The word “transcendent” gets bandied about like nobody’s business, but I’d like to apply it in a very specific way to Kishi Bashi’s performance at June 14’s Friday Cheers.
There’s a feeling I sometimes get when watching live music — maybe less a feeling than a sudden shift in perspective — and it’s among the rarest, most difficult of notions for a performer to evoke. (Jonny Greenwood is the only other example I can recall right this minute.) It goes like this: An artist will do something amazing — usually something highly technical that’s executed with an air of effortlessness — and that guitarist or violinist or drummer will suddenly seem less like a normal, standing/sitting-up-there-on-the-stage-wearing-jeans person than this brilliant musical brain, floating above the stage and sending out commands to a begrudgingly necessary but perfectly subservient set of body parts. Is that creepy? Just a weird way to say something obvious? I swear it’s neither simple nor creepy when it happens. It’s amazingly elegant.
Playing music is like an electrical storm in the brain. Synapses all over the place start firing, muscle memory is pushed to its limits, and electrical impulses travel as quickly as they can, all in one big, coordinated effort to make what the mind hears available to the outside world. Meanwhile, performers have to take in information, as they process what they’re hearing and react as necessary, making the whole thing one big cycle of electrical activity. Now, I don’t know what the average amount of electrical resistance is for this type of brain activity, but my (barely even sophomoric) guess is that the neural pathways of certain musicians are so well-connected that they reach near-100% efficiency — as if their thoughts were reaching their fingers faster, or as if the filter between their instincts and their actions had worn away to nothing.
OH – Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs is another member of the Floating Brain Club. Just remembered.
I can tell you the exact moment Kishi Bashi crossed over. He played as a two-piece that Friday, alongside Tall Tall Trees frontman Mike Savino, but he looped his singing and violin playing to build layered arrangements, much like he does when he performs solo. And about halfway through the set, there was this one descending seven or eight note run he recorded with his falsetto voice for looping purposes. It was at the outset of a song — I can’t remember which song it was, and it wasn’t terribly eventful, but the run was just SO perfectly executed. Such pure tones selected by the brain and delivered so quickly, correctly and pleasingly. The phrase repeated a few times and the moment passed, but for me, it was nothing short of transcendent. That one phrase left me shaking my head from side to side, as if I was saying “No. That did not just happen. A human being did not just send something that flawless out into the world with so little effort.”
Before this starts to sound like this is one of those blog posts in which the descriptor “cerebral” is used to pour water on a smart artist’s emotive abilities, it’s important to make clear that the floating brain phenomenon wouldn’t exist without that air of effortlessness. Kishi Bashi’s approach was loose and emotionally engaging, with fluidity of movement and total freedom from the rigid, triangular stance that ensnares so many singing violinists. And on too many occasions to list, I was overwhelmed by the simple, concise beauty of his melodies — their brightness and primary-color warmth kept the cliched phrase “heart filled with song” near the front of my mind for much of the set. I’m not kidding — I think my heart had actually been filled with song, as cheesy as that sounds. These weren’t just efficiently transported commands. Well, they were, but they were also dotted strands of a person’s musical DNA — evidence of the human ability to perceive and conjure the beauty that exists in nature.
Bridging that gap — breaking down the wall between mechanical and human sides of making music happen — that’s the type of transcendence I’d like to ascribe to Kishi Bashi. Welcome to the club, KB. Check out his Friday Cheers performance of new song “Philosophize In It! Chemicalize With It!” above and “It All Began With A Burst” — one of the tracks from last year’s brilliant full-length album, 151a — below.