Pop d’époque: Time Warp in the Satosphère
Time Warp, Year of Glad, Syngia, The Feast, Red Sunrise, and Coda all played Pop d’époque. Shoeclack weighs in with a review.
It is a bleak night to go for a walk, the wind is cold, so I travel to the past instead. Inside la SAT, I walk up to the third floor, and every floor sheds a century. By the ticket booth, there is a Borgia bull lit in red, a clear sign that I am back in the Italian Papal states, and that the SAT is the Société Des Arts Théocratiques tonight. It is 1699. Out on the patio, in the general’s tent, Cesare Borgia spars with his own shadow using a blood-soaked sword. The soldiers laugh and enjoy the spoils of war to the timeless sound of a Grimes tune.
Finally, the tent door of the Satosphère folds open and I ready myself for the spectacle. The dome-shaped room is lit in a sunset-blue background as ominous 17th-century wigs rotate to the sound of a harpsichord sonata. A feast covered in saran wrap is spotlit in the middle of the room. I sit down at one of the long plastic-wooden tables. I am not sure if this is the past anymore, or a weird parallel universe, where they drilled for oil and Pope Alexander IV spiked the sangre de cristo with acid before mass.
Year of Glad
The first band is Year of Glad, a four-piece with a guitarist/vocalist, a tenor sax player, a cellist and a percussionist playing drum pads. Their setup looks like an enchanted forest from a Brother’s Grimm fairytale, with patch chords instead of tree roots growing out of the stage. The singer/guitarist attacks a dissonant chord on his hollow-body Epiphone and launches into an otherworldly alto-range melody, like the distant cry of a warrior who has just lost a lover on the battlefield.
“It’s always about the dead bodies” he says, after the tune is over.
It is a strange combination of sound. The cello fills the low end, sometimes with an octaver effect, the guitar fills the mid-range with a metallic chorus-y distortion, the sax has broad and improvisatory-like melodies and the drum pads keep a stead beat of bass drum, snare and digital high hats. The voice soars high above everything else usually, with the intensity of a post-apocalyptic Jeff Buckley.
Despite a few technical difficulties (not surprising seeing the amount of effect pedals), the set goes well, though the initial feeling the band gives is never really surpassed. Everything is given away at the start and the timbral texture doesn’t change drastically after that. There are a few really nice moments, when all the instruments play a melody in unison, or when everything dies away to a mournful cello line.
Syngja is also a four-piece, though less standard, with one lighting artist and one photographer in the lineup. On stage, there is a cellist/vocalist and a theremin player. They look like Alice in Baroqueland, with equal parts fantasy and history. They play an atmospheric pop that is airy and dark. The loops are all pre-programmed with some pretty elaborate sound design elements. It all feels very true and Bjork-y, as if the singer’s soul is being poured from a hot, glittery cauldron. After their set, I end up talking to Zu Zu Knew, the photographer who is also the sister of the cellist.
“In the programmed music we use the voice of our great-grandmother. Usually our shows start with a projection of her image, so it is kind of like a seance.” This is in keeping with the feeling of the songs, one dealing with “making your dream state your awake state.”
After Syngia, the room illuminates, the harpsichord music returns and I am not really sure when I am supposed to be. Am I back in the past, or has the past come to me this time? Then the feast begins. The plastic films are removed from the dishes in the middle of the room and I fill my plate with prosciutto, thick grainy bread, some varied bries and a few grapes. At my table, two baroque damsels are sitting at my spot so I sit in between.
Apparently, this is when the “real” show starts; a whole set of visual re-interpretations of greek myths with drawn animations, mixed-media and super-imposed videos. This is accompanied by music composed mostly by Aleks Schürmer (also the theremin player in Syngia), which is an equally eclectic mix of pop and baroque elements. There are static pop chord progressions which, as Aleks points out to me later, are not that different from the ostinatos of the time, orchestrated with both modern (synths, loops) and baroque (harpsichord, viola da gamba, flute) timbres. Everything is done in midi, with the exception of a few of the melodic lines. This allows Aleks to write in quarter-comma mean tone, true to the times, which makes for music that is more in-tune, but that cannot modulate easily. It winds the clock back to before Bach’s Well-TemperedClavier, but does so through the use of twenty-first century technology.
Around the room, an elaborate, symbolic sun grows and washes over the crowd from the top of the dome-shaped structure. It turns into lines and sound waves as it travels up and down, sinking everyone deep inside a bizarre universe that is rococo, arabesque, off-beat. Tigers dance around the room and it makes me think of William Blake. The Tyger that burns so bright is pierced by an arrow and lays down to die. The baroque damsel on my left turns to me and says:
“Is this what they call modern art?”
“No, this is ancient. I’m from the future,” I respond.
She smiles. “That’s silly talk.”
I might be in love, even though she’s 300 years older than me and her uncle, the king, could have me executed for feeling this way.
Though the general atmosphere is playful, an illustrated world of spinning planets, child-like clouds, and men being drawn in carriages by horse-men, there are much darker elements. At one moment Orpheus sings hopelessly to his love, which turns out to be a superimposed projection that slips away. They are not even in the same dimension. Then the world slips away to reveal a dark and haunted place. We are in hell with Orpheus, with hordes of hands trying to drag his lonely presence off of his barque, but he keeps singing for his lost soul, accompanying his out-of tune lyre. Then it all fades away like a dream or a nightmare, and I don’t know whether to clap or to wake casually from the dream. As I step outside, the cold wind that dragged me in to the time warp slaps my face and I remember sadly that this is reality.