For a show titled 41 Strings the last thing people expected to see was a stage filled with 20 drummers and two keyboardists. Then again, for a show written by the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Nick Zinner and featuring his bandmate, Brian Chase on the drums, some people probably weren’t expecting so many elder-looking punters at the early show. It seemed that even from the outset, this event was custom-built to challenge any preconceived notions.
The proceedings began with IIII a piece written by Hisham Akira Bharoocha (Soft Circle), Ben Vida (Soft Circle) and Robert AA Lowe (90 Day Men). An army of drummers and percussionists that read like a who’s who of local music (with members from no less than: The Mess Hall, Smudge, Wolfmother, Big Heavy Stuff, The Paper Scissors, Straight Arrows, PVT, Midnight Juggernauts, Grafton Primary, The Laurels and Border Thieves) performed four rhythms based on the four seasons from spring to summer, autumn and finally, winter.
The guys looked like the Qantas children’s choir in their black and white clothes and were assembled in a circle and this looked a lot like The White Stripes’ “Hardest Button To Button” video clip. It created a great vibe amongst the musicians but it also meant that the best vantage points were probably the tiered seats above the stage.
IIII started with the gentlest of taps, like chopsticks caressing the rim of a pair of cymbals and lots of brushwork followed as the musicians from each quarter ultimately joined in. The noise went from near quiet to what could’ve been the soundtrack to a modern art exhibition and eventually landed as a tribal cacophony that was so loud and ferocious you could almost imagine the vibrations causing a tsunami in Sydney Harbour.
The whole affair was under 30 minutes of volume, power and a sheer brute force. Brian Chase almost seemed at odds with this section’s heaviness because he was in his element smiling and swaying through even the most vigorous parts. After the show when some Chinese New Year festivities were taking place around the city, the drums accompanying the dancing dragons almost seemed sedate to this frolic and roll through the punches.
After an interval it was time for the Australian premiere of 41 Strings; only the second time the work had been performed in public. Originally composed to celebrate the anniversary of the 41st Earth Day in New York City and the successor to the 40 Drums project, it was written specifically for acoustic and electric strings and percussion.
Like IIII, Zinner’s symphony used the seasons as inspiration to chronicle the ups and downs experienced over the course of a year to eventually make a swirling mass of sound produced by eight guitars, two basses, three drum kits, a synth and a 31-piece string orchestra featuring violin, viola, cello and double-bass. At times the air was dark and broody but this sadness was also matched by feelings of joy, elation and ultimately, hope.
The first movement was like water glistening in the sunshine with lush and romantic strings coupled with chiming guitars and pretty synth. The effect was of something fresh and pure, like a field of grass devoid of footprints or a cloudless sky. Zinner stood at the centre of the stage mostly playing and occasionally conducting. He swayed and mouthed thank you to the applause but was also clearly unable to avoid cracking a smile every so often at what must have felt like a remarkable experience.
The next movement was a darker experience so whereas the first was all about gaiety and light, this one just seemed rather heart wrenching and sad. The mood would lift for the third part as the guitars were strummed with blind fury, the cellos heaved and some feathery drumbeats were offered. This one seemed darker but in a rough-around-the-edges way while the guitar riffs could’ve been lifted from a pop-punk song that sits just on the tip of your tongue and all this before the climactic drum-off between Chase and Ryan Sawyer (Tall Firs).
The final movement started with a beguiling, hymn-like choir of violins courtesy of performers from the Australian Youth Orchestra before some guitar riffs that could’ve been the baby cousin of “Maps” showered us in light. The feeling of the music also seemed to share a few things in common with the rock opera, Tommy and more specifically it’s closer, “We’re Not Gonna Take It”. Basically, this one was all sugar and velvet and proved a stirring end to the epic creation, one that was rewarded by a standing ovation by some members of the crowd.
41 Strings was one grandiose and emotional journey through the seasons as the sounds tickled our senses and stirred our hearts with driving melancholia, heavenly thoughts plus some not often felt elation at the passing of time and its bedfellow, change. Philosophers may continue for centuries to ponder the answer to the meaning of life but it seemed like this particular date with the night almost held the solution and it was found blowing in the wind and in the vibrations in the air of the Opera House’s concert hall. In short, amazing.
Originally published on 24 January 2012 at the following website: http://www.fasterlouder.com.au/reviews/events/31275/41-Strings-by-Nick-Zinner-Sydney-Opera-House-22112
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