Karen O is the only singer I know whose lyrics are secondary; just there to mark the feeling. But you can recognize her voice in an instant; if you hear a Karen O moan, you know it. It’s croaky and wise beyond its years. There’s nothing better than hearing a female artist age well and I was insane excited to see her perform her first major work since motherhood. Only, it wasn’t a performance.
The collaborative show promised to be a visual extravaganza - a multi-media collaboration between musicians Karen O and Danger Mouse, and creative directors, sound designers, lighting designers, visual designers and projection mappers — otherwise titled —“An Encounter with Lux Prima.” Pair that description with an instagram photo of the opening party, where there was actually a show, and you have what turned out to be a very well planned mistake.
The event was at the Marciano Art Foundation, a private museum in Los Angeles, with showings that began at 10am - which should have been my first hint that this was not going to be a rock show. But I was just pleased that I could actually go - late nights and young kids don’t really compliment each other and I had a fresh toddler in my midst. The only challenging aspect was that the invite read to please wear black. And I had given up that east coast uniform a while ago, in favor of the cozy LA sweat pants and yoga gear attire.
On Friday night, I ran out to Alter on Sunset, a Brooklyn based boutique, to get my requisite skinny black pants and then paid a visit to my best friend, Allie, who has nothing but black in her closet. We chose a few possible blank tanks from her endless collection, some of which had been gathered in preparation of her own year long live music touring schedule. And when I arrived the next morning, I snapped a photo for her - at 9am people were already lined up and if there’s one thing I can say for west coasters it’s that we can follow directions; everyone was midnight head to toe.
The outside line was only a line for another line, inside the atrium of the museum. As I waited I began to theorize: what is the promise of a rock show in a museum? What are the benefits for the artists? In the lobby where we waited for the “experience” to begin, there were about eight speakers up above us, with the sounds of dripping and electricity and wind, as if we’d stepped into an underground tunnel: a subway, if you’ve got your easy coast memories in tact. Imagine: the burnt out light sizzling, the water dripping down from somewhere and the tingling metal of a train coming from far down the tracks, the sounds of it rushing like a wave but still too far to be hopeful. You’re alone. And you’re waiting for the C.
I notice that the line isn’t filling up as quickly as you might expect twenty minutes before the start. But then again, remember, it’s only 9:40am. And it’s a Saturday. And the tickets were free // although an early reservation was required. And of course, this isn’t a music show, but I hadn’t been hipped to this quite yet. This relative quiet only excited me more - instead of 1000 teenagers, the audience of the last Yeah Yeah Yeah show I saw, this might be like a private Karen O show! With a group of other handsome sophisticates. Excellent!
As I’m waiting I’m wondering is there a stage? Will the performers be on the ground level? Will it be like Karen O stepped into a dream?
Speaking of dreams, this whole morning was conjured. A few weeks back when I made the discovery that show was happening, the list was already full. I forgot about it and the memory came back to me in a deep deep dream two days ago, when I woke up with the sense that I had driven to, or was on my way the museum. But the light of day, a sold out show wasn’t promising. I forgot about it again, until I told another mom in the park that I used to write art reviews. I said it as if it that life were one of some long forgotten person. I remembered the show and thought about how I might like to go. And then, bingo. I looked at the website again and spotted the press contact. The voice came louder: I USED TO WRITE ART REVIEWS. One quick email later, and I had a ticket.
And in we went, through the black curtains and into the space. It’s dark and there’s a dark stage with a big black boulder shape in the middle, shrouded, like a sculpture wearing a cloak. Above there’s a single blue light illuminating a wide 3D triangle over the whole stage and we walk onto a grassy area with four pebble paths leading to the center. There’s a tiny rainbow where the triangle of light hits the ground, the last color of which is a true alien purple. I reach my hand into the cone shaped light and it gets sucked into the light, as if to touch another realm. Which, in my lively imagination, is where Miss O will appear, like a hologram.
Fucking awesome UFO landing in a public park (are my first thoughts). Yes, this is cool, I said to the person next to me. We were not in the subway but there was still a windy rumble running through the speakers with a few sounds of feedback cutting through the more ambient sound. The rumbling got louder. The train was coming. But it’s a futuristic one - signified by flash of tiny lights illuminating in a ring around the room, matched with a warbling sound. The flashing lights moved around us now in a circle and there was a spiral sound as if something was arriving from another planet.
Then the sound of something grotesque, like a monster coming out of a murkily lake. If I were actually alone in this park at night, I would be a bit afraid. I looked around and see there is some space. Grassy area and benches. I could even be walking around the space, strolling as if I were in a park at night alone with a very dark presence.
The light from above projects a thin line that hits the top of the rock — like the Sword and the Stone - and the triangular orb is gone. There’s an organ sound that starts up like the beginning of an 80’s sci-fi movie, or reminiscent of the opening of Twin Peaks, and an ethereal voice floats out of the speakers, the first sign of her arrival. I wished, for a moment, we were in a stadium, where you would most certainly begin to smell the refer drift through the air.
I read that the first song on the Karen O’s new album was influenced by Pink Floyd, and what we’re listing to it’s indeed, very Dark Side of the Moon. Then it began to dawn on me. We’re going to be listening to the album. That’s why the show is listed at 34 minutes long. This is not a concert.
I wish I could blame misunderstanding this on being a parent but really this is a mistake I would have made any old day. The text on the website clearly says: “an immersive, communal listening experience soundtracked by the pair’s forthcoming album.” But where I’m from (NEW YORK, HAVE I MENTIONED?) we have a name for that.
Later, not much later, just when I leave the museum, I will I think about the expectations I have for other women, gargantuan as those women may be. Karen O has a four year old. Of course she isn’t doing six shows in three days, some starting at 10am. I just made it out of the house in clothes that were not made for yoga for the first time in three years. Did I mention it’s the Saturday after Good Friday? The same one that’s a day before Easter Sunday? Karen O is probably collecting Easter eggs with her tiny, for god sakes.
“It’s a listening party,” I text Allie. “Not a show. Hi. Duh”
Now we’re just listening to the songs together in a room, somewhat soullessly.
The people behind me laid in the fake grass, like we were in a concert in central park but at night. Small white lights flashed toward the stage and the rock sparked about. The second song began and the era was the 70’s. We lost the historical thread. I start to feel glad that at least this was free. (Note - what I thought was the second song is actually part of the first song on the album “Lux Prima.”)
The third song came and it’s a bit fantasy like - reminding me of Edward Scissorhands soundtrack - but much of the visuals in the room are the same. The rock glimmered a little more. What’s missing here was the communal part. We had park benches. We had music. We had grass. But somehow, it did not feel like we’re in in this together.
This could be a gallery show. And it would be a cool room.
Lights danced on the rock and tiny veins and pattern marks graced the surface. It began to glow white and to pulse and have something running through it, as if the rock was about to give birth to something alien. I was still holding out that it will burst open and Karen O will be inside. Then it turned black again, with tiny colors and the best song so far begins. Still, we were all just sitting around watching a rock. It’s a nice listening party but my expectations, even of any claimed experience to take place, are now solidly dashed.
The rock turned a lava red and then a very cool dish scale like color and then was alive again with white veins. It’s gorgeous then like a chrysalis. I decided to summon the long lost stoner in me and be in the here and now. Tiny sperm travel up the rock and I think: We all have the same beginnings. I remember Karen O’s statement that this was the first music she’s written since bringing life into the world. Her son. My daughter. Her singing and lyrics took me in that moment and held my heart with the words: “Make me crystal pure, cast my heart anew.” It’s her voice, as I remembered it, but it was without any of the normal punk I expect from her, yet still definitely her. All of the femininity, all of the transformation, all of the things of motherhood right there, in those two lines. As quickly as it comes it goes.
That’s when it hit me: THERE ARE NO INSTRUMENTS ON THIS STAGE.
The room turned red, with a thin red shape around the rock and the classic Karen O singing returns. It’s a song about a woman, that reminds me a little of Witchy Woman, only it has a wonderful raspy lo-fi drum crashing out from behind the song. A nostalgic moment; and the rock projects a black sheath into the space; long live my goth heart.
Rain began to fall on the rock. A tiny beautiful song with heartbreaking guitar part began and the rock was dark. It felt nice to be in the rain without getting wet. A triangle of light formed around the rock and the stage. I noticed that the aisles that lead to the center of the room are made of rocks that are perfectly raked. Oh for sure no one was going to be walking up these aisles. The rock formed a light crack and it the projection created a door as if was going to open. It looked like lava again and then like gold.
This is a very powerful rock and we knew this because of the mystical asian melody and classical asian instrument sound of the next song. Forgive my sarcasm. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was a really good movie.
I adjusted my expectations completely. This was a light installation. It’s gorgeous. The rock’s surface began to look like a pink malachite stone and then like a blue ocean stone and the it turns black and dripped with sparking lava but turned back agin nto a black cosmos, then pink and purple with far away stars.
Honestly, this rock can’t do anything for me, I thought. Doesn’t matter how many ages it can summon. The laughter of a child struck through the sound and I remembered the precious moments I was missing with my daughter - for the first time since 8am, I wished I was with her. To be fair, I’ve never lasted more than 2.5 hours away without wanting to return.
As the lights turned on, and the show concluded, I saw that one person across the room is wearing a gold sparkly shirt. I mean, this shit was made of tinsel. People started to get up. Others were clapping. For the rock. Which brought up some laughter. I began to wonder why I bought something special for this.
What can I say. It takes a lot to impress me these days? I just watched a human learn the entirety of the English language from scratch in two years. I no longer live in New York? These sighting mean less to me than they did, although I certainly fell for the hype. Plus I WENT to those shows. I was there in 2001. I saw the microphone eating monster romp across the stage, I drank those six margaritas. I saw the towers fall.
Or, maybe. I just no longer wear black.
Of course it beat what I usually do on a Saturday morning; a message at a local joint that plays ocean sounds while you lie on a heated table - a curated nap, my mom of two friend calls it. But this show was like a curated happening. Which is really not like a happening at all; missing the sense of spontaneity and in turn, lacking possibility. In the parking lot, my car wouldn’t start. My therapist texted. I’m late for my appointment, which I then had to cancel. I ate a museum cafe lunch in the car while I wait for AAA and text my husband who is watching our daughter: feed the creature, I wrote. I tallied up how much I spent on this adventure: black pants: $81, pregame breakfast, $20, car battery $121. Plus four hours of time which in my life has become so dreadfully underpaid, it’s hard to put a number on it.
I pitched this story in two places: I have a 2,500 word essay on mistaking the listening party at the Marciano foundation for a live show - at 10am. On a Saturday. Themes include, motherhood, artistry, collaboration, installation and disappointment. No answer And then let it sit for a long while.
But you know, then things call to you anyway. In a dance class some month or two later the teacher included the songs on Lux Prima on her mix for our hour of improvisation together. Without the presence of the rock, without the lights and the sound show and the prearranged gathering, the songs sounded perfect; Karen O’s voice a tiny crystalline reminder of the life I once had and might still have, deepened by the birth of my daughter and all that motherhood brings.