Sunday evening found me listening to the familiar rumble of bass frequencies through walls as I passed through security at The Hollywood Bowl. William Brittelle, Wye Oak, and the Metropolis Ensemble had just begun their set, a collection of songs exploring secular spirituality titled Spiritual America that Brittelle composed in collaboration with the band, the ensemble, and an impressively long list of presenters and producers.
Three days previously I had played a set opening for Metropolis Ensemble’s bassist, Evan Runyon, whose bowed strings were now being broadcast to the 17,000 in attendance, largely drawn by Bon Iver’s collaboration with TU Dance. Being far more used to the not-at-all-hard-to-get-into venues associated with the experimental and contemporary classical music scenes, I was a bit embarrassed to have misjudged my arrival and missed the first song. But even hearing the bass from a contemporary music ensemble cum indie rock band cut through the walls at a venue like the bowl felt in many ways like a win for this scene under the underground.
It was tragic, then, upon entering, to find Spiritual America beset by the fate that befalls most openers at large scale rock concerts. Audience members in the bowl’s box seats had their backs turned to the stage to finish their meals. A reviewer from another publication, seated next to me, first asked “what is this, music?”, then if we were all smoking something. This was in response to what I thought to be an extremely clever use of the seagull effect for cello harmonics set against an 80’s new wave style delay effect on what sounded to me like a TR-909 drum machine. That, and many other juxtapositions in the songs comprising Spiritual America, were, in a word, awesome. When Wye Oak singer Jenn Wasner announced that there was one song left on the set, this reviewer said she was glad that there was only one left, because this music was not her style.
The tragedy here was in the pairing, because Spiritual America was fantastic, rich with both nuanced writing (technically and thematically) and indie emotional sensibility, while grammy darling Bon Iver’s collaboration with TU Dance, Come Through, which pulled the crowd, was a phoned in mess and though admirably ambitious and a worthwhile exploration for the artist mainly served to cause me to continually ask myself “what the hell did I just watch?” and regret leaving my car in stacked parking.
To be clear, I’m a big fan of Bon Iver. 22, A Million was one of my favorite records of 2016, and it’s been gratifying to listen to Justin Vernon’s work develop from the college days of torrenting For Emma, Forever Ago to now. I love Vernon’s other band, Volcano Choir, as well. The previous two times I’ve seen Bon Iver I’ve been impressed, with the exception of those moments where they reach for sound worlds that they seem to have little to no experience working in. Bon Iver’s music, and in this case the accompanying video art, thrives on mood, while dance, writ large on a stage like the bowl’s, often requires music with some narrative direction. The result of the pairing, in Come Through, felt as if the collaborators didn’t know what to do with each other, with Bon Iver seeming to back down from every opportunity to take his music anywhere in order to give the dancers space to create, and TU Dance’s choreographer and dancers making a valiant effort to give narrative life to what were, in essence, a bunch of loops that sounded like B-sides and scratch tracks from 22, A Million. A spoken word ending having something to do with Martin Luther King and the new (or old? it wasn’t clear) Jim Crow laws, while incredibly prescient in our current cultural climate, felt tacked on with the “I’m not sure how to end this so I’ll add something new” of an undergraduate music student. The “video art,” which looked a bit like what you might do by the end of an Apple store class on how to use iMovie if you’re a person who is into memes, seemed to exist in order to keep your eyes off of the dancers.
I don’t wish to demean artistic exploration like this, though. The composer Ted Hearne, a New Amsterdam labelmate and post-genre brother in arms of Brittelle’s, said in an interview that he thinks “it’s OK, even preferable, for art to be problematic. We live in a problematic world. Artists should own that. It’s the loose ends and unanswered questions, and even the misfires and unintended consequences, that provoke the best questions about what art is doing in the first place.” Although “Bon Iver writes for dance,” in this case, ended up a bit like Taylor Swift’s out-of-place rap in Shake It Off, there were a few gracefully executed moments (in particular a trio for three male dancers accompanied by not much more than a drum machine and, for the only time during the set, a mellow backdrop). I very much believe that with more time spent collaborating and refining his work with dancers and multimedia artists, Justin Vernon will give us something spectacular.
So let’s talk Spiritual America. With this collaboration it feels like Brittelle’s working methods and interest in cross-genre or post-genre collaboration have come to a head. Perhaps it’s that he, unlike Bon Iver with regard to dance, is steeped in many traditions. When he writes for Wye Oak, it sounds like an authentic indie rock songwriter exploring ways of bringing other sound worlds into the fold because he is an authentic indie rock songwriter bringing other sound worlds into the fold. When, in the interludes between songs he aims for some of the extended techniques of the contemporary classical world (there was, in fact, feathered bowing), you hear a contemporary classical composer doing his thing, because he is that composer, too. How open Brittelle’s ears are is impressive. Choosing indie rock as a vehicle for his explorations of American spirituality makes perfect sense as the norms of the genre are so largely based on traditional songwriting, blues forms, and the not-often-enough discussed basic connections between the European traditions of folk song and traditional harmony and the slave spirituals and dances that make American vernacular music its own form of genre synthesis. Brittelle smartly uses the genre synthesis not as the point of his work, but as the medium.
Spiritual America is a lovely piece of work, that deserves to be performed in better conditions than as an opening act in front of a crowd of seemingly disinterested Bon Iver fans. Yes, the Hollywood Bowl is a get for this band, but perhaps lacks the personal connection to performers and performance that is so integral to the genres Brittelle pulls from. A record of the piece is on the way (a crowdfunding campaign for it is here). I, for one, hope that the next time they tour the piece in LA they’ll consider visiting The Echoplex or The Wiltern so we can really sing along.