Paul de Jong Embraces the Absurd at Fairchild Chapel

Julian Ring, Arts Editor

The whole scene had a faux-gothic, Frankenstein-esque quality about it: dual candelabras and the sound of moaning — rather than fluorescent lighting and polite silence — greeted attendees to Paul de Jong’s intimate evening concert in Fairchild Chapel Tuesday. De Jong, a multi-instrumentalist formerly of avant-folk duo The Books, marked his first appearance at Oberlin since 2006, and his first solo performance at the College. Falling somewhere between ambient classical showcase and bizarre film screening, his hour-long set of funereal cello music and its corresponding images were a meditation on the darkly tranquil side of all that is ordinary.

De Jong’s artistic appeal lies in his ability to coax unique sounds from common instruments. He eliminated any need for an accompanist, building most of his progressions by playing along to prerecorded chamber tracks or by looping glassy chords on the electric bass. The warm, swelling tones created by just one man, two instruments and a volume pedal were startlingly beautiful. De Jong took every liberty to solo over these sublime creations, and he deserved to.

In essence, though, he was scoring his own video project. Before beginning each song, de Jong selected tracks from a DVD to play in the background. These visuals tended to shift the audience’s attention away from the lone cellist with quick cuts of animals, landscapes and portions of human faces. One particularly serene piece, “Age of the Sea,” presented a familiar ocean horizon made sterile when it juxtaposed separate clips of water and sky running independently of one another (“I’m in the sentimental part of the program,” de Jong quipped). “Dirge” was set to a dismal poem recited by the inanimate mouth of an elderly woman that gradually transitioned to the voice and visage of a man.

Any sense of theme between these short films, even a loose one, failed to materialize, though often-menacing narration and onscreen text seemed to hint at some connection between normalcy and madness. A few transition segments broke up de Jong’s otherwise seamless performance; these clips managed to find humor amidst ridiculousness. One consisted of the same three-second intro to a televangelist program featuring “Reverend Smith” pouring the same cup of tea each time, but dressed in a different pastel-colored suit.

All the onscreen absurdity remained engaging without overpowering the audio component of de Jong’s show. His songs, many of which featured Eastern-inspired melodies performed on what looked like a viola da gamba, were embellished with agitated bows and furious plucking, as if to place the audience on edge. When things became just uncomfortable enough, de Jong broke the tension with a ringing harmonic or sampled scream. He invited a trumpeter to join him onstage toward the concert’s end, and the pair lilted through a lazy pseudo-jazz exploration, much to the audience’s delight. Elements of Americana and harsh industrial music also permeated the mix, though only briefly. It would have been fascinating to hear what new territory de Jong could explore if he borrowed a bit more from these genres.

Complexity is almost always the mark of an accomplished classical musician, but Paul de Jong reminded his listeners of the beauty in simplicity. Perhaps not fitting the classical stereotype works to his advantage: if his tenure with The Books was any indication, pigeonholing de Jong’s emerging solo career will be next to impossible.