‘Song 1: A Happening’ at the Hirshhorn


A host of name-droppable musical acts converged on the grounds of the Hirshhorn on Friday evening for “Song 1: A Happening,” a live music event that served as the climax of the multimedia, public art exhibition that has transformed the museum’s distinctive rotunda into the city’s premier after-sunset destination spot. (Francis Chung)
May 13, 2012

For one night, at least, the District was the epicenter of hipster cool. A host of name-droppable musical acts converged on the grounds of the Hirshhorn on Friday evening for “Song 1: A Happening,” a live music event that served as the climax of the multimedia, public art exhibition that has transformed the museum’s distinctive rotunda into the city’s premier after-sunset destination spot.

Each evening, Doug Aitken’s “Song 1” film — a rolling montage of big, beautiful images — is projected onto the museum’s exterior, and on Friday the sound was muted in favor of live accompaniment by experimental musicians including No Age, Oneohtrix Point Never and Nicolas Jaar. It was definitely hip. But was it good?

It was, but that was almost beside the point. The event’s title — “A Happening” — stated the intent pretty plainly. This was specifically not a concert, and some of the 2,000-plus people who attended the sold-out event expecting to hear a song, clap for a few seconds, then repeat that routine for two hours may have left disappointed. The soundtrack remained as it does every night — “I Only Have Eyes for You,” a song that has approached standard status after nearly 80 years and was made most popular as a doo-wop hit by the Flamingos in 1959. Two singers who started the performance standing on the ledge of the Hirshhorn building a few stories above the audience held close to this version, but things quickly splintered from there.

Los Angeles punk duo No Age showed restraint as it tentatively tackled the song, with Randy Randall massaging the strings of his guitar with his fingers instead of his usual vicious strumming. He and drummer Dean Spunt eventually worked up a head of steam that sounded more like one of their own noisy instrumentals before leaving their spot and passing the baton. Nicolas Jaar morphed the song into an elegant, ambient soundscape. It’s not exactly Friday night party music, which may explain why the audience started growing a little restless.

That restlessness seemed to peak during the transition between the sets of Geologist (of recent indie breakout stars Animal Collective) and experimental composer Daniel Lopatin, who performs as Oneohtrix Point Never. Geologist took the source material and created a distorted and often distressing funhouse of sounds. Lopatin took it even further, chopping, looping and adding echo effects, resulting in a sinister outer-space sound that perfectly fit the museum’s imposing oval. The vocals appeared late in his mini-set, sounding as if they were sent from a distant planet and breaking up on re-entry.

There wasn’t much to see from those two as they performed. They were almost hidden at the back of the large stage, the glow of their laptops providing a very dim spotlight. But there was still so much to see, from the way the striking, giant images showing on the building interacted with the stars to the perfect glow of insects that zipped through the projection beams pointed at the rotunda.

Brooklyn duo High Places offered the most straightforward performance — at least as straightforward as a thumping electronic rendition of a doo-wop song can be. It was the only instance when attendees could both sing along and even dance a little. And soon, after 45 minutes, it was over. The music stopped, the film played on. The Happening had happened.

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