When We Are Inhuman
Sept. 12, 2019
When We Are Inhuman is a prickly collection of traditional folk tunes interspersed with Bonnie “Prince” Billy songs, all of them arranged for the contemporary classical ensemble Eighth Blackbird. The mood is both playful and haunted: The arrangements are so spare that the instruments seem to hover a few inches off the ground, and Oldham’s voice, always a little eerie, winds through the space between them, sounding disembodied. The folk tunes were arranged by Bryce Dessner, the Oldham songs by Eighth Blackbird pianist Lisa Kaplan, and taken together, they address approximately the same things: the cruel side of devotion, the animalistic side of love, the devotional aspect of sex. Like all good folk songs, they seem to mix everything up with everything else.
Sex has always been rich soil for Oldham; in his writing, even the most graphic acts (see “So Everyone,” from the 2008 album Lie Down in the Light) sound tender. “Beast For Thee,” from his 2005 album with Matt Sweeney, is one of his most fervent (and horniest) love songs: “Astride my horny horn/You’ll be in glory born/And I’ll be a beast for thee,” he exults. Kaplan’s arrangement, centered around mallet percussion, piano, and plucked strings, is a little anodyne —it sounds like it could soundtrack a bank commercial—but it also reveals a new fragility to Oldham’s promise to be “a beast.” It sounds less ribald than humble, an act of abjection.
Oldham seems to watch the animal kingdom closely, understanding, maybe, that we’re going to share their vantage point on the earth sooner or later, so he might as well learn what he can now. “One With the Birds,” another of his most beloved songs, appears here, with an arrangement that goes the obvious route of suggesting birdsong. But it also makes great use of the piano, with a music-box verse melody so delicate it sounds dreamt and some ominous low notes that rumble out at the end, reinforcing the lurking note of death.
Snuck into the middle is “Underneath the Floorboards,” a piece that Dessner adapted from the Sufjan Stevens song “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” The thematic connection between Stevens’ song and the other material on When We Are Inhuman is unclear, but it probably has something to do, again, with the intimacy of violence: Stevens’ song is a work of empathy, impossible to listen to without feeling an uncomfortable shiver of pity for Gacy. Dessner’s arrangement is macabre, more interested in evoking the things rotting beneath the floorboards than exploring the mindstate of the man hiding them.
There’s another name included on When We Are Inhuman : Julius Eastman. Eastman was a brilliant, contentious, troubled figure in Downtown NYC history, a composer whose acidic intelligence often rattled his contemporaries. He performed and improvised; he blended the minimalism of Steve Reich and Philip Glass with swing and jazz; he sang with Meredith Monk on Dolmen Music. When he died, he was homeless and it took eight months to publish an obituary.
To conclude When We Are Inhuman , Eighth Blackbird offers Eastman’s “Stay On It,” a 1973 piece in which a bright, leaping piano figure gets string double stops daubed over it like Bob Ross clouds. High voices sing “stay on it” in the background, a little off beat and a little off-key. It is the sound of a city block party, full of human bustle and clamor and sidelong interjections from clarinet and violin like honking cars. There’s a peculiar edge to it—something in the slightly soured edges of the harmonies suggests an underlying irony, but it never hardens into sarcasm or cruelty. All of Eastman’s work shared this gnawing, anarchic restlessness.
It is entirely unclear why Eastman’s music is sharing this particular space, or what Dessner and Eighth Blackbird wish to suggest about Oldham’s similarities to Eastman. They both have a subversive spirit, maybe? Eastman’s music has steadily accrued new champions over the past decade, and it’s gratifying to see another high-profile inclusion of one of his vital works. But in general, this confusion is endemic to the project, which is full of excellent performances of strong repertoire without a lot of obvious common ground. Eastman’s work is brilliant, fiendish, devouring—he upended conventions and expectations wherever he performed, and there’s something uneasy and odd about his bookend status here.
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