Anohni Live At Park Avenue Armory, 2016
by By BEN RATLIFF, reposted from New York Time (here)
Anohni’s first performance of the music from her new record, “Hopelessness,” began on Wednesday night at the Park Avenue Armory with ambient sounds from two musicians on synthesizers facing each other from afar across a dark stage. Then a long video commenced, while the sounds continued.
In the video, there was a beautiful woman in high boots, long hair, a sort of modified Statue of Liberty headband and cross-front lingerie top, dancing in a windowless concrete space, like a bunker. A big bright light shone down from above. The camera saw her in full, from a distance of about seven feet away, then drew up closer to her face. She moved slowly and sensuously, pausing sometimes and dropping the pretense of smiling, then starting again. It went on and on, perhaps for 20 minutes, disregarding most presumed rules of attention and/or entertainment, before Anohni — the songwriter and singer formerly known as Antony Hegarty — emerged to sing the first song: an unlit presence in a hooded silver dress and veiled face.
The woman on the screen had been the model Naomi Campbell, and Anohni seemed to be using her in a kind of psy-op serving the principle of dignity. The film, at its disorienting length, forced you to look at her and keep looking, until finally you weren’t thinking about glamour or movement or clothes; you were only looking straight at her face, wondering what she was thinking, and therefore beginning to know her slightly.
It prepared you for the song-cycle of “Hopelessness,” released as an album two weeks ago and presented as a live show on Wednesday night for the first time anywhere, with the electronic musicians Oneohtrix Point Never, a.k.a. Daniel Lopatin, and Christopher Elms, providing the stark, bass-heavy sound of the recording. Sonically, it’s dance music with enough negative space to incorporate enormous thoughts, sung with clarity in the tone of breathy, elegant emotional release. (The production at the Park Avenue Armory was presented in conjunction with the Red Bull Music Academy Festival New York; the performance will travel to Sydney, Australia, and then on to various European festivals through the summer.)
“Hopelessness,” the record and the performance, interrogates various kinds of organized brutality or systemic damage around the world: public executions and torture, surveillance, ecological destruction, technological warfare. In the songs’ lyrics and in the show’s sound-and-image concept, it suggests individual, tight-range communication as a protest against the abstract violence of, say, drone strikes. On the record, Anohni’s voice is clear and intimate and fully embodied. In the Armory’s enormous Drill Hall, her presence seemed nearly insignificant, especially when standing in front of the huge screen, which thereafter showed more videos. No full-body shots, only faces, from the neck up: women of a great range in age and ethnicity, mostly artists of one kind or another (including the conceptual artist Lorraine O’Grady, the actress Vanessa Aspillaga, the dancer and choreographer Leslie Cuyjet and the performance artist Kembra Pfahler), mouthing the words to each song, sometimes breaking into tears as they did.
The sound in the hall was powerful and controlled — a good thing, because this verged on a post-performer kind of show. Anohni didn’t move much from her position at the center of the stage; she wasn’t spotlit. One can imagine the same concert with her behind a screen, or perhaps not even there at all, represented only by her ideas.
That the ideas were ancient and universal, interestingly, made no difference. They arrived regularly, with strength and in various modes. In “Drone Bomb Me,” she sang with tenderness, as if to a lover: “Blow my head off/Explode my crystal guts/Lay my purple on the grass.” In “Crisis,” on the same topic, she sings over the track’s slow, thumping, electronic soul: “If I killed your father/With a drone bomb/How would you feel?”
The first seems a variation on radical satire even beyond what hardcore punk can accomplish. The second is an invitation to radical empathy that’s hard to find anywhere in pop. (It ends with the words “I’m sorry,” repeated many times over.) The songs are not a set of solutions, and they don’t conclude with an acceptance of contradiction in human nature. The artist remains angry and implicated. She was, after all, performing in a former military facility. “How did I become a virus?,” she sang in the title song. “I’ve been taking more than I deserve.”