Ragnar Kjartansson is beaming at me, thumbs tucked into the belt loops of a three-piece pinstripe suit. His eyes are very blue, and he seems to be staring at the entire crowd at once. “It’s going to be wonderful,” he says. “You will slip into a kind of trance, a meditation. And my mother will be masturbating on the wall behind you, forty feet tall.”
I’ve taken many titles to make ends meet over the years. I’ve been called telemarketer, sous-chef, piano bar player, gopher, gaffer, and greeter. But never “troubadour,” at least not until I was so-christened by a jaunty, jubilant Icelander intent on transforming me and eleven other twentysomethings into lovesick wanderers. We had landed the gig through various friends who worked at the New Museum of Contemporary Art. The promise of steady work and steady checks was a bit of a foreign concept to some of the musicians. But as Kevin Johnston (troubadour number 6) decided, “we’re making a living by playing music. That’s the bottom line.”
“Me, My Mother, My Father, and I,” in residence on the New Museum’s fourth floor until June 29, is Ragnar’s first solo show in New York. The ten of us are playing a song (“Take Me Here By The Dishwasher”) composed by Kjartan Sveinsson, Ragnar’s countryman and a former member of Sigur Rós. It is the only song we will play. Here are Ragnar (singing) and Kjartan (on bass) performing one of its earliest incarnations:
The piece we’re playing is about three minutes long, at which point we loop back to the start and repeat. What Ragnar is singing, however, is now just one of ten parts. The result is not quite cacophony—we’re playing in time with one another, and there’s a verse/chorus structure like any other folk song. But the voices and parts overlap, creating a hazy mishmash of melodies and voices that swish and swirl around the room.
The lyrics we sing are comprised of dialogue from Morðsaga (Murder Story), an Icelandic film from 1977 that featured a very spicy sex scene between Ragnar’s mother (a desperate housewife) and father (a plumber with a particular set of skills). She’s wearing a frilly pink bathrobe when he arrives in a denim jumpsuit. They exchange some sly banter before she reaches the climax: “Take me! Take me here by the dishwasher.” The clip is looped and projected onto the gallery’s far wall, looking down on the troubadours as we strum and fingerpick through it all. We have been provided with some bare mattresses, a sad, saggy tan couch, and a refrigerator full of beer to keep us company. Ragnar also pushed hard for us to smoke cigarettes throughout. New York’s fire codes would have none of it.
Ragnar star has ascended via a series of endurance art projects. His work, often centered around music, concerns the repetition of a single action. This time, however, we’re standing in for the artist. Ragnar and his crew, meanwhile, went back to Iceland after the first week to start on his next project. He left with a wink and a grin that, were I to see it now, may have looked more like a smirk.
It’s been almost a month since we first started. The group of troubadours was mostly strangers at the start. Kenji, Mike, Jackson, Spencer, and Asher are recent grads from Boston’s Berklee College of Music, young and full of energy, just getting their feet set in New York. John, Max, Turner, Miles, Kevin, and Grady have been in the city for a while, seasoned music professionals with wives and careers. I am the odd duck, a music writer and composer who can’t say no to anything that sounds like an adventure. The museum put me in charge as “head troubadour,” mostly because I was one of the first applicants. I am in charge of scheduling and making sure no one needs to go on suicide watch.
It can get a little tedious, playing the same song over and over. It’s a little like going on a long bus ride—you don’t move much, but you’re exhausted by day’s end. The song itself is easy enough that the Berklee group feels (perhaps rightly so) severely underutilized. They are pent-up in the tender folk chords that make up our song, itching to let loose with an avant-garde, atonal jazz solo full of triplets and sixteenth notes. The journeymen, conversely, are fighting to keep their eyes open. More than once I’ve had to wake a bleary troubadour up from a nap, a terrible task by any measure.
After a few weeks, bickering began. The days began to be peppered with disagreements—Graham’s playing too fast, Jackson’s break went on too long, or Max isn’t playing at all. Just sitting there staring at the wall with dead eyes. Since we are perpetually on display, however, we have to keep these tiffs discreet. Discussions and resolutions are have to be negotiated in hissed whispers. Usually I see it coming before it happens: Asher’s face might start to tense as he looks around the room, and when the song loops back to the beginning he’ll stop playing, exhale deeply, quietly remove his guitar, and weave through museum-goers to the mattress where I’m playing flat on my back. He stoops down and leans in with a whisper:
“How long has Turner been gone?”
I hiss back. “He’s about five minutes over his break.”
“I’m blistering up over here, this isn’t fair.“
“I’ll talk to him.”
When Turner gets back, I’ll stop playing, remove my guitar, weave through the crowd, and lean in to hiss.
“Hey Turner. Your break was a little long.”
He is shocked and hurt, his blonde mustache turning down at the edges. He hisses back. “Talk to the burger guy at Whole Foods, he took 18 minutes to make a bacon burger.”
“You gotta be watching the clock, Asher’s blistering up over there.”
“I’m sorry. Have you ever heard of a burger taking 18 minutes?”
“No, that doesn’t sound right.”
“That because it isn’t. It’s not right, man. It isn’t fair.“
The heavy bickering lasted about ten days. But then we started to drink together, socialize and see each other’s shows outside the museum. The bickering has subsided with the realization that even frustration is a distraction from the song’s trance. Musically, we’re starting to take more chances and experiment where we can. Grady Owens, troubadour number 5, sums it up. “There are a couple of magic moments every day,” he said, “when we’re all really jamming on it, or we pull back collectively and the song becomes really choral. That’s what I look forward to. Those hills and valleys break the time up nicely.” In between those moments, however, it’s not all meditation as Ragnar promised. The physical aspect of performing gets harder with time. The muscles in my hands have started seizing up unexpectedly, and there are string-sized rivulets on my fingers that look like third-degree burns. When the day finally ends and I can move my arm from a strumming position, my nerves send what feel like electrical shocks down my arm. My throat is roasted. There are days when I have to switch to a part with less vocals, simply because I can’t rasp out enough sound.
This gets especially uncomfortable when there’s a crowd of people staring at you, expecting a song. There’s a fishbowl feeling that can be empowering or just awkward, depending on who’s watching and how they watch. There are several types of people who come to the museum. First, the Weekender. These are the tourists and the corporate warriors who decide to have a museum day so they can hashtag #culture. The Weekender usually starts to giggle upon entrance, and invariably has a cameraphone trained on us in the first couple minutes so they can tell Instagram about these “troub-adorbz” singing about sex.
Then there are the Sound Hounds. These are my favorite visitors, distinguishable as fellow musicians by the way they wander from guitar to guitar, hearing how the different parts and harmonies interlock. The Sound Hounds are sometimes famous: Björk came over to support her fellow Icelander, wearing a swan jacket reminiscent of her famous Oscar dress. Dev Hynes (aka Blood Orange) took a picture of me (and then didn’t post it, thanks for getting my hopes up Dev) and came back a couple weeks later in the same hat. I shook his hand and smiled too hard. Finally, Swedish songstress Lykke Li came by to stop our hearts for a brief minute. She arrived near the end of the day surrounded by an entourage of pouty leather jackets. While her tour continued on, Lykke began to wander into the space alone with a sad smile, closing her eyes and spinning around just once before the entourage whisked her away.
Finally, there are the Clients, so called because we should be charging them extra for these therapy sessions. Usually young women or middle-aged men, the Clients will sit with us for hours on end, letting the song’s current carry them along. We’ve had more than a few weepers. I remember one woman who stayed for five hours in a corner of the room. I never heard her make a sound, but she left at the end of the day with her arms full of tissues soaked in tears. Last week we were treated to lunch by an anonymous donor. He was so moved by the piece that he wanted to contribute in anyway he could. He suggested alcohol. New Museum curator and our band mom Margot Norton wisely suggested we’d be more appreciative of sandwiches.
I am also lucky enough to bear witness to the occasional dance-off, with the most ecstatic display coming from a quiet-looking, middle-aged couple. Graying and conservatively dressed, they shocked the room by leaping up after an hour of sitting and started some elaborate spins and leaps. They went at it for another half-hour, performing a strange routine that sent them twirling around each guitarist in a fit of dance.
Some of us have been propositioned. “Me, My Mother, My Father, and I” is a sexy little piece of art, what with the excess of good-looking young men and the masturbation. We are routinely sketched, Kenji most of all. He’s got a mane of jet-black hair that flows past his shoulders, and it’s gotten him, among other things, an invitation to an artist’s commune in Vermont from an admirer. There’s an energy to the room that rises and falls depending on our audience. Thursday nights are free at the New Museum, and it’s also the only night when we play for 10 hours straight instead of seven. The crowd gets a little rowdy, our screws are a little looser than usual—it’s a good combination.
I’d stop short, however, of calling this process fun. More like “a melancholy fun,” as Ragnar described it on opening night, “joyous and mundane.” I’m most afraid of more casualties—we had one troubadour quit after the first week, and more than half of the remaining ten have missed a day due to hay fever or the flu. We’ve stopped drinking the beer, for the most part. The group mentality has begun to edge towards self-preservation, and the mild buzz three beers might bring isn’t worth a burning throat the next day. We’ve played the song about 4,000 times by now, with another 2,000 to go.
See you on the other side.