WEDNESDAY 1 & THURSDAY 2 JUNE
Muziekgebouw, 20.15, €30
At the start of July 2010, The National showed up at a sold-out Paradiso to launch new album High Violet. In a way, this show marked both a beginning and an end for the band – on one hand confirming that this understated indie outfit had outgrown its perennial position as the rock underdog; on the other, virtually ending the possibilities of experiencing their sophisticated and darkly intimate music in smaller clubs.
One certainty at least is that no one in the band is ready to churn out template-ready guitar pop. This is signified by the European premiere of The Long Count this week. Opening Holland Festival 2011, it’s a project initiated by the band’s twin brothers Bryce and Aaron Dessner. The resulting performance is a multimedia spectacle blending Mayan mythology, video projections by artist Matthew Ritchie and music performed live by a 12-piece orchestra (including The National’s vocalist Matt Berninger and Kelley Deal of The Breeders).
How did The Long Count initially come about?
The Brooklyn Academy of Music commissions a lot of collaborations between visual artists and musicians. It’s a great way to try new types of work and explore other ideas, so it basically grew out of that. Also, I had known Matthew Ritchie for a number of years. He’d been talking to us about doing something together for a while, so when this commission came up it seemed the perfect way to collaborate on a deeper level.
Why base the project on a Mayan myth?
Matthew has been interested in myths and epic narratives his whole career and he’d already adapted a couple of Mayan creation myths into paintings. The ‘Popul Vuh’, which this show is loosely based on, starts off with twin brothers playing a baseball-like ball game. When they play too loudly they end up awakening the gods of hell and it proceeds into this dark, twisted story. Rather than try to tell the whole narrative, the project is an abstract song-cycle rooted in that story, but also based on our own stories – being twin brothers and playing in a band.
Did the creative process differ greatly from how you write songs for The National?
This project really allowed Aaron and I to push ourselves further musically. There are heavy classical elements to the show and also some aggressive, math-rock style songs that are fast and punchy. One piece is almost operatic and has a very complicated time signature. There’s also one that Matt Berninger sings that sounds more like an elaborate song by The National. It’s a weird evening of music, but also one that I think is very compelling.
Given that the performance features a 12-piece orchestra, is there less room for improvisation at a show like this?
The show is mostly composed to fit with Matthew’s visuals, which are shown simultaneously on a diamond-shaped screen. But the orchestra features an incredible reeds player named Colin Stetson who is an improviser, only in a very strict sense. The sound of his instrument is almost this primeval, organic sound of the earth. It sounds like he’s using effects when he’s really only using his breath. So he functions as this kind of improvisational character in the piece.
Is Holland Festival your only scheduled European performance of the show?
We may do it in London later in the year but other than that there are no plans. It’s a big, time-consuming project and we all have other things to work on. It’s not the type of thing we would tour on the road for a month. It really takes a special organisation such as the Holland Festival to make it happen.
Are you planning to release a recorded version of The Long Count?
We don’t want to release a performance DVD or anything like that. I think you really need to see this show in person to understand the visual elements. But I think the songs will stand up on record, so we’re looking to release an album in early 2012. Once The National tour dates calm down, we can concentrate on recording it more fully.
Holland Festival runs at various locations until 26 June. See www.hollandfestival.nlTweet