Live Reviews

The Long Count @ Barbican, London

3 February 2012


It would seem by looking at the CVs of wunderkind brothers Aaronand Bryce Dessner that they must be the most sleep-deprived musiciansin the world. Leaving aside for a second their day jobs as principalsongwriters (alongside lyricist Matt Berninger) for TheNational, their monumental work rate encompasses whole side acts(Clogs), festival curation (MusicNOW in New York), classicalcommissions from luminary artists like Kronos Quartet and filmscores.

Perhaps the best indication of the influence the unassuming twinshave in the American music industry is their organising the benefitrecord Dark Was the Night, which dragged in a smorgasbord ofhipper-than-thou artists from across the indie spectrum to record newmaterial – including work with long-term collaborators like SufjanStevens, Bon Iver and Cat Power.

As befits the restless creativity that seems their stock-in-trade,they took on musical collaboration with multimedia artist MatthewRitchie, conceiving an idea based around the Mayan creation myth oftwo twins and the origination of the countdown to doomsday in 2012. Awildly experimental piece of operatic theatre, mixing classical andmodern music, an orchestra, some famous guest singers and some largelyincomprehensible video art, it’s a frustrating evening that veersbetween musical brilliance and structureless noodling.

The orchestra are already onstage as the audience file in, thehubbub of the bar replaced by a hushed realisation that theperformance has already begun – a quiet and intermittent female voicecounting down to zero as we take our seats. At zero, the lights dimand Bryce and Aaron enter from opposite sides of the stage eachholding one end of a rope with a guitar tied to the middle, whichreverberates as it bounces on the floor. It sets the deliberatelyobtuse tone for the evening – later a guitar is treated almost as apióata – which feels a bit too forced for its own good.

Moody orchestral pieces accompany a series of short films which,while beautiful, feel like art-house projections rather than integralparts of the story, while actual tracks – with guest singers likeTV On The Radio‘s Tunde and The Breeders‘ Kelly Dealfare better. Their attempts to get into the swing of things – Tuneawkwardly wearing a silver headdress that made him look like acyberman and Deal scratching the floor with a long shard of plastic -were admirable but only really added to the sense of confusionsurrounding the piece.

It’s a little unfair to pick holes in the brother’s noble attemptto do something markedly different from anything they’ve been involvedwith before. The fact that they can swing easily between poundingMogwai-influenced instrumental noise (Dry Creek) and something calledHunanpu Drones (which, rather unsurprisingly, does what it says on thetin) gives you a sense of what these polymaths can achieve when theyset their minds to it. Unfortunately, The Long Count seemed to have anidentity crisis – rock opera, indie supergroup and the avant-garde mixa little uneasily, and the lack of a coherent structure or story isalienating. The audience file out none the wiser after a bewilderingevening punctuated with the odd moment of transcendent beauty – adifficult slog, but a worthy one nonetheless.


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The Long Count @ Barbican, London


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