A PRECARIOUS FLAG IS PLANTED: AMERICAN (INDIE) SONGBOOK AT LINCOLN CENTERby Daniel J. Kushner
What happens when three indie music groups crash Lincoln Center’s 2010 American Songbook series?
The music of Annie Clark’s alter-ego St. Vincent is perfectly acceptable—it’s Clark herself I can’t trust. The singer-songwriter’s meandering melodies would be perfectly innocuous if they didn’t serve as the hypnotic lure to bait you into what I would call “the St. Vincent persona,” a kind of gypsy-siren whose impulsive whims and invitations to ruin are unreasonably seductive.
Look no further than “The Bed,” from St. Vincent’s latest album Actor. “We’re sleeping underneath the bed to scare the monsters out / With our dear daddy’s Smith and Wesson / We’ve gotta teach them all a lesson / Don’t move, don’t scream or we will have to shoot.” Such cryptic, oddly alluring lyrics are par for the course for Clark, a crafty composer of left-of-center songs with veiled tales of relationship intrigue.
At Lincoln Center’s Rose Hall on January 29 (a caustically cold evening), Clark and her band took the Allen Room stage in front of a scenic view of Columbus Circle. Performed live, the already dynamic songs of St. Vincent take on added dimensions, from the accentuation of the tiny flourishes in the flute, violin, and saxophones to Clark’s liberal indulgence in the guitar grooves.
Midway through the concert, Clark remarked, “This is just dreadfully pleasant.” And indeed it was. The evening was dominated by subtle masterpieces from the album Actor, like “Black Rainbow,” with its momentum-building orchestration and charming use of accidentals in the vocal line. Clark’s vocals were something akin to aural satin, smooth but tinged with edginess. With each successive song performed it felt like we were settling deeper into a forbidden but welcome spell. On “Laughing with a Mouth Full of Blood,” Clark invited Justin Vernon, the driving force behind indie phenomenon Bon Iver, to contribute background vocals—an inspired decision. Vernon sounded like a spectral memory conjured in the ether. If this performance was any indication, perhaps St. Vincent’s superior song material does Vernon’s talent a much greater service than his own tunes.
Clark had no qualms about driving “Your Lips Are Red”—the only song to represent St. Vincent’s debut album Marry Me—into complete cacophony as the set drew to a close.
St. Vincent’s performance was dynamic, intoxicating, and blessedly fatal.
The focal point of Dirty Projectors’ American Songbook set on February 19 was not the group’s most recent material, but rather something nestled in its archives/band mythology. I was at first skeptical of the group’s inclusion of their seminal 2005 opera/song cycle The Getty Address, a magnum opus of equivocal genre classification—arguably arcane at best and dubiously valuable at worst. The conundrum of Dirty Projectors’ music is this: its defining qualities—equal parts eccentricity and acquired taste—have been generally judged to be genius by the cognoscenti. Dirty Projectors brain David Longstreth writes music that is blatantly weird enough and terrifyingly intelligent enough to be accepted by the indie in-crowd. But music isn’t good simply because it’s difficult to conceive and create, and subsequently sometimes difficult to listen to.
By performing The Getty Address in its entirety—as the album demands—Dirty Projectors allowed the listeners to judge it for themselves, without the perceptive trappings of Pitchfork hanging over their heads. But while the band’s performance at the Lincoln Center’s posh Allen Room was a rare chance to share the piece with fans, on first consideration it isn’t exactly American Songbook material. Then again, where should it be performed if not at Lincoln Center? Either way, it was a gutsy move by Longstreth and company, one that felt like a stake claimed, a flag planted, rendering The Getty Address more like an aural manifesto than a collection of quirky indie-pop songs.
More specifically, The Getty Address is an impossible synthesis of timbres, genres, and instrumentation that transcends any piddling attempt at pastiche. The voices sound staunchly aboriginal yet strangely descended from crooners. Jangling guitars, vocal drones, honking trombones, somber strings of decidedly Bartókian flair, twittering electronics, and woodwinds reminiscent of mellower Stravinsky are hopelessly strange yet uncannily compatible bedfellows. In short, if it were possible for a piece of music to be the most singular, this would be it.
For those most familiar with Dirty Projectors’ 2009 triumph Bitte Orca, Longstreth’s meandering, seemingly non-sequitur melodies are intact, but the familiar, vaunted funk-rock grooves are mere abstract hints here, an outline of what could be music for dancing. Gone is the band’s vocal hocketing, in which the melody is broken apart note by note and alternately sung by multiple vocalists to create what sounds like a tightly wound human music box. In its stead is a core nexus of equally impenetrable chordal harmonies.
The thundering implementation of percussion in horn-player Matt Marks’s arrangement of The Getty Address, as performed at Lincoln Center by the contemporary ensemble Alarm Will Sound, was nothing short of revelatory. An economical use of the drum kit—consisting predominantly of permutations of hi-hat, bass, and snare—made for an intelligently nuanced approach to R&B-style drumming.
There is a telling lyric in The Getty Address: “Thank you all for being so present.” Perhaps this is a knowing wink from Longstreth, who may have sensed that this dynamic labor of love he had nurtured for so long would ultimately depend on a receptive audience to indulge him. But at the end of the spellbinding performance, an appreciative Lincoln Center audience seemed to be reaching out to Longstreth and Co. with that same sentiment.
On March 3, singer-songwriter/composer Gabriel Kahane—whose musical endeavors span contemporary art song cycles, Broadway-ish pop songs, and full-fledged concert works—presented the Lincoln Center’s American Songbook audience with a hearty sampling of his craft. Kahane’s diverse stylistic predilections were showcased in a set that included excerpts from Craigslistlieder (an irreverent song-cycle setting of anonymous Craigslist postings), selections from For the Union Dead, a collection of songs set to poems by Robert Lowell, and Kahane’s self-titled debut album. I recently sat down with the prolific young artist to discuss the Lincoln Center gig and its implications for the American Songbook and contemporary art song.
Daniel J. Kushner (Rail): Is a gig like this symbolic in some way of indie music’s arrival in the popular consciousness, or is there too much made of that?
Gabriel Kahane: I do think that there’s a trend toward the mainstream-ization of indie rock. I think that, weirdly, I’m sort of walking the line between serving [Lincoln Center’s] theater niche and their indie-rock niche. And it feels like a really great fit to me….I think a lot of people love the American Songbook—Cole Porter, Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Richard Rodgers, and all that—but I guess I feel like I’m sort of unapologetic in making that lineage known in my music, and that I’m trying to find a way to preserve that tradition in a way that’s not totally saccharine or sentimental, and so that makes this gig feel special to me.
Rail: Do you think there’s something subversive, potentially, in blatantly claiming a lineage to that in your music?
Kahane: I wouldn’t say that it’s subversive. Actually, I would say Annie Clark [St. Vincent] has a little bit of that too. I mean, if you go back to her first record, there’s definitely a lot of Cole Porter spirit in her lyric-writing and her lyrical sensibility.
To answer this question about subversion: It’s difficult to play the piano and not have people leap to the connotations with which they associate that music, which tends to be things that are sentimental, things that are sappy, cabaret, so on and so forth. I think it’s more an anachronism than it is subversive. And I do want to embrace that.
Rail: Do you think of your compositions as art song?
Kahane: I’m not really sure what we mean by that. Does it have to do with presentation? Is it an art song because it’s played on the piano? Is it an art song because the harmony is not strictly diatonic? Is it an art song because the text is a certain way?
I think it’s tempting with some of my music to talk about art song because the instrumentation is similar. I think very specifically of someone like Dave Longstreth [of Dirty Projectors]. He’s making some of the best music that there is, and I don’t think people would say, “Oh, that’s art song,” because it doesn’t sound like art song. It is deeply sophisticated and deeply beautiful. The question we really have to ask ourselves is: “Does the music transcend aesthetics?” Because I think very often what independent music is preoccupied with is an aesthetic over architectural integrity, and that’s the thing that I think is really worrisome, where journalists are often interested in critiquing an aesthetic rather than critiquing quality—the nuts and bolts of the music. And I think that in the case of Dirty Projectors, there is both a really strong aesthetic and the musical nuts and bolts are all there.
So I don’t think that the definition needs to change or that it is changing. Maybe in composing we should rethink it, and actually some of the more relevant art music is being made within the walls of independent music and not within the walls of classical institutions
About the Author
Daniel J. Kushner is a Brooklyn-based music critic whose work has also been published in Opera News and Symphony. @danieljkushner.