Live: Zola Jesus Conquers The Guggenheim


Zola Jesus
Guggenheim Museum
Thursday, May 10

Better than: Dancing about architecture.

One had to assume that Nika Roza Danilova would make it into a museum sooner or later. A classically trained opera singer, she released her first album under the moniker Zola Jesus while studying French philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her songs pair soaring, direct vocals with drum machines and ominous vibes. 2011’s Conatus is mysterious while offering a direct line to a powerful emotional core. And at the Guggenheim last night, she showed up wearing a boa made out of swirling lights, glowing around her neck.

Zola Jesus was here as the third and final act in “Divine Ricochet,” a series of live music meant to accompany the abstract expressionist sculpture of John Chamberlain. Made out of American cars in the ’50s and ’60s, Chamberlain’s sculptures are metallic clashes, violent re-arrangements of things regularly taken for granted, so it made sense that for performance, Zola Jesus would combine a variety of sounds. “Gimmick” isn’t quite the right word, but shows at nontraditional venues, like the Guggenheim, have a tendency to bring out the experimental side in everyone, which is probably what made her want to collaborate with industrial composer J.G Thirlwell and the Mivos Quartet.

Zola Jesus’ traditional shows have more of a dance element then her albums let on, and I had come in wondering how she would bring that to the unconventional space of the Guggenheim. Stick with her booming vocals, and let them bounce off the sculptures in a moment? Just bring the dance party to the museum? She chose c), none of the above, decided to take her show in a completely different direction, at least for the night.

Thirlwell and Zola Jesus use such similar music (rough, industrial beats similar to English band Throbbing Gristle) that their collaboration here seemed a foregone conclusion. Thirlwell acted less a independent creator and more as interlocutor, attempting to bring the classical string quartet and Zola’s goth-pop under the same tent. It worked.

Opening with a trio of songs from Conatus, the strings seemed to swirl in between a drum machine, bringing them a fresh and new energy. “Hikikomori” is usually a dance track with a dark tone, took on the qualities of Spring, feeling lighter than air and hopeful. Later, the electronic propulsion of “Seekir” would be replaced with the plucked strings of a violin.

Which isn’t to say that everything changed. Her vocals still sounded like a ray of light amidst the wilderness. As she bellowed out “Night,” off 2010’s Stridilum, her voice filled every bend, every contour of the Guggenheim. She can hit the high octaves but very rarely feels the need to, channeling the ethereal instead of Whitney Houston. Danilova claims that many of her songs have secret, personal meanings, hard to deny after watching her perform them. The crowd stood dumbstruck—it was as if everyone had been suddenly removed from the Guggenheim and deposited in someone’s basement.

But in the Guggenheim we were, and Z-J took a few moments at the end of the show to conquer it, walking very carefully up the cylindrical spiral as far as she could—as rock star as one can get on the Upper East Side.

Chamberlain’s sculptures provided an odd background for the show—vicious reminders of capitalism’s cruelty (and now, its weaknesses) didn’t seem to have a direct correlation with the joyous, hypnotic energy brought forth by the music. But as any scientist will tell you, it’s not correlation, but causation, that matters. Those twisted pieces of art brought Zola Jesus and a classical quartet together, and all parties, especially the audience, made out the richer.

Critical bias: Did I mention that the show was under an hour? It was under an hour.

Overheard: “He’s a Wharton guy, and he looks it.” This felt like big talk coming from a room that could have doubled as a model go-see for Dwell.

Random notebook dump: Is the Light Tunnel Boa actually a spiral, like the Guggenheim? Are we in a wheel within a wheel?