The Guggenheim Museum, terraced and bulbous in its own seductive ways, is not a concert hall.
Last Thursday, the seven slouching musicians of Beirut stood in the rotunda, pointed their horns towards the skylight and turned Frank Lloyd Wright's final masterpiece into an opera house. The Brooklyn-looking crowd twisted around the ribbon-like ramp. The acoustics were awful -- trumpet solos echoing through hallways, accordion harmonies extinguished by the sheer volume of the room -- but that felt like the point.
A couple of days before the show, I was gushing over Beirut to a couple of friends. When I first heard leadman Zach Condon's warbly voice over what I immediately identified as gypsy music, Beirut made sense. That was spring of 2006 when Gulag Orchester, an album Condon wrote and recorded alone in his bedroom, hit shelves. He'd spent a few months in Europe, where Balkan folk music stole his attention, and after combining the sound with some fundamentals of his jazz training, Condon wrote inevitably wandering songs not unlike what you might imagine floated through the valleys of Transylvania a hundred years ago.
"It's totally contrived," my roommate had said, "Some archetypal remix of a gypsy genre that probably doesn't even exist."
He had a great point. Before long we were talking about whether or not Beirut's contrived nature held a deeper meaning about the state of music culture or was just, err, contrived. The term "postmodern" was introduced. Frederick Jameson was named. Things tend a little bit out of control after hours on Tuesday nights, but when there's a grad student involved, it's half-controlled diet-intellectual chaos.
Without indulging too much in our lost, wandering thought process, it makes sense to call Beirut's music a kind of pastiche -- set to the tune of weird horns, droll lyrics, and somehow cliché themes about rivers in Eastern Europe and villages in Southern Mexico. Jameson calls pastiche "blank parody" and calls similar cultural productions "the cannibalization of all the styles of the past, the play of random stylistic allusion." Parody by nature cannibalizes style, but this idea of blank parody points to a lack of intent to make fun of or satire. It's just there borrowing, retooling, and alluding.
Beirut eats up our preconceptions of world music with a coronet-shaped shovel. Without even realizing we're listening to some young New Mexico native's idea of Balkan folk or Oaxacan rhythm, we feel cultured and worldly listening to Beirut.
Hipsters love this for a few reasons:
- It's obscure. And hard to describe. And when you do try to describe it you can cite shit like Frederick Jameson and postmodern theory.
- It's nostalgic for all of the right reasons. Frumpy-haired Brooklynites could often care less about American jazz standards or ANYTHING you'd hear on an oldies station. Under the assumption presented in #1, nostalgia is best consumed in doses that are hard to translate into pop culture.
- It provides a window in places one would probably rather not visit. Everyone loves having a friend who's kicking around Romania or undermining capitalism in Chiapas. But in reality, it's much more convenient to eat local, organic vegetables at Marlow and Sons or drink mulled cocktails cooled by handcut ice cubes in a secret room behind a hot dog stand than actually brave second or third world conditions.
We finished our little Beirut debate by listening to The Flying Club Cup on repeat.
And after squeezing my way through the American Apparel-ed crowd at the Guggenheim a couple days later, I walked up the ramp that spirals the perimeter of the museum. There was a perfect view from behind the stage.
Zach Condon and his cohort, inevitably bookish and blasting Balkan whatever-they-want, seemed fish out of water in this place. It's not a concert hall, and Beirut isn't a rock band. But a hipster opera? That's starting to make sense.