Before Thursday night’s Zola Jesus concert at the Guggenheim could start an event organizer took to the center of the stage, thanked the audience for coming, and gave two quick instructions: “Keep it quiet. Keep it classy.” It was an odd warning to hear at the beginning of a concert, but especially odd given the performer. Earlier this year Zola Jesus played Manhattan’s Webster Hall with an opening assist from Brooklyn black metal lighting rod Liturgy and her own shows are known for their kinetic energy and occasionally crushing volume . Classy? Sure. Quiet? Unlikely.
Yet, there was reason to believe this might be a slightly calmer affair than normal. Zola Jesus, the moniker of 23-year-old Wisconsin-born artist Nika Roza Danilova, was scheduled to perform with industrial composer JG Thirwell and the Mivos Quartet as the part of the final event in the museum’s Divine Richochet series, which previously featured performances from Grouper, Julianna Barwick and Cold Cave. Going into the performance it was unclear what role Thirwell and the Mivos Quartet were going to take in the proceedings. The combination of classical or avant-garde musicians and rock artists can be a dangerous thing—I still have night terrors about going to see the Decemberists play with a symphony orchestra—but the pairing of Thirwell and Zola Jesus was an inspired and sublime choice. Thirwell’s No Wave roots and industrial soundscapes were a perfect fit for Zola Jesus’s operatic goth-pop.
Ms. Jesus emerged onstage wearing a a white dress and a worm-like contraption made of mesh and Christmas lights that hung around her neck. Thirwell wore a black jacket and white dress shirt, his tangled hair and sideburns making him look like a cool English professor at a boarding school. He tapped his baton, put on a pair of headphones and the concert began. Opening with “Avalanche” from last year’s album Conatus, it was obvious from the first tremors of sound that this was going to be a special show. “And it all falls down,” sang Jesus, her haunting snow blanket of a voice engulfing the room. Contrary to what she sang, nothing fell down. Everything remained still. Her celestial voice filled the spiral structure.
Instead of drastically re-imagining Zola Jesus songs as ornate and blustery string pieces, Thirwell, Zola Jesus and the Mivos Quartet masterfully tweaked and heightened Jesus’s already epic and brooding songs. Drum tracks still played a role, but mostly the quartet adapted the trembling synth textures by transforming them into gentle plucks and feverishly bowed drones. After each song the members of the quartet would often exchange grins, like they just got away with something. Album tracks like “Collapse” were given new life by the group’s total command of mood and their expert playing.
Then there was Jesus herself. Like fellow gloom-rock artist EMA, Zola Jesus posses a raw punk magnetism, but she undercuts it with a foreboding Swans-like sense of beautiful, crushing doom. Though her neck-gear and the tight confines of the Guggenheim’s small, floor-level stage didn’t provide much room for Zo-J to dance or terrorize the crowd, she did find a few ways to explore the space. During one song she climbed on some structure (maybe an amp?) and sang from a high-point above the crowd’s head. Then, during her final pre-encore song, she left Thirwell and the Mivos Quartet behind to climb the rotunda of the Guggenheim. She didn’t make it too far—I assume it’s hard to keep your balance while rocking a blinking light necklace—but the message was clear: own the space, don’t let the space own you.