So far today I’ve played the song about 60 times. It’s just gone 1pm; another 80 or so to go after lunch. Not that I’m counting – each rendition blends into the next and the piece becomes a long, polymorphous soundscape. It slows and swells, drifts and softens. Sometimes it almost falls apart, but it doesn’t stop until 6pm when the troubadours strum their last and the gallery closes.
That’s my job this summer – professional Troubadour. I’m performing as part of an exhibition of Ragnar Kjartansson which runs at the Barbican until September 4th. Hailed by the New York Times as “one of the most celebrated performance artists anywhere”, Kjartansson is well-known for his use of music, romance and repetition. In Take Me Here By The Dishwasher: Memorial For A Marriage, men with guitars sing and play a three-minute song on loop whilst drinking beer in their pyjamas to the backdrop of an Icelandic love fantasy film clip (featuring Kjartansson’s real-life mother and father).
On the one hand it seems like the greatest job in the world, paid to lounge around on a sofa, drink beer and play guitar. It’s like “being on holiday” said Ragnar in a rehearsal pep talk. “But it’s going to be tough” he added. That’s the other side of it – boredom, monotony, aching fingers, the never-ending earworm that accompanies every waking hour.
The musicians approach the challenge in different ways. Some take up a position on a mattress and stay there most of the day, strumming away, getting up only for toilet breaks; others like to wander around. A few have tried to get drunk (though three beers a day is the official limit) and some aim for spiritual reverie. One performer just spent half an hour walking backwards slowly through the exhibition space.
There are ‘breakthrough moments’ too. Suddenly I become aware of the mechanics of vocalising in my body, my throat opening and the pressure in the roof of my mouth. I feel present. I hear the sound of a neighbouring musician, our parts locking together beautifully. It’s a kind of meditation.
The reactions of visitors range from puzzled to enchanted, amused and intimidated. Lots of people chuckle and occasionally someone will try to strike up a conversation with us. One woman passed on a mystery note to a lucky troubadour. All sorts of people pass through – arty types, tourists, babies, businessmen, day-trippers, musos. My grandad came the other day – he thought it was pretty good.
Right, I’d better get back to it… There’s a strange comfort in sinking back into this big soft beast of a song and taking up my post among the forlorn, tipsy cry of the full-time troubadours.