about was devoid of artifice and social/formal impediments. Here lay the prospects for an as-yet-unidentified movement, unencumbered by decorum, that might reclaim opera as more than just a crumbling institution.