What do you do when you’ve played the same song for 6 hours – over 120 times – straight? If you’re The National, you play that song again, one more time, as an encore. That’s what happened on Sunday at PS1 MoMA when the band played their song Sorrow (off 2010’s High Violet) as part of a performance art installation, created by Iceland’s Ragnar Kjartansson.
He called it A Lot of Sorrow, and wanted to explore the repetitive nature of a having a song performed on loop, and how that creates “sculptural presence within sound.” It’s one thing to play the same song over and over again on your iPod or cassette tape (oh the pain that used to come from a tape damaged because of over-playing!). But it’s another thing entirely to be the artist playing that song – over and over, for hours and hours, barely a break in between it all. There were no chairs, no food or bathroom breaks. Little pieces of cut up fruit were handed out, and when Ragnar brought out burgers and beer for the band, lead singer Matt Berninger gave it to fans in the front row, as a thank you for being there “almost as long as we have.”
It felt like the band was in a marathon and we, the crowd, were providing the support, cheering in places, clapping in others, singing along to help when Matt’s vocals softened a little. His interaction with the crowd was minimal – save for a few times he would share those tiny pieces of fruit that had been handed to him, and the group stuck to the instructions to keep playing the same song over and over – singing the melancholic lyrics over and over; strumming the guitars, keeping those drums going. Every now and then, one instrument would take a step back for a quick catch of breathe, but for the most part, there was no stopping.
I was there for about 3 hours in total, but had coffee and a cinnamon bun break at M Well Dinerette inside the museum (a must-taste!) in the middle of watching the band. It’s quite something to watch a “concert” for that long, and only hear one song over and over. And in it, I found that a song about one emotion – sorrow – when played over and over again, becomes about all kinds of others: comfort, joy, irritation, humour, tedium, relief.
And perhaps that’s how it is with playing a song on an iPod (or defunct cassette player) too. The meaning of the song changes, until you can no longer bear to listen to it anymore. I only wonder if it’s like that for the band – and if they could ever stand to play Sorrow again live? Even afterwards, as we left the giant dome-like structure in which they’d been playing, the lyrics still stuck on loop in my heads, and my friend started singing them out loud, I had to ask him to please stop.