On May 5, 2013, Brooklyn-based rock band The National proved not only that practice and repetition makes perfect, but also makes for poignant performance art. Collaborating with Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson as part of MoMA PS1’s Sunday Sessions, the band played their three-minute and twenty-five second song “Sorrow” from their 2010 High Violet LP live on stage, repeatedly and continuously, for six hours. Not only did the tableau create a unique perspective on the concept of live performance, but it elevated the band to the fine art realm, as each note painted a veritable brushstroke that delivered contained, almost necessary improvisation. Simply, the project was called A Lot of Sorrow.


On May 5, 2013, Brooklyn-based rock band The National proved not only that practice and repetition makes perfect, but also makes for poignant performance art. Collaborating with Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson as part of MoMA PS1’s Sunday Sessions, the band played their three-minute and twenty-five second song “Sorrow” from their 2010 High Violet LP live on stage, repeatedly and continuously, for six hours. Not only did the tableau create a unique perspective on the concept of live performance, but it elevated the band to the fine art realm, as each note painted a veritable brushstroke that delivered contained, almost necessary improvisation. Simply, the project was called A Lot of Sorrow.

This summer, the entire audio performance was released as a limited edition 1,500 run vinyl boxed set by 4AD, featuring nine pieces of clear vinyl in clear sleeves held in a translucent, screen printed box. All profits from the sales were donated to Partners in Health, an organization dedicated to improving the health of impoverished people worldwide. “I have nothing but good memories about that day,” Berninger says. “Even the really sad parts are happy memories now. That’s a little bit what the whole thing was about, I think.”

On the occasion of the box set's release, we spoke with The National's lead singer, Matt Berninger, about the process of the performance, 6-hour anxieties, and how the song "Sorrow" has new meaning for the band. —Evan Pricco

EP: First off, how did the idea develop? Who came to who?
MB: Ragnar pitched the idea to MOMA and then a mutual friend, Brandon Stosuy, told us about it and connected us. We did a little research and talked with Ragnar on the phone. Right away we all liked his vibe and got what he was trying to do. The main thing that stood out to me about Ragnar is that there’s a lot of humor in his work. There’s also a lot of beer. So it was a good fit.

What does a rehearsal look like for something like this?
There wasn’t one. We knew the song pretty well, and if we didn’t, we figured we’d be able to work it out by the twentieth or thirtieth time.

And why this song?
Ragnar chose the song. I think he picked it because it happens to dig into all the stuff he’s fascinated with. The murky zone where sadness and love and comedy blend together. It also sounds good on repeat. Some songs just work when you play them on repeat, for whatever reason.

Obviously, playing the same song for 6 hours gets into the concept of repetition, and the nuance of ideas that can come out of the music when you approach it like this. But in the end, as a visual artist, did nuances shine out for you? And for the band, does the song sort of have a bit of new meaning for you?
I was little worried that we would ruin the song by doing this. I’m protective of our songs. They’re a little bit like children so I worried that this was not a nice thing to do to the song. But the opposite actually happened. The song rose to the challenge and carried us along. As the hours passed I started experiencing it in ways I hadn’t before. Around the 95th time (a little over 5 hours into it) I started thinking about my family. I started looking out through the crowd to see if I could catch a glimpse of my wife and daughter. I was beginning to lose my nerve a little and I needed to see their faces. I couldn’t find them anywhere and I lost my grip a tiny bit and went under the waves so to speak for a minute or two. I pulled it together pretty quick though and went on for 10 more rounds. They were right outside the dome playing in the courtyard the whole time. The song means more to the band now than it ever did.

For the band, how did the performance differ from a studio session when working on a song? For Ragnar, how does something like this mimic your studio practice?
This was nothing like recording and nothing like a normal performance. This was its own thing.

Its been a few years now..,. do you have nice reflections back on the performance piece?
I have nothing but good memories about that day. Even the really sad parts are happy memories now. That’s a little bit what the whole thing was about I think.

For more information about A Lot of Sorrow, visit alotofsorrow.com

Ragnar Kjartansson presents A Lot of Sorrow featuring The National (2013) at MoMA PS1. Image courtesy of the artist and MoMA PS1. Photos by Charles Roussel.