Light And Sound

It’s an old joke, but I can’t help replaying it in my mind as I blunder around the aisles looking for my seat in of an old, but still serviceable theater:

A piece of string walks into a bar.  The bartender says,
“Hey buddy, we don’t serve string in here!” 
The string goes back outside, ties himself up, frays his ends and walks back into the bar.  The bartender takes a look and says,
“Aren’t you that same piece of string that I just threw out of here?” 
The string says,
“Nope I’m a frayed knot” {afraid not/ a frayed knot}

That joke is lame, but it always makes me laugh and it’s particularly relevant tonight, because it is at least partly responsible for why I’m here.  I glance down at the rice paper and cellophane program and chuckle to myself when I read the name of the band—The ‘Fraid Knots.  The fact that these guys were cool enough to use a variation of a lame old joke as their name scores big points with me.

I manage to find my seat after annoying only the few people who happen to be unfortunate enough to be seated next to me.  Usually my inability to find my seat without disrupting life, the universe, and everything around me enrages everyone within several square miles, hell small children in Ethiopia get pissed off when I lumber around trying to find “seat A row 3” or whatever.  Maybe I am improving…or maybe it’s because on a Sunday afternoon only a few rows worth of people have shown up to see an obscure string quartet that specializes in unusual and experimental pieces of music.  Either way I count it as a win.

A musician friend of mine who was heavy into ambient and noise music introduced me to this band a few years back and they ended up becoming a regular part of my “weird music” rotation.  He had also turned me onto the band Godspeed You! Black Emperor, so I trusted his judgment.  Ever since my initial introduction to their music I had occasionally wandered onto web forums looking for nearby concert dates, but the ‘Fraid Knots always seemed to be playing where ever I was not. Having finally stumbled onto a single performance of theirs within 100 miles was sort of like finding Excalibur with a $5 price tag in a yard sale. I bought a ticket without thinking twice and began eagerly marking off days on my calendar. When the night of the performance finally arrived I was like a kid on Christmas morning, so eager to tear into my present that I barely took the time to dress myself properly.

I can feel my excitement rising as I watch light panels being put into place on stage followed by the four players taking their seats.  Blackout curtains are drawn across all of the windows and the house lights dim and then darken as the concert begins.  A soft blue glow from four of the light panels illuminates two violinists, a viola player, and a cellist—a fairly standard set up for such an unusual quartet.

The viola player and cellist begin in unison with a deep, low drone and the panel lights begin to darken and deepen in hue.  The two violinists jump in with a high pitched squeal that quickly dive bombs into a low and explosive tone.  As the violinists begin their dive the panel lights flash red and yellow and a set of strobe floor lights begin to go off, rapidly increasing in speed until suddenly all of the lights explode into a bright white flash and a rain of confetti falls down onto our heads from above.  The lights black out and the music stops; the room is so quiet that I can actually hear the hum of electricity as it flows out from the amps and power cables.  A yellow light slowly comes to life, glowing around the form of the cellist as she begins a sad sounding solo—the PA system begins to broadcast an interview with a young Bosniak who had survived the ethnic cleansing of his home town by Serb paramilitary units.  The violins, now highlighted in red, begin a pizzicato back up to the cello.  The young Bosniak’s voice becomes more anxious and pained as the viola player, now highlighted in blue, rushes in loud and angry sounding.  I can feel the emotion of the moment as I listen to the music and watch the light show.
The night continues on in a weird medley of odd noise pieces and emotional experimental pieces all of which paint vivid pictures of the human condition.  Despair and loss, glory and happiness, and all of the emotions and ideas from one extreme to the other are illuminated on stage by lights and sound.  There are recorded tracks of different noises, fake explosions, and lights of all descriptions and wave lengths all over the stage.  It is a feast for the eyes and the ears.
At the end of the show the players take a bow to enthusiastic applause and file off stage one by one.

As I make my way outside I listen to the comments blurted out by the rest of my fellow audience members.  They discuss the political statements that they imagine have been made.  They talk up the moral plays and the ideas that they saw.  They praise the avant guard artistic experimentation of the quartet and collectively pat themselves on the back for being so open to a new and unusual experience.  Personally, I wonder if they even noticed that there was a show going on.  I was too caught up in the entertainment of the concert—the oohs and ahhs of a musical fireworks show, to worry about what emotion the color purple represented.  I witnessed a traditional string quartet playing and presenting very nontraditional music and hopefully sending its audience back out into the world changed.  The band performed some amazingly impressive musical and visual art and worked hard to present an entertaining and thought provoking spectacle, but the vast majority of their audience seem to use the show as nothing more than a way to impress each other with their ability to deconstruct the whole experience using obscure references and pretentious double speak.  I feel a wave of disappointment sliding over me until I hear a young couple enthusiastically discussing the concert.

“That was so awesome, why haven’t we heard of these guys before?”
“I dunno, but that whole thing was fucking cool.  Kinda sad though.”
“Yeah, I never really thought about Bosnia all that much before, I guess it was pretty bad over there.”

And on they go.  I eaves drop on them for a while as they talk up the high points, quietly relive the emotional themes and ideas, and generally give me hope for the possibility of intelligent life on our planet.  I smile and take a deep breath before heading back home, a little better off than I was before and forever altered by some beautifully orchestrated light and sound.


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