Driftwood Records recent 4-way 7” split of Flowers Taped to Pens, Bread Club, Skull Kid, and Beds is a miracle in design and planning. Even if you’re not surprised that split vinyl singles still exist, the fact that Driftwood crammed four bands on a tiny disk is pretty impressive. Driftwood’s pairing of west coast (San Diego’s Flowers and San Jose’s dearly departed Bread Club) and east coast (NoVA’s Beds and Pittsburgh’s Skull Kid) emo is a nice primer of the two scenes and a little bit of a whiplash for the listener.
Flowers Taped to Pens spotless guitar nicely compliments the strained, raw screamo of “I Suppose It’s Just Our Nature.” I’d be the first to admit I’ve been out of the game for a long while but I’ve never heard anything like Flowers Taped to Pens. It’s really amazing to hear the clean chiming of the guitar behind screaming so strained that I initially thought my speakers were short-circuiting. There’s a clean, almost mechanical precision to their guitar work that only highlights the raw emotion of their voices in the same way that the pure and precise movements of a dancer emphasizes the raw emotion they attempt to express. The eager energy, intricate and soaring guitar, and unfiltered emotion of Flowers Taped to Pens feeds directly into the slacker guitar workout of Bread Club.
Bread Club’s straight-outta-Subpop-titled “If Your Song Title Is – If Your Song Title Has the Word ‘Beach’ In It, I’m Not Listening to It, – I’m Not Listening To It” has more than just a titular similarity to the heyday of emo. It’s a bit of a whiplash to go from the emotionally bracing screaming of FTTP and then jump right into sunny, slightly fuzzy guitar and melodic singing of Bread Club but I like it. As an old fan of Dinosaur Jr. and 90’s emo, I can’t get enough of Bread Club’s commitment to hard charging guitar and a cutesy approach. There’s so much to love in the slight 2 and a half minutes of the song! There’s a mini-bridge that feels like a tiny cartwheel in the middle of the song’s sprint to the end, a chance to sing-along to “busting my balls,” and a whole section that is inexplicably in Spanish. It’s a joy, the sound of a highly skilled band screwing around and I haven’t been able to listen to it without smiling.
Beds’ “Sweet Dreams” capitalizes on the good vibes coming from Bread Club with a spacey and poppy intertwined guitar. The earworm chorus nicely covers up the macabre content of a song that sweetly sings “Harakiri” while the multiple (!!) dual guitar and drum breakdowns are succinct and brilliant. It’s calming, spacey, and brisk with a tightness that gets across the high-strung energy of the speaker without feeling claustrophobic. I find myself returning to the song over and over just to hear those firecracker build-ups scattered throughout the relative calm of the rest of the track.
Skull Kid’s “Avenger’s Song” continues the guitar-attack mode of the split with a chorus of voices and an impressive intertwining guitar solo that closes out the track. The band’s descriptions of a panic attack/existential crisis become inspiring and even assuring when paired with the twinkling chorus and an epic outro. It’s the most confessional song on the split and, to me, the most intimate. From the first words “I’m not ready for this yet,” it feels like a shared outpouring of anxieties. The speaker tackles everything from current problems to their fear of death, pulling the listener along as if in a conversation. By the time the guitar comes in and ushers the listener to the end of the song, it’s as cathartic as a late-night conversation with a dear friend. Check it out here or here:
The more I listen to Annakarina’s Unceremony, the more I think Mark Kozlek’s invasive and, frankly, off-putting oral fixation does an injustice to the rise of lead guitar. Initially there doesn’t appear to be a whole lot of crossover between the “beer-swilling, commercial shit” that Kozlek takes aim at and a band that has a song named titled Weltzschmers, the German term for that feeling you got when you saw the first Star Wars prequel. Yet, the sheer joy of hearing Jeremy Flynn’s guitar’s best F-Zero impression at the beginning of “Walden Pond” or the dance punk breakdown of “Rocky Sullivan Death Scene” reminds me of just how fun guitar is, dammit. There’s no shame in rocking back and forth to a guitar solo and if I want to start and finish a beer, grab another one and find my way back to my spot during that solo, well, that’s fine with me. There’s a primitive thrill in surrendering to the noise and getting your brains and ears scrubbed clean. So, friends of Kozlek, lend me your beers. Annakarina has no intention to bury the guitar in the mix or otherwise.
“Austere” gentle chiming and slow plod leads into full-automatic bursts of drums that immediately showcase Annakarina’s post-hardcore leanings without too much of a heaping helping of the abrasive experimentation that characterizes the genre. There’s just enough melodic weirdness to carry the listener into “Walden Pond,” which opens with the decidedly post-hardcore couplet of “My Aunt died/ Alone in the shower,” and into the depths of the band’s own brand of catchy and ambitious hardcore. Visions of mathrock danced in my head as “Sunflower, In Nightgown” deceptively straightforward thrashing turned into hardcore and even a quick reenactment of the classic Squeedly vs. Meedly feud immortalized in 80’s metal guitar solos. “Our Fair Oppressors” guitar falls like ribbons over a screen of cymbals, collapses into a haze of feedback, and finally rallies to a dueling bass and drum solo in one of the most enjoyable parts on the whole album.
There’s a sense of movement to the whole album, a physical aspect to the ambition that underscores the songwriting. The songs go somewhere. No matter whether the band starts down familiar alleyways or traces the steps of their identifiable influences, there’s risk-taking and confidence to their playing that always takes their songs just off the path of the familiar. “Rocky Sullivan Death Scene’s” dance-punk outro is maybe the most characteristic Annakarina song: a straightforward and extremely precise post-hardcore track that allows the momentum of the song to determine where the band should go. The goofy digression has more than a passing resemblance to the glory days of Hot Topic and I love that Annakarina embrace it entirely. In a genre that rewards intellectual, challenging, and sometimes cold playing, that silly preppy cymbal ride in the midst of the solo shows that Annakarina knows that their sense of humor and fun doesn’t need an apology or stand opposed from their ambitions.
“Chimeras” contemplative picking and lightning quick runtime is a post-hardcore treat before plunging into “Weltzschmers” all-out experimentation. From the wall-of-text lyrics to the wiggling guitar scales and panicked drumming, it wears its influences proudly. I can hear a bit of Slint in the melancholy bridge, some fist-pumping lyrical emo in the wall of guitars and sincerity. I wouldn’t put it past them to intentionally sound like Orchid to tie their name and Orchid’s famous lyrical inspiration in a nifty, abstruse referential bow. It’s tight, clever, and exhausting, which, by the tone of the content of the next song, is exactly what they wanted. “Successions” is the most characteristically post-hardcore track on Unceremony and one of the nicest. The confessional, uplifting lyrics, coupled with drops of guitar leads into a shouted chorus and a truly gorgeous ambient section that decays into noise. It’s a gorgeous song and it doesn’t really matter that it reminds me the most of other bands; the outro genuinely echo the stirring feelings I get when listening to Mogwai or the more upbeat major post-rock bands. By the time “Litany of Loreto” direct punk finishes up the album, it feels more like a victory lap; Annakarina has already proven that they’re capable of much more than a typical punk track like “Litany.” Still, I love that the band lets the listener come down and take a bit of a break after “Successions” spiritual and emotional affirmation.
Annakarina has made an approachable, clever, and, yes, fun, album. For all those still holding onto a love of emo, post-hardcore and sonic grit, Unceremony gives a reason to proudly defend the guitar in the face of brutish beasts and Red House Painters.
The New Pornographer’s “War on the East Coast” is aggressively apathetic, just like the classic Brit-pop they’re emulating. The chugging guitar at the beginning and Dan Bejar’s vocals have more than a passing resemblance to Jarvis Crocker’s Pulp but its the shimmering synth and infernally catchy chorus that really captures the spirit of its ancestors. As soon as Bejar mentions Stravinsky, a synth line sparkles before disappearing into a swell of guitar and the guitar starts into a gallop. As Bejar pulls back on the reins during the next verse, you can hear the guitars straining against the beat of the drum. As he enters the chorus, he lets go of all restraint and the guitars burst upward and synthesizers billow into great clouds of cool beauty above Bejar’s triumphant “Oh, I don’t care / I don’t ca-are!” It’s a dizzying moment, a triumphant, furious scream to a failed relationship that serves as a rallying cry as much as personal revelation of failure. It’s a fist-pumping sigh, an arena-pleasing painful diary entry, and a perfect summarization of all that made Pulp, Blur, and The Stone Roses a lasting force in modern music (and my personal library).
I think its funny that A.C. Newman lip syncs Bejar words as Bejar plays the stoic badass but I absolutely love that The New Pornographers chose to do a video that not only reflects but also embraces the spirit of their song. The whole indifferent, invincible cool guy image (and that single take!) would absolutely have fit into the Brit Pop scene if it was made in the 90’s.
Seeing Bob Mould was a big deal. Yeah, he’s one of the living legends and pillars of alternative or indie or whatever you want to call the kind of music that has loud guitars, is atypically poppy, and a little bit more difficult and complex than what’s played on the radio. And the tour I saw him on was playing my favorite Mould album, Workbook, so I’d finally be able to see and hear an album and artist that’s changed me entirely. Mould’s music is foundational, not only for the kind of music that I love but also for who I am. He’s an “old” artist of mine, one that I don’t listen to his music much because I’ve memorized most of his work, and as I fidgeted on the rail on 9:30 Club, I hummed as old songs echoed from memories of bedrooms, car trips, and forgotten days. But none of that is why seeing Mould was so important to me. I was anxious and excited because tickets to the Workbook tour were surprise birthday presents to my Dad who, by barking along to Jane’s Addiction, had started me down the crooked road of alternative.
If I trace my love of music – alternative that morphed into indie and then spider webbed out to countless genres – then I can pinpoint its origin to my early memory of walking past the computer room as my Dad worked on taxes and listened to Jane’s Addiction “Got Caught Stealing.” My five-year-old self was very confused and kind of excited to hear my Dad was barking like a dog along with the song. I was confused: How can music have dogs in it? They don’t sing and that’s what music is. And what got my Dad so excited that he would bark? After all, he’s usually so reserved. One of my earliest memories, too, is sitting on his lap and listening to “It’s Too Late” by Bob Mould and singing along. It was weird music. The guitars were a lot louder and went on longer than normal. Mould’s voice wasn’t pretty at all. In fact, he sounded like my Dad. It was big and loud and Mom yelled when Dad would turn it up because when it got too loud, it moved the things in the room. The music touched me, pushing my shirt around and getting into my chest. It was strange and untamed and I remember getting so excited that I started running around the room, feeling the music grab at my shirt, push me around, and shout as loud as me.
Dad has said that Bob Mould is one of his favorite artists of all time as long as I can remember and I knew that seeing Mould was the fulfillment of a nearly 30-year musical goal. He’d first been introduced to alternative in college after falling in love with Squeeze’s “Black Coffee in Bed” and then stumbling into the hardcore, punk, “college rock,” and other budding seeds of alternative while at St. Vincent College. To hear Dad tell it, the most important part of college wasn’t the double degree but a new way to think, feel, and listen. It was his stories of listening to Hüsker Dü, Jane’s Addiction, Dinosaur Jr. and R.E.M. that cemented college in my mind as a haven, a place where “weird” music (and, in many ways, my father) started. As that music changed my Dad, I was also changed by his stories of the music.
My father’s stories, the ways he talked about what the lyrics might be saying underneath just how fun they were to sing, his constant questions about what I thought about the “story” behind the instrumentation, made his “weird” music provocative. As I got older, I poured over Mould and other bands like I would books, slicing them up and “reading” their every note and tone. I fell in love with music because my Dad showed me how to “read between the lines.” In four minutes or so, I could listen to a song and find things just as emotional, intelligent, and challenging as my favorite books. They were stories, tools that I used to figure things out about others and me. Since Mould was one of the first artists who taught me to “read,” to look into why his voice almost cracks in “Heartbreak A Stranger” and figure out why the shimmering “Sunspots” comes before the vicious “Wishing Well,” I love Bob Mould. But I don’t love him nearly as much as Dad, who’s hinted that Mould is what got him through tough parts of his life. I remember one time that he gave me Black Sheets of Rain, saying, “Listen to this to get the darkness off you.” Lemme tell you that album is so angry and sad and dark that I can’t even conceive of how dark and hurt my Dad has been in his life. And I don’t really have to ask, I guess, I can just listen and try to understand my father.
Before I get to the show, I wanted to provide a little bit of history about Workbook.
Mould was the leader of Hüsker Dü, a post-hardcore band from Minneapolis, who ended up to be one of the most important hardcore bands of all time and even laid tracks for alternative music. They started as just a bunch of punk kids playing hardcore and then with Landspeed Record they became one of the fastest bands out there, completely killing any idea of melody for just rhythm and ferocity, stripping music down to its bare essentials and pushing it as far as it can possibly go. Landspeed is one of the most important hardcore albums of all time and the band would have easily lived forever if they had perfected the attack from there. Instead, Bob pushed the band further, creating Zen Arcade, that melded hardcore speed that only they could do with a narrative about growing up that seemed to encapsulate all of the 80’s. Even more revolutionary was its blend of hardcore speed and angular melody with pop songwriting. Underneath all that snarl and anger and noise was a pop song, something fully formed and weird and beautiful. It’s a masterpiece, really. A couple years later and the band exploded, leaving angry feelings and Bob stranded in a rural farm in Minnesota. So, Workbook is the first album after Husker detonated and the first solo Mould album. It’s also a bit of a break-up album as Bob worked through the anger and hurt and heartache of the Hüskers. But how he expressed his anger is what makes the album so important and monumental. See, Bob used to be the fastest gun in the west, tossing out six-shooter shots from his Flying V, blowing people out of the water with the speed and ferocity of his playing. So, you’d think that the first album, which turned out to be Workbook, would be a molten, scathing album, full of volcanic solos and noise, right? Makes the most sense.
The show (and album) opened with the quietest “fuck you” of all time, Workbook’s gorgeous instrumental “Sunspots.” The showstopper originally showed that Bob had moved on, musically and artistically from the Huskers, and it is always awed me. It’s the biggest, most poignant, and most cutting musical move of any artist I can think of. As the album goes on, it is apparent that the acoustic-based album is a very planned statement against his band. It is a show of moving on, growing, becoming more than he was. It is, quite simply, brilliant. “Wishing Well’s” moaning strings and alliterative lyrics followed, slinking into the darkness of Mould’s music with the Hüskers before skipping through shafts of light during the chorus to show that Mould’s moved on but he hasn’t forgotten his roots. The live version was fantastic as Mould hunkered over his guitar, spitting out a stream of notes as if in response for his calls of “there’s a price to pay for a wish to come true.” It’s a volcanic song, one full of pain and regret and anger, and the live version blistered across the stage.
The steady picking of “Heartbreak a Stranger” segued into jangling guitar and a soaring chorus that built and built. By the time the bridge came around and Mould wordlessly screamed after the chorus, I was speechless. I’d always loved the song but seeing it live, with Mould screaming into the dark with eyes closed over the buffeting guitar, I was struck to my core. The lyric’s pain was stark and naked, shifting between moments of clear beauty of Mould’s acoustic and anguish as he sang. By the time “See a Little Light” came on, I was nearly in tears. In concert, Bob played “Light” heavier than the album version, electric instead of acoustic, and the anger and pain behind the song was more apparent. It very clearly was a song about a breakup without the power pop of the recording that masks some of the hurt with beauty. But here it was clear. It was out in the open. As Bob says,
As the years go by, they take their toll on you
Well, think of all the things we wanted to do
And all the words we said yesterday
Well, that’s a long time ago
It was very clear how much he hurt and how painful the whole breakup was. There was no beauty to mask it, just noise and electricity and pain as he saw how much everything soured and how much he screwed up. And I started crying there. It’s such a dead thump as he delivers that last line over the buzz of the guitar and the scream of the cello. There’s no reversing time, no time travel, and he knows that he can’t go back to how it was. He’s sick to his stomach. His guitar screeched and he hurled himself at the strings. He played furiously, as if he was pushing the hurt back into the guitar. He played like he wanted it all back, that he can’t believe that it ever changed. The guitar hissed and spit at the audience as he flung himself at it, moving so quickly and violently that it seemed like he was strangling it, fighting it.
The Black Sheets Of Rain stand-outs “Stand Guard” and “Stop Your Crying” audience sing-alongs were lost amongst the searing noise and roars coming from Mould before the spectacular Hüsker Dü “No Reservations” clawed its way out of the bleak noise lingering at the end of “Stop Your Crying.” Mould had already showed that his music hadn’t lost any passion and his performance of “No Reservations” made it very clear that he also hasn’t lost any of his ferocity. It was vicious, fast as hell, and startling beautiful. As I listened, I was struck by how “No Reservations” drove home Mould’s skill in songwriting. Underneath all the noise and speed, there were gorgeous, sophisticated, and pure melodies. In fact, if I stripped away Workbook’s “Poison Years” twisting guitar, I was sure that it wouldn’t stick out alongside other pop songs. Mould’s been praised and imitated for his musical innovations and unflinching lyrics but I had never considered just how brilliant of a pop writer he was. I’d always thought the next two songs, “Brasilia Crossed with Trenton” and “Sinners and Their Repentances,” could have easily snuck into R.E.M.’s blockbuster Automatic for the People but I’d never seen that they could have also given the other six singles a run for their money.
After “Sinners,” Mould talked to the audience and said that he was very proud of Workbook and the upcoming album. The audience’s reaction was quiet so he joked, saying it’s no big deal, just a lifetime of effort’s accumulation. After he said it, he began to think, saying that the new album is more than just his lifetime, but all the lifetime’s he’s touched, saying that, after all, his art as a musician is to “steal from his favorite albums. Because let’s not be pretentious, all we are trying to do is make something that beats the Beatles. Or the Ramones. Or My Bloody Valentine.”
I gasped. He loves MBV, too? I guess I wasn’t too surprised but I liked hearing him say it. As “Lonely Afternoon’s” bouncing, McCartney-esque bass line started over his squalling guitar, I thought about what it meant that he’d mention the Beatles, a band so synonymous with universal praise that many critics don’t even mention them as influences, and My Bloody Valentine, a band that’s also highly praised but is not universally beloved. I wondered what separated the two bands, why one would appeal to others and not the other. I loved both and thought they were fantastic and heart wrenching and true. I don’t think it’s the music or message that alienates people from MBV or even Mould’s music. It’s the time it takes to understand what is essentially very simple about their music. It’s that some listeners don’t want (or enjoy) spending time to kneel before something, whether it is a book or album, and be defeated and confused for ages until it makes sense. After all, it took me over a year of listening to “get” MBV and I’ve been working on listening, researching, and “reading’ music for half my life.
I thought MBV’s “Loveless” might be the archetype of the kind of music Mould and others play. My Bloody Valentine “Loveless” created something that is utterly detestable, incoherent, and senseless upon first appearance, something that almost guaranteed that the first time listeners will find it unapproachable. But upon subsequent listens and with time, something will change. They’ll understand a part of it; they’ll like a part of it. And then with more time, the album will unlock more as it reveals itself more. And after a very, very long time, it will be fully revealed, that its language will actually be able to be read. Finally, the listener is able to understand the language it speaks. And once you see the language it is speaking, the album becomes not a noisy mess of distortion and anguish but one of the most beautiful works of art ever put to tape and I’m not even being hyperbolic. Then, from there, it is a matter of understanding what it is trying to say and that, thankfully, can take a lifetime. Its an album of infinite reward, infinite mystery and beauty that gives and gives to those who are determined to go back to it, to kneel and work on what it’s trying to say. To those who understand, to those who have the patience, maybe even just the special ones who can get past its initial blast of noise and abrasiveness, it offers an infinite richness. James Joyce can’t be understood in a single reading (hell, there still isn’t any academic agreement on all of Ulysses) and maybe neither could MBV or Mould or R.E.M. or any of those other bands that have had a hold of me for so long. Mould and the concert was a vision of art that maybe others didn’t understand but that was beautiful to me, that made sense to me.
Mould played “Descent” and as he sung about regrets, hope, and music, I thought back to “See a Little Light.” And what he’d been saying the whole concert hit me like a hammer. He’s sorry and guilty and he feels just as sad as he is angry. He’s sad to see anything happen to the Huskers, to others, to himself, even if he thinks that he was wronged. But it doesn’t even matter. It doesn’t matter who did what or what happened. It only matters that he is hurt and he’s in a dark place and he wants his friends, his band, and his purpose back. And he’s on his knees begging them to come back to him. Begging to be told that there’s light at the end of the long dark. He’s hurt and angry but he’s also sad and lonely and he wants it all to come back. As “Descent” picked up, the music began to soar. The song changed completely, switched keys and just lifted up into the air and I felt my chest being tugged skyward as Bob’s pleas to see a little light or to get out of that descent becomes hopeful, confident, and changing instead of just desperate. He CAN see a little light. He knows that there is light. He doesn’t need to hedge his bets or wonder if he’s just making stuff up. And he CAN see the light in their eyes and his question has turned from asking them to confirm if they still care to a statement of fact. He’s moved past his own vision of darkness, the darkness that scares him and hurts him, and he’s opening his eyes, trying to see that light again.
As “Walls in Time” came on, Mould struggled with the same questions I had been asking myself: What’s the point talking if no one understands you? What’s the use of “explaining again and again?” If “flowers, when moved from place to place, lose all meaning, dislocation…” then how can he possibly sing about himself? As if in response, Mould played Sugar’s “Helpless,” which shouts “And now you find as time goes by/ You’re left with nothing meaning much / The meaning I will have to try / To take your mind to places” before the guitar swirls around his chorus of “I feel so helpless.” It’s a powerful, claustrophobic performance but coupled with the last song, Sugar’s “Hoover Dam,” its defeated rumble burst into a confident, exultant yell.
As the audience traveled with Bob from the Hoover Dam to Mississippi to New Orleans, from Hüsker Dü to Sugar to now, from anger to insecurity to confidence, his voice and guitar began to climb. There was light, not only outside the darkness, but inside of him. He’s been “covered with lava and I feel fine / It washes over me / keeps me feeling warm at night;” It’s all going to be healed. And as the song pounds down the dirt road, practically running toward the light, Moulds’s guitar stopped growling and began to sing. It lit the room like a floodlight, him bending back and forth, surrounding it with his body as he cradled it, rocked it, caressed it. The anger and hissing had been tamed and now its noise became a blanket around him instead of veil, covering him from the rest of the world. It still shielded him but with warmth and love instead of mist and darkness. And as he sung, it seemed like I was changing along with him, that I was doing that same stuff along with him.
He’d stood on the edge of the Hoover Dam, stood on the edge of three extremely influential and successful bands, and jumped off or backed off and he’d still survived. He’d been singing about what it’s like to live in a parallel universe, some part that others can see but never touch or step through. And over on his side, it’s a whole different vision, a whole different world. To most people, its noise. To Mould and my father, who showed it to me, it’s a hymn. And I was near tears as I looked over at my Dad singing and smiling along because maybe I thought that the song was him singing to me or me singing to him or just Bob singing to both of us. But as the guitar started to gallop and light started to shoot across the insides of my eyes, as I began to picture faces and places and feelings from long ago, I knew that we were all looking at different places, feeling different things, yet all standing together looking into the light.
The Apollonian and Dionysian Forces of Music and Tragedy in Byrne’s art
The Dionysian aspects of Byrne’s art eliminates the individual, immersing the listener in a communal experience through rhythm and emotion, while the Apollonian aspects of his art communicate personal, particular perspectives of Dionysian emotions that keep the audience aloof from the intensity of Byrne’s words. While Byrne’s music bridges the gaps between the two drives, his interest in performance as seen in Stop Making Sense and True Stories especially emphasizes the tragic nature of his music. Nietzsche states tragedy fulfills the necessity and equivalent illusion of giving objective and absolute meaning to the difficulty of life, and demonstrates the intertwined nature of the Dionysian and Apollonian in human being. Tragedy imparts the same revelations that are gained by the artistically sensitive man who “pays close attention and derives pleasure from it; for out of these images he interprets life for himself, in these he trains himself for life” (BT 1). Nietzsche claims the Apollonian drive yields the “principium individuationis, through whose gestures and looks all the pleasure and wisdom and beauty of ‘appearance’ speak to us” (BT 1). This “principle of individuation” asserts “I exist distinctly from others and I am not dependent on anything for my being.” The Apollonian gives the individual hope that they can remain outside the chaos of life, that they can, like a “sailor sitting in a small boundless raging sea, … trusting to his frail vessel,” “sit calmly in the middle of a world of torment, trusting to the principium individuationis” (BT 1). The Apollonian inspires the individual to think they are safe in their logical boat while the Dionysian chaos rages around (and through) them. However, no matter how watertight Apollonian logic is, they can only hope to temper but not fully control the Dionysian aspects of life just as a well-built boat cannot stop but only weather a storm. Nietzsche claims the Dionysian is necessary in order to force the individual to “produce the redeeming vision and then to sit in calm contemplation of it as his small boat is tossed by the surrounding sea” (BT 4). The Dionysian aspects of life compel and define the Apollonian as a necessary impulse.
Music, or the Dionysian, is thus responsible for the birth of tragedy, or Apollonian visual art. Byrne’s own experimentation with pure emotion in Speaking in Tongues focuses the Dionysian roots of music through absurd Apollonian lyrics to clearly demonstrate that the Apollonian is always, and at best, an illusion of control and meaning over the Dionysian. Byrne commented that “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)” was “quite moving without literally meaning anything” and the impact of the song’s nonsense combination of images and phrases of the songs were properly expressed in the music video where “one group of performers” is substituted by another, by a group of imposters” to show “one personality or one image being layered on top of another” (Steenstra 90). Nietzsche’s statement that music’s components of “song and lyrical mood, willing (the personal interest in goals) and the pure contemplation of the available surrounding are blended together in a wonderful mixture: relations between both are sought and imagined; subjective mood, the affection of will communicates its colour to the contemplated surroundings and vice versa in a reflexive movement: the genuine song is the imprint of the mixed and divided emotional state” (BT 5). Simply, the music of Byrne’s nonsense words communicates emotions and meanings that are wholly separate from the literal meaning of the words but the combination of music and lyrics allows the literally nonsense words to be affecting, even moving, and capable of immense subtlety and complexity. While the Dionysian is the foundation of all music, the Apollonian is essential to counter the chaos of raw emotion. Byrne puts it best as he explains his song’s Dionysian foundation, saying, “Talking Heads songs, and even the shows, were still mostly about self-examination, angst, and bafflement at the world we found ourselves in. Psychological stuff” (Byrne 45). He elaborates by saying that he countered the chaotic emotions with “Inward-looking clumps of words combined with my slightly removed ‘anthropologist from Mars view of human relationships” but says “the groove,” the Dionysian rhythm at the core of the band, “was always there, as a kind of physical body-oriented antidote this nervous angsty flailing, but the groove never took over. It served as a sonic and psychological safety net, a link to the body” (Byrne 45). Music links the body to the mind through its fusion of imageless expressions of rhythm to the structured literal meaning of words, yet Byrne has show that music’s Dionysian foundation colors (and can completely change) the Apollonian structure of words. Steenstra claims Byrne’s singing “values distance but combines it with nearness, merging his own personality with the personality of the songs he constructs” (86). In many ways, this is a definition of how music combines the group and the individual, the Dionysian and Apollonian, and how the singer’s representation of emotions must be recreated. The Apollonian defines and represents the song’s theme but the Dionysian particular emotions of the sing imbue the song with emotion, as Byrne says, “like adding water to freeze dried food,” and make the song into a recreation, rather than representation of the particularities that inspired the song (Steenstra 86).
Without the Apollonian, the chaos and absurd causality of the Dionysian would threaten the individual with “tremendous horror which grips man when he suddenly loses his way among the cognitive forms of the phenomenal world, as the principle of reason in any of its forms appears to break down” (BT 1). Without a veil of reason and structure over chaos, the individual would be bogged down by the “lethargic element in which all past personal experience is submerged” (BT 7). Without the Apollonian, the Dionysian knowledge of the world would make one unable to act as, “action can change nothing in the eternal essence of things” (BT 7). If one is ruled by the Dionysian alone, then everything is seen as futile because “true knowledge, insight into the horrific truth, outweighs any motive leading to action” (BT 7). But an individual ruled entirely by the Apollonian is fated to tread “ground elevated high above the real paths trodden by mortals” that is ultimately illusory (BT 7).
The tragic play is a public conflict between the inevitable and unavoidable Dionysian disorder, disintegration, and death and the individual’s Apollonian attempts to avoid, shape, or reject the world around them. The Dionysian and Apollonian forces of Byrne’s art create a tension that is at the heart of Byrne’s music and lyrics.
Identity and the Apollonian and Dionysian
One of the properties of the Dionysian and Apollonian is to eliminate and reinforce individuation, respectively. Byrne exploits these properties in his work with his focus on mundane, universal subjects that nevertheless contain extreme, particular emotion. Byrne’s characters and situations allow listeners to substitute their particular experience with the perspective of the character. Or, as Byrne wrote, “the text is merely a distraction, a set of brakes, a device to get you to look at the picture for longer than you would ordinarily” (Steenstra 188). Byrne’s work forces the listeners to look closer at their existence, whether it is picking apart the structure of a routine to see the motivations of actions that have become invisible by familiarity or confronting the terrible emotion that lies under the ordinary, unsettlingly relatable thoughts of a psycho killer. Byrne’s Apollonian distance force the listener to be as a spectator to their own life which “draws attention to the theatrical signification by situating the staged reality within the context of a broader ‘reality’ that renders it artificial and constructed rather than natural and immediate” (Morris 53). Through Byrne’s intentional and apparent contrast of the Dionysian and Apollonian, Byrne gives the audience time for reflection, intentionally breaking the illusion of his art, to “briefly give up seeking illusion and acknowledges, even celebrates its own artificiality” (Morris 54).
Byrne claims that his goal during his time in Talking Heads was to “make boring things seem dramatic, instead of dramatic things seem boring. Like scratching your head in front of a few thousand people isn’t the same as scratching it in front of your family…” (Steenstra, pg. 105). Bryne was always concerned with turning even the most prosaic ordered, Apollonian task and expose its Dionysian core. Byrne rooted his music in experience, showing the particularities and uniqueness of even the most overseen habit, such as scratching your head. While the Talking Heads music and lyrics are simple, aggressive, and fast, Byrne uses precise language and context to make the dance-hall patron think about what they were dancing to. Vivien Goldman said, “The Talking Heads… inject[ed] New York’s downtown punk/new wave’s hedonistic scene with some avant-garde heft.” One of his most famous songs with the Talking Heads, “Psycho Killer,” consists of banal and oddly common phrases (“I hate people when they’re not polite,” “Say something once, why say it again”) that were apparently sung from the mind of a “psycho killer.” While the audience danced to the song’s latin-esque groove and frenetic beat, each listener questioned how such boring thoughts could be sung by a character that is defined as sub-human and “outsider” to all human values and society. Byrne confronted the audience with the “problematic relationship between language and self, or language and reality,” or more succinctly, the neat Apollonian structures of language and the unordered, chaotic reality of the Dionysian (Steenstra 41). Byrne’s exploration with language questions the conception that definitions of personality through words and thoughts are valid. His psycho killer may have a voice that is similar to “normal people” but the listener knows that although they may share the same thoughts of the killer, they are not poised to kill if they have one particularly bad day. The boring lyrics of “Psycho Killer” make the listener think about the way that personality is constructed, the underlying tension between actions and the individual’s character, and the expression of those actions or thoughts through words.
Byrne’s art is an interactive dialogue rather than a monologue. Listeners contextualize the universal and abstract nature of music to apply to themselves. Kathleen Higgins claims that Nietzsche understood that “language itself is inherently social” and thus, inherently Apollonian (Higgins 664). She claims that the “individual must subordinate the aspects of his experience that are unique and personal to the generalized, conventional categories that specific words label and connote” (Higgins 664). Byrne, too, understood the Dionysian and Apollonian conflict between tone and literal meaning, as shown by the previous example of his nonsense, yet poignant lyrics in Remain in Light.
Byrne continued to experiment with words, or the Apollonian drive, as a mask of the true nature of the individual and the Dionysian reality of life in his first feature film True Stories. David had also become fascinated by daily ritual, especially as displayed by television’s role as an everyday performance in American lives. Byrne represents television as a physical manifestation of the Apollonian desire for structure, illusion, and predictability in the audience’s life. In the film, the hapless, single Louis attempts to find love as he goes through his daily routine of work, dates Lying Woman and Cute Woman, and participates in the rituals of dinner, nightclubs, and church. Byrne’s concept of language is represented by the character of Lying Woman who appears in various scenes of the movie to tell patently ridiculous personal achievements that could not have possibly happened. Yet, Lying Woman honestly believes her stories and defines herself in the light of her fictional achievements. Steenstra states that “the stories in True Stories do not represent an objective, impersonal reality; they are model scenarios for the ways in which people fashion their identities” (120). Byrne posits that the Apollonian structure of language possess the power to encompass and form the individual through the individual’s belief of their words. Language’s restrictions hide the mind in the constraints of expression, which cuts off the speaker from the Dionysian subtlety and complexity of life.
Byrne’s interest in the influence of ritual and television is incorporated into his concept of the power of language. During the end of the movie, Louis sings “People Like Us” at a televised talent completion and, through the broadcast, Miss Rollings, who never leaves her bed and television, falls in love with him. She is so inundated in Apollonian ritual that she believes that it is Dionysian reality. She is trapped in a the literal “proliferation” of television’s single image, “deluding [herself] that he sees one single image of the world” (BT 21). The television, and thus the Apollonian, “reduces history to bite-size entertaining samples, with its diametrically opposed counterpart: the “larger perspective” in which the majority of human activities appear as vain and idle” (Byrne 118). Miss Rollings is completely molded by the appearance of the Apollonian and she is unable to think, to feel, to want or even move without the commands of the television. The Apollonian has become so blinding that she is completely isolated from and unable to participate in the Dionysian. In “People Like Us” Louis explains that he is a representation of common man and women who are “waitin’ on love” and because television is able to broadcast his story to Miss Rollings she is able to fall in love with him. Steenstra explains that, because Louis expressed himself using an Apollonian medium, his truth “is accepted by [Miss Rollings] as a personal reality, and in consequence is made true by his [Apollonian] behavior” (120). Because Louis expresses his Dionysian feelings in an Apollonian way, he is finally able to become who he wanted to be: a man who is in love. Louis becomes who he wants to be through the Apollonian mediums of language and performance and Byrne clearly shows that language is more than a mask for the self but is also “used for self-definition and to shape intimate relationships” and is an “important ritual aspect of everyday life” (Steenstra 120). True Stories clarifies Byrne and Nietzsche’s definition of masking and simultaneous defining nature of the Apollonian over the Dionysian.
Byrne’s work as a sculptor, ballet composer, and solo artist continued to “emphasize language and ideas as the true essence of art and that all visual experience and sensual joy were secondary and inessential to art” even as he worked in mediums that he infused with sensual and emotional elements that remained from his time as a rock star (Steenstra 4). Byrne’s theme of language’s self-defining and paradoxically concealing quality had manifested into a conception of routine ritual. Every routine of Apollonian order, such as driving, brushing teeth, conversation at the water cooler, has an influence on the individuals that perform the rituals. Their routine blinds them to Byrne’s thesis to put ordinary things in extraordinary circumstances carried over to his work as the composer of the ballet The Catherine Wheel when “A Big Blue Plymouth” forces the main character to twitch, convulse, and shake like a mystic or at other times appear to take on the composed frenzy of an evangelist or even perform the erratic spasm of a mental patient as they sit behind an automotive symbol of America. The Big Blue Plymouth, the ultimate symbol of the sterile force of the visual Apollonian form, inspires a Dionysian fervor and clearly represents the risk of following the Apollonian to believe exclusively in the “external symbol of all the different aspects of the inner [Dionysian] emotions” (Kurth 11). The Apollonian has the potential to completely subsume and reduce the Dionysian. As Byrne sings advertising phrases next to spiritual slogans, Byrne’s concept of the most prevalent ritual and performance, the presence of television, is seen to be “a kind of demigod, influencing the lives of mere mortals beyond their understanding, always ready to transport consciousness to distant scenes and places” (Steenstra 113). The never-ending Apollonian performances of television allow each viewer to switch between channels and effectively choose which stories or language that they want to believe in.
Television’s daily ritual and Byrne’s themes of performance and language overlap in his notion of the power of television. During Byrne’s time in the Talking Heads, language was at odds with the personality communicating the language and effectively functioned as a mask for the true identity of the mind. In his film work, Byrne defined language as a tool to form the individual’s identity as much as language disguised true identity. Byrne began to incorporate language as a critical part of performance and ritual, which he posited as the most influential factor of definition of the individual. Finally, in his later artistic endeavors, Byrne chose to represent television as the ultimate ritual and thus, the most significant influence in the formation of each individual. Byrne wrote that the obvious artificiality of music is because “in its own self-defined universe it is eminently listenable and beautiful. This beauty is the seductress that draws one in to this joyous mechanical universe, makes the introductions and invites one to linger” and the same seductive artificiality can be applied to the appeal of television (Byrne, “I Have Seen The Future…” 10). Television interprets the world for us, it bursts in on our lives through the living room, and each person is responsible for what channel and language that they want to shape their lives. Byrne inventively uses language, sound, and storytelling to expose the building blocks of daily performance in different forms that shape and influence each member of his audience’s personality and perspective of reality.
The Dionysian and Apollonian at Play
Byrne plays with the interplay between audience and artist with self-aware lyrics and music in order to exploit the transformative personal power of music to engage in an Apollonian discussion. Byrne writes in such a unique style so that his audience will think about his lyrics and as they think about his lyrics, he wants them to think about him thinking about them so that the audience is at once engaged with the song and artist simultaneously. In this way, Byrne’s audience understands the Dionysian roots of the song’s subject, the Apollonian structure of the song, and the Dionysian emotion of Byrne, the Apollonian composer, all refracted simultaneously.
Byrne’s radical emotional and philosophical core of his lyrics shifts the listener’s personal experience and transforms them as they experience the universal sentiments of the lyrics and simultaneously connect to a particular context that is alien to their own.The Dionysian and Apollonian aspects of Byrne’s music work allow the listener to experience their lives in a different context by forcing them to substitute and shift their experience upon encountering the experiences communicated in Byrne’s work. Byrne alienates the listener from their body with his Apollonian lyrics while simultaneously drawing them closer to their body with his Dionysian compositions. Byrne is an anti-Wagner because Byrne “understands how anyone can fail to experience what he experiences” and does not “criticize the public for their failure” but rather “questions himself” (Morris 48). Byrne’s intentional ambiguity “prompts the observer to enter into reflection on the nature of his own existence” but the reflection provides “no real answer, so that the observer feels ‘alienated from his own being’” (Morris 49). Byrne’s music celebrates the “intellectual,” or Apollonian, and “emotional,” or Dionysian, aspects of his subjects to give “content and meaning to his musical experience for one seeks in vain to correlate in the aesthetic object itself” (Love 191). The Dionysian and Apollonian aspects of his work allow people to recontextualize their own lives through experiencing the lives and experiences of Byrne and his characters.
Byrne’s embrace of Apollonian individuality through abstract lyricism and Dionysian particularity through rhythm, intense emotion, and community is an exact expression of Nietzsche’s definition of how “music expresses the universality of pure form” (BT 16). Byrne’s music makes clear “the world of individual things, supplies the visible, the particular and individual, the individual case, both to the universality of concepts and to the universality of melodies, these two universalities being united but also in a certain respect opposed” (BT 16). Byrne reveals the heart of music, that “ecstatic sound of the Dionysian celebration [ringing] in an ever more seductive and spellbinding way through the artificially damned-up world build on appearance and moderation,” (BT 4) is embodied in his unique combination of language and “musical mood” (BT 4). Byrne’s intentional exposure of the differentiation of the Apollonian and Dionysian elements of music enhances the tension between the two forces. As Byrne says in “This Must Be The Place,” music is the bridge that allows an individual to lose himself or herself in the fecundity of life and simultaneously express their individuation. Music is the method for losing the self in the commonality of life and defining one’s perspective. Music provides the revelation that we all are “just animals looking for a home” and music, briefly, allows others to see their lives with a fresh perspective and maybe even “share the same space for a minute or two.
Byrne, David. “Machine of Joy: I Have Seen the Future and It Is Squiggly” Leonardo Music Journal. Vol. 12, Pleasure (2002), pp. 7-10. Boston: MIT Press. Web. 10 October 2013.
Byrne, David. How Music Works. San Francisco: McSweeny’s, 2012. Print.
Sytze, Streenstra. Song and Circumstance: The Work of David Byrne. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2010. Print.
Higgins, Kathleen. “Nietzsche on Music.” Journal of the History of Ideas. Vol. 47, No. 4 (Oct. – Dec., 1986): 663 – 672. Boston: MIT Press. Web. 10 November, 2013.
Gambino, Giacomo. “Nietzsche and the Greeks: Identity, Politics, and Tragedy.” Polity, Vol. 28, No. 4 (Summer, 1996), pp. 415-444 New York: Palgrave Macmillan Journals. Web. November 21, 2013.
Kurth, Richard. “Music and Poetry, a Wilderness of Doubles: Heine–Nietzsche–Schubert—Derrida.” 19th-Century Music , Vol. 21, No. 1 (Summer, 1997), pp. 3-37. Los Angeles: University of California Press. Web. November 10, 2013.
Morris, Christopher. ‘Alienated from His Own Being’: Nietzsche, Bayreuth and the Problem of Identity.” Journal of the Royal Musical Association , Vol. 127, No. 1 (2002), pp. 44-71. London: Taylor & Francis, Ltd. on behalf of the Royal Musical Association. Web. November 10, 2013.
Nietzsche, Fredrich. Ed. Keith Ansell Pearson and Duncan Large. The Nietzsche Reader. “Birth of Tragedy.” Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. Print.
True Stories. Dir. David Byrne. 1986. Warner Brothers. Film.
David Byrne’s work in his seminal band, Talking Heads, and his solo work as a musician explore the tension between the Apollonian and Dionysian introduced by Nietzsche in “The Birth of Tragedy.” Byrne portrays the extreme situations and emotions of the Dionysian with the detached perspective of the Apollonian. For example, the musical dimensions of Byrne’s song about a “Psycho Killer” are calm and pleasant, communicating the surprisingly mundane thoughts of the titular character, but nonetheless we recognize that we are hearing the inner dialogue of a sociopath. Byrne thus takes Nietzsche’s Apollonian and Dionysian perspectives and displays them in a forceful fashion; the Dionysian physicality of the music is compelling to such an extreme that it is nearly impossible for a listener not to move their body while listening, but Byrne’s lyrics are so intellectual and detached from the body that they mask the rawness of their subjects. Initially, listeners may find themselves unthinkingly dancing and singing along to Byrne’s narrative of an extreme Dionysian emotional response, whether it is the thoughts of a homicidal maniac. Another example of Byrne’s use of the Apollonian and the Dionysian in “Once in A Lifetime’s” account of a crippling emotional and spiritual crisis. This is accomplished without the musical elements full realization of what will be found in the words’ emotional volatility. Yet, once a listener concentrates on the Dionysian core of Byrne’s words, the clear musical and lyrical tension in the Talking Heads is given context by Byrne’s presentation of the conflict between the Apollonian performances of Dionysian topics. My term paper will use Nietzsche’s concepts of the Apollonian and Dionysian forces as he describes them in their birth from the spirit of music to analyze the musical and visual art of David Byrne. I will reveal how Byrne exploits the gap between the Apollonian and the Dionysian to create a brilliant and creative tension in the heart of his work, a tension that is responsible for the enormous aesthetic success of that seminal work.
The Dionysian qualities of Byrne’s music underscore and blend the Apollonian aspects of his lyrics, acting in synchronization to introduce unique elements to the work as a whole and to the individual forces. Byrne’s distinctive approach to lyricism and music melds physical and immensely sensuous instrumentation with detached lyrics that are nevertheless concerned with very intense emotion. Thus, David Byrne’s art is, as Nietzsche described Euripedean drama in Birth of Tragedy, “a thing at once cool and on fire; as likely to freeze as it is to burn” (BT, 12). It consists of the dual forces of “Apollonian visions and Dionysian raptures” that constantly shift in dominance that add to the elements of the inferior force, until the other force has become dominant (BT, 12). Accordingly, Byrne’s “This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody)” can appear simultaneously nervy, mawkish, paranoid, and tender, which seem to be opposing emotions, without becoming so discordant to drown out the song’s core expression of love. Byrne’s music represents the “intimate relationship between music and the true essence of things” that, despite apparent contradictions inherent in Byrne’s art, “reveals to [the listener] its most secret meaning and emerges as the most accurate and clearest commentary upon it… as if he is watching within himself all the possible events of life and the world move past in procession” (BT, 16).
Nietzsche’s description of music as an “abstractum of reality,” which he defines with “supplies the visible, the particular and individual, the individual case, both to the universality of concepts and to the universality of melodies, these two universalities being united but also in a certain respect opposed,” is the foundation of the character of David Byrne’s music (BT, 16). Byrne expresses universal, raw emotional Dionysian subjects with an impassive, highly intellectual Apollonian presentation to create a tension that exploits the tension between the two conflicting yet complementary forces of his art and music, allowing us to enter forbidden worlds of human experience, worlds which we are able to enter only through the genius of Byrne’s work.
Nietzsche’s Definition of the Apollonian and the Dionysian
Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy explains the significance of the rise of the dramatic form of tragedy in order to illuminate the myth of individuation. Nietzsche argues that the will acts through the twin drives of the Apollonian, “the art of the Sculptor” or “dream,” and the Dionysian, “the imageless… art of music ” or “intoxication,” and that life must be balanced by the two impulses (BT 1). Tragedy represents the Greek’s insight into the difference between the Apollonian and Dionysian elements of the psyche. Tragedy is an exercise in exposing the possibilities for spontaneity within the tumultuous occurrences of life that transcend the day-to-day world. Elements of tragedy are found in Byrne’s performances and lyrics, which transfer music to a theatrical context. The concert film Stop Making Sense is a prime example of Byrne’s fusion of the Apollonian and Dionysian artistic forms of tragedy and music as the film’s live performance of Byrne’s solo songs and Talking Heads compositions is constructed to form a loose narrative that follows the emotionally turbulent journey of one man’s quest for self-identity. The added physical context of the imageless songs recontextualizes even Byrne’s well-known songs, transforming the poppy “Once in A Lifetime” into a poignant monologue and his bittersweet “This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody)” into a symbol of the transcendent, tender, and transformative power of love. I will focus on the two key songs of the film’s narrative as examples of Byrne’s effective use of tragedy and music to create a tension that surprises the audience by submerging “all past personal experience” in the Dionysian rhythm and emotions of the music while communicating that experience in such a way that elicits the audience to engage the work with “wide-eyed contemplation” and be spurred to action (BY 12).
The Apollonian drive is characterized by order, pre-meditated thought, and hope. Apollo, the Greek god of light, poetry, and medicine, is the representation of the desire to control and define the world, to group life into logical and discursive forms of thought, and to do so by dealing in abstract and theoretical rules. The Apollonian artist desires to control his surroundings, to tame the chaos of Nature with a work of the “plastic arts” (BT 1). The Apollonian drive is represented in Byrne’s intellectual approach to his subjects regardless of their emotional content. While “Once In A Lifetime” tackles the serious questions of self-identity (“You may ask yourself, am I right, am I wrong?”) and self-purpose (“You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?”) with a gospel, upbeat style that smashes the personal, emotional roots of his lyrics with repetitive, obtuse sloganeering. Byrne presents his characters as “isolated voices embedded in rhythm,” Apollonian contemplations entrenched in a Dionysian spirit of community (Steenstra 61). Despite the insular and personal sentiments of the song, Byrne has crafted the emotions into something that is meant to be sung by a chorus. He broadcasts the mental collapse of one individual through the soaring voices of dozens and effectively negates and reinforces the individual. The Dionysian emotions of the song are forced onto others to sing what should be private, which negates the individuals by replacing their thoughts with another, but simultaneously reinforces the importance of the emotions of the singers to contextualize the foreign emotions. Steenstra explains that Byrne “offers a rhythmic invitation to such hot, uncomfortable, pretentious voices in the media landscape to be cooled in a communal and musical celebration” (62). Nietzsche states an Apollonian or “plastic” work of art is a representation instead of a presentation of life, just as those who join in singing “Once In A Lifetime” largely ignore the turmoil under the song to just enjoy its superficially joyful presentation (BT 1). Those who join in singing do not experience the emotions of the words they sing, rather they ignore or are set at a distance from the song. When an artist creates a plastic or visual work of art they “shape” reality to their whim, smoothing out their rough emotions and experiences, omitting anything that would detract from their expression, and adding to the imperfections of nature. The Apollonian anticipates order, integration, and endless life, casting an illusion, or “appearance” over the “empirical reality” and mechanizations of life for the purpose of “continuous redemption” of the individual (BT 4). Byrne’s Apollonian chorus structure assumes that a dozen unique individuals can correctly express the emotions of one individual and that the emotions of one, if expressed in a certain way, are universally significant. Obviously, as it is apparent from the immense popularity of the song, the Apollonian character of Byrne’s presentation of the song strikes at a common theme but since the song is often used as a stylistically “happy” song in movie trailers, the Dionysian foundation of the song is not commonly communicated. Nietzsche states all characteristics of the Apollonian, stability, structure, and order, are all illusions overlaid on the passion, fecundity, and desire of Dionysus (BT 4).
The Dionysian drive is characterized by spontaneity, dynamism, and pessimism. Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, ecstasy, and passion, is a representation of the human desire for excess, unfettered creativity, and transcendence. The Dionysian work of art is wholly submerged in the subjective and the emotive, unified in the undifferentiated flow of life, and revels in the horrors, passion, and absurd aspects of life. The Dionysian is represented in Byrne’s compositions’ physicality. Byrne heavily relies on polyrhythm and raw emotions that underlie his nervy, detached lyrics. His music is Dionysian, both for the carnal stimulus to move to the grooves of the band and for the extreme emotions at work in his lyrics. Dionysian desires oppose form and structure, “cause the subjective to dwindle to complete self-oblivion,” and “reunified, reconciled, reincorporated, and merged with neighbor” and nature (BT 1). The highest form of Dionysian work, which is defined as music by Nietzsche (BT 1), is a presentation of life without metaphor or symbol and comes directly from the raw situations of the individual’s life. Steenstra explains that Byrne’s best songs are “designed to a range of archetypal emotions” with “loose metaphorical phrases and slogans” (89) to allow the song to slip from “one half-ecstatic mood into another, from one archetypal (and thus quite common) worldview into the next” (90). Steenstra claims that this “suggests an everyday universe of commonplace myths, subjective states that are most of the time not registered consciously” (90). These collective yet subjective states are “beyond literal expression,” yet can be clearly communicated (Steenstra 87). Nietzsche defines this as the Dionysian and explains that “music allows every picture, indeed every scene of real life and the world to stand out with greater meaning” because music “expresses [the certainty of reality] in a universality of pure form” (BT 16). While the Dionysian and Apollonian oppose and contradict each other, they are essential and intertwined in any full life; the Dionysian acting as a “foundation of all existence” (BT 7) that inspires creativity is given structure, and thus meaning, by the Apollonian drive. Tragedy is thus bred in the creative conflict between the Dionysian reality and the human need to build a justification for life immersed in the unstructured, objectively unjustifiable, and ambiguous individual reality.
You may not have heard of Sigur Rós but you’ve almost certainly heard Sigur Rós. Their “Festival” is the musical exemplification of newfound life, redemption, and joy that plays in the stunning dialogue-free climax of 127 Hours, their music scores T.V. shows as diverse as Being Human, The Simpsons, and V, and they are the soundtrack to your life (even if you don’t know it yet). Sigur Rós are an Icelandic post-rock band, which means they’re a rock band that has fused the musical traditions of classical music, such as an emphasis on timbre, texture, and classical instruments, with the informality, passion, and spectacle of rock. They’re classical composers who wear converses instead of tuxes.
While my selling point of “classical music, but they’re totally rad and hip with all the youngsters, yo” doesn’t appear initially appealing, classical music hasn’t always had the reputation of stodginess. In fact, the first time Stravinsky played Rite of Spring, the pure emotion, avant-garde orchestration, and daringness of the music and ballet caused the audience of Parisian aristocrats to riot, throwing objects and attacking each other and the members of the orchestra because of their heightened emotion. At one point, classical music excited people, rich, cultured people, to violence, transcended culture and civilization with raw emotion, cut so deep to the heart of human emotion that it made people forget where and who they were and remember what they were. Stravinsky’s music made people remember they are human; it made people see and hear beauty and horror, passion and fearlessness, the raw, bracing and real truth of life. Sigur Rós proves that classical music, even classical music in a new guise, hasn’t lost its edge.
Sigur Rós plays music that, somehow, you already know. Even though they’re singing in a mix of Icelandic and made-up language called Hopelandic, their music communicates truths that stretch beyond language. Their music is more representative of concepts than particulars: when they play a love song, it is a song about Love, about the pain and glory and ecstasy of Love all at once, more than it is about a particular love. Their music is the cloth that other band’s songs are cut from, music that is so big and emotional and inexpressible that it defies you to define it. They play the music of your life, the sound of the feeling you got when you were sitting on the back bumper of your car that one summer or the sensation of watching a sunrise arm in arm with a loved one or the unspeakable stir of midnight’s hushed rustle. It’s music of hope, sadness, and joy, life sung in a nonsense language that expresses emotions and ideas so intrinsic to what makes us human that there’s no need for translation.
Sigur Rós’ concert on September 19 at Stage AE in Pittsburgh was even more emotionally intense and cathartic as their albums. The band rolled through new and old favorites throughout the set like the whole show was a single movement. The band stomped through the scorched-earth aggression of “Brennisteinn” and drifted into the gossamer “Vaka” before I even realized that the song had changed. Images of nuclear bombs and idyllic countryside coexisted side by side, as the band slipped from song to song, mood-to-mood, without hesitation or effort. Songs that felt like loneliness segued into redemptive pieces that had the whole audience jumping or simply throwing their hands up in inexpressible joy. Songs that skulked through the stage’s fog with fangs of staccato violin and chanted threats were thrust into the light minutes later, transforming into hymns whose softly plucked strings and hushed voices wouldn’t feel out of place in a cathedral. Everything felt connected.
But what was there to connect to? There weren’t lyrics to relate to, no narrative that could be identified, and little more to look at than video screens displaying arty clips of masked men, bodies drifting in water, and either brooding or calming images of nature that were hesitantly connected to the music. Yet every note felt like they were putting hands in me and pulling pieces out, pulling and pushing my insides around while I was still awake. Since the band didn’t provide anything to latch onto, nothing more than their minimalistic music, the audience filled in the gaps. Every swooping string and rumbling bass painted a story in grand, breathtaking cinematic scope, taking me from images of my life to barren wastelands to church cathedrals sometimes all in the same song. It felt like the entire audience was watching the same movie but one that was constructed of characters, scenes, and feelings that were all their own.
Sigur Rós’ show celebrated everything about life with wordless awe and breathtaking spectacle.