“SLY CURSE. I’M SPIRALING.”
Backed by string arranger to the stars, J.G. Thirlwell and his Mivos Quartet, Zola Jesus played a concise nine song set Thursday night at Guggenheim. Singular force behind the Christ-like moniker, Nika Danilova, pulled the songs from her last couple years of recording that would most benefit from new arrangements with a string quartet. This was the first collaboration between Danilova and Thirlwell, who has in the past worked with Hollywood types Trent Reznor, Nick Cave, and London’s Nurse With Wound.
The setlist contained mostly songs from 2011’s “Conatus”. This is the album that saw Danilova really break away from her lo-fi fuzz-blasted past. The electronic warmth of “Conatus” translated just fine in this performance with live strings. Thirlwell played conductor as well as laptop engineer, though the electronic elements (drums, synths) of each song were lowered in the mix to cast attention on the strings and Danilova’s vocals. “In Your Nature”, which on record glows with a pristine pop polish, was played in this setting with the drums dialed back, giving the strings space to float in and out against Danilova’s commanding voice. These restrained arrangements helped Danilova find space in her songs that didn’t previously exist in their recorded versions. “Sea Talk” and “Night”, both recorded in her late-2009 “Stridulum” sessions, abandoned all background noise, and came across as legitimate contemporary classical compositions. For an artist who has relied so heavily on experimentation, it’s almost more unexpected of her to forge tradition by simply going for it at this point. It is an expansion that will help her music, regardless of the medium she uses in performing.
Playing in the atrium of Guggenheim with the iconic design of the museum spiraling above, the crew had a ceiling that must have felt like infinity to deal with. The strings’ sustain echoed throughout, but never to the point where it seemed unintentional or obnoxious. Thirlwell had clearly thought of the space before working out the arrangements. This added touch made the sound radiate in ways that made this one-time show feel even more special.