No Context: Orchestral Black Sabbath (Backwards) at Passerby


No Context

“From Beyond”
Wednesday, February 13

On YouTube there is a vast and growing sub-category of videos that dwell on the total destruction of the earth by mankind, videos that start with a tranquil shot of the earth from outer space. The segue to apocalypse is handled differently by different auteurs, but the elements of the deck remain pretty constant: Mushroom cloud; man walking on the moon; one missile colliding with another missile in midair; mushroom cloud; reprise. These clips unfurl with uniformly grim soundtracks, and the number-one soundtrack pick for “war its such a brutal planet”- and “fuck planet earth”-type montages that abound in the 18-or-older backrooms of the Broadcast Yourself empire turns out to be, over and over again, Black Sabbath’s “Into the Void.” The reasons for this choice are self-evident. Sabbath’s proto-environmentalist, nuclear-winter anxiety dream imagines the population of planet Earth riding rockets to safety and the sun, a scenario that seems will soon come to pass and is also comparatively easy to animate. Other takes on “Into the Void” have included doom metal and ecoterrorism, but Sabbath’s never really been touched in terms of out and out depressive clarity, and at this point they probably never will be.

Forwards, “Into the Void” sounds a bit like a factory collapsing, the metallic clank of the bassline grating off the most merciless Iommi-downstrokes in a catalogue consists of nothing but. Backwards, it turns out, “Into the Void” sounds. . . uplifting. I refer here to “From Beyond,” the Lucas and Jason Ajemian art piece/conservatory gag in which “Into the Void” is transcribed backwards and arranged for classical orchestra. “From Beyond” is an Boston Pops concept that in execution—say, at GBE@Passerby, where it was performed three times in a row last night—might be the best performance I’ve seen this year.

“From Beyond” has a bit of corollary in the music-not-music American Idol slums of rock simulacra—someone might suggest that’s why it’s proving to be such effective gallery fodder—but it’s also an undeniably exciting piece of music, jagged and squawky but with a straight line running right through it. Predictably, the performance has already been gobbled up by the more experimental wing of the museum world: it debuted at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris and will have its reprise this summer in Stockholm’s Moderna Museet. Of two brothers, Lucas Ajemian, who handles the yzzO vocals, is the artworld connect. Jason, who did the arranging, is a wild-eyed music-school graduate in a trapper hat and a suit two sizes too big, and he conducts standing on a paint bucket.

The orchestra ran small at Passerby, at about thirteen pieces, thirteen conservatory types cribbing off sheet music and grimacing at the fast parts. The audience grimaced too. Swing, that quality that separates us from the animals, is mercilessly stamped-out going the right way through “Into the Void” but returns when the piece is played backwards. Figures, if you think about how all the movement in a Sabbath song, when turned around, inverts from down to up.

“He’s a conservatory master,” whispered a friend, admiring Ajemian as he rode the bucket. But afterwards, Jason told a different story: “This is the first thing I’ve conducted in my life.”