Richter X Jonsí & Alex

A couple of weekends ago I was lucky enough to see both Max Richter and Jonsí & Alex live in Chicagoland. As fate would have it, they played their sleep albums (Richter’s From Sleep and Jonsí & Alex’s Riceboy Sleeps), although they each performed an additional album as well (The Leftovers season one soundtrack and All Animals respectively). Needless to say, as a longtime fan of these artists, I. Loved. It.

The two concerts were vastly different experiences, which for some reason surprised me. I’d listened to the Leftovers soundtrack before, but I’m much more familiar with some of Richter’s other work (Memoryhouse, Four Seasons, Three Worlds). But the emotional distance from the music was actually helpful, as I didn’t have as many preconceived notions of what the music “should” sound like (more about this when I talk about Riceboy Sleeps . . .).

Richter performed with the American Contemporary Music Ensemble and soprano Grace Davidson. There were only seven people onstage—not all of them necessarily playing or singing all the time—so I could see and hear exactly what each person onstage was doing at any given moment. The clarity, precision, and synergy between the musicians was beautiful and allowed each instrument to take on a distinct role and personality.

Perhaps most striking to me was Richter’s use of repetition throughout the concert. In a TV show, repeating a character or plot theme can be helpful and even necessary, but I’m not used to repeated pieces at a live show. Some of the repetition was (as far as I could tell) verbatim, as in the same song played again later in the suite.  Other repetitions were the same melodies played by different instruments or arranged differently. Still other repetition is built into the musical structure of postminimalism, as the musicians and singer would often play short ostinatos over and over that were then layered over one another.

As an editor, I’m often keeping an eye out for repetition and trying to weed it out of my writing. I already used the word “river” in this paragraph—can I use “water” instead? I already used this tic to show that the character is nervous—can I use a different action or just delete the sentence? But watching Richter perform, and feeling the emotional resonance of the melodies and musical passages change over the course of the concert, I’ve been thinking more about not just removing repetition from my writing but thinking more constructively about how to use repetition to create moods, themes, and narrative structure.

Sigur Rós has been my favorite band since college, and I listen to Riceboy Sleeps probably at least every week. So I was thrilled to see Jonsí & Alex live, especially backed by an orchestra and choir. As I mentioned, I had a little trouble getting over my fanboy impulse that the live performance “should” sound exactly like the album, but the different live interpretations gave me a new appreciation for tracks like “Chapter One” and “Daniell in the Sea.”

In stark contrast to the clarity and intimacy of the Richter show, Jonsí & Alex performed with probably fifty people, the sweeping dreamscapes of their music coming from indefinable places onstage, wavering in and out of colored lights and fog. A clear piano line or Jonsí’s signature falsetto improvising over the melody would occasionally break through, a spotlight helpfully guiding the audience to its source.

While the Richter show felt like a “character piece,” Jonsí and Alex were pretty much the only clear characters at their show, existing in a musical landscape of lush, expansive choral and orchestral movements. More abstract, it felt almost too big to get my arms around. In writer’s terms, I suppose I might call it a rush of warm, embracing description without much plot, but it’s beautiful and so quietly joyful that you don’t mind one bit.

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