What I Saw: Animal Collective and Danny Perez at the Guggenheim

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Three parts rave, two parts bourgeois museum gathering and one part carnival.

Rumor has it that the event sold out on the Guggenheim website in under 20 minutes. It was supposed to be a $30 show but black market tickets were going for over $300 a pair on Craigslist. Just about every music blog and website written in English announced the performance at least once. It’s not often that a niche band gets to play in a famous museum, so I guess all the hype made sense. The whole thing was, perhaps, the platinum prize for completing a banner year. For Animal Collective, 2009 was the kind of experience that every band except Radiohead dreams about: a top 20 album, critical acclaim, elevated levels of commercial success and indie street cred. I was lucky to get tickets.

I went with a friend, who I’ll call Friend. The line to enter the show was growing as Friend arrived almost late. There for the women perhaps more than the Animals, Friend said, “It’s hunting season.”

Attendants guided the line through a disorienting path of back doors and service hallways before corralling us into the bottom level of the Guggenheim’s famous rotunda. Here the scene became generally bizarre–funny to see, disorienting to be in–three parts rave, two parts bourgeois museum gathering and one part carnival.

The lights dimmed as psychedelic projections by filmmaker Danny Perez flickered upon the ceiling and interior rings of the rotunda’s five spiraling levels. The music was foreign to me—definitely Animal Collective, but still, at the same time, different. In a word: chaotic.

It was on Animal Collective’s 2004 album, Sung Tongs, that the band crystallized the sound of their prior three albums into the bedrock of their future sound: fragments of short and repetitive singing, deep throbbing bass, recognizable instrumentation, guitar mostly, percussion as well, and layers upon layers of manipulated electronic and analog soundscapes. It is this notion and practice of the Manipulated Sound Layer that Animal Collective have maneuvered more than any other band to create something original, engaging, and above all, liberating. It was this sound that I anticipated from the show, but hadn’t yet identified.

In the audience there were droves of thick black-framed glasses worn by various guys with curly fro’s or cleverly swept haircuts. Skinny girls in flower print dresses and smart sweaters floated about with napkin-cloaked plastic cups in hand. So many scarves left me feeling naked in my boring shirt with buttons.

Someone blew bubbles off the top level. Then a paper airplane flew down from above. In the center of the floor, three performers dressed in costumes hovered over odd-shaped props that may or may not have been reconfigured beanbag chairs. The performers held no instruments. Friend and I discussed the possibility that this might be the band. A lot of people smirked or smiled. Fueled by hype and event-sponsored absinthe or mediocre domestic beer, and confronted by the grand total sum of oddity that was this event, the collective emotion of the crowd was an even blend of acute confusion and innocent giddiness. I was certain that everyone was wondering what the fuck was going on.

We made our way up the curving rotunda to the first level bar, passing what would become a common encounter that night: small packs of teenagers dressed in face paint and feathered headdresses, yelping and hopping all over the museum space. They seemed to be in on a joke that only they know the punch line to. The house lights were lowered even more, and the projections and strobes become the primary source of illumination. The music grew louder and more random. The performers seemed heavily sedated. I took notes on my iPhone. It was 9:23pm.

Drinks in hand, Friend and I stood somewhere between the first and second level and leaned over the edge scanning the crowd and bottom-level performance. I had read a bit about the gig online and discussed with him, not to this level of detail, the following information: In a two-paragraph 392-word press release posted on the Guggenheim website, signed and dated “Animal Collective, February 8th, 2010,” the band outlined the terms of engagement by which they presumably hoped the audience would participate. Fluttery and academic, the statement started with an observation and then a series of questions about the nature of an unidentified jungle, bird sounds, and New York City at large. More importantly though were the thoughts and ideas these observations most likely inspired. “The longer you sit awake in bed listening at night, the more you hear…We wanted to create an environment where people could take some time to listen…and get away from those familiar sounds of the city…As time passes it is our hope that you will wonder if you are hearing songs or patterns or maybe hearing more.” The statement’s dominant motif was the celebration of slowing down and submitting oneself to the nuances and subtleties of the world around. It seemed to me that the band’s great honest hope was that the audience would, in their careful listening, hear something more than just the audio presented. Implicit in this is the great honest hope of all art: to communicate an understanding of what it means to be alive. Two hours into the show, I noticed the first appearance of sounds that resemble the opening moments of the new song the band released at the end of ‘09, “What Would I Want? Sky.”


Sean Patrick Cooper is the author of a lot of work that's not quite done. His writing is forthcoming, ideally, from multiple locations and has appeared, thankfully, in The Millions, 3 Quarks Daily, and PopMatters, among other venues. He is online at www.seanpatrickcooper.com. More from this author →