THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


See You On The Other Side

Arcade Fire and The Virtual Window

by Tristan Rodman

Illustration by Aaron Harris

published November 3, 2013


“Trapped in a prison / In a prism of light” Reflektor, “Reflektor”

“The window opens onto a three-dimensional world beyond: it is a membrane where surface meets depth, where transparency meets its barriers.” The Virtual Window

I grew up in a house with large panes of glass for walls. The living room, always illuminated by sunlight, faced south looking over Los Angeles. The distinction between window and wall was never one I had reason or resource to make; the house brought with it a certain mode of viewing. I had dreams where the translucent boundaries disappeared; I could reach out and touch the city.

My childhood was spent waiting for my parents to emerge from their offices in the basement, where the light could not bend. I would press my ear to the carpeted floor and strain to hear the muffled sounds of typing below. My father shuffled between screenplay projects and participation in “The WELL,” an early online community. My mother was hard at work on her second book, The Virtual Window. As I tried to listen through the floor, breaching the opaque material, my parents sat in front of windows, entering and researching the virtual.

Upstairs, the expansive glass panes brought the outside in, at once displaying a panoramic cityscape and highlighting its distance. In reality, the buildings were impossible to reach. The computer screens we hid behind displaced and augmented the windows, offering an illusion of immersive space, a glance at something on the other side.

Arcade Fire’s fourth album, Reflektor, released this past Tuesday, inhabits these liminal spaces—between inside and outside, illuminated and obscured, life and afterlife. It is split across two discs. Reflektor moves through death and dying, the powers and failings of art, and the refractions created when trying to access the inaccessible. Speaking on her childhood, singer and multi-instrumentalist Régine Chassange told Rolling Stone, “I listened to my neighbor’s music, the sounds coming through the walls.” Sound can pierce the opaque in ways that light cannot.

Reflektor reveals the inevitable mutations in light and sound as they cross media—walls, windows, screens. Like my dreams of touching the city, Reflektor and The Virtual Window begin with glass and attempt to move through it. The virtual, in definition “almost or nearly as described, but not completely,” shows the loss inherent in a transfer between and through formats. On the title track, husband and wife Win Butler and Régine Chassange sing in alternation, “I thought I found a way to enter / It’s just a reflektor.” Chassange’s voice echoes back, warbled and refracted. She sings through a prism.

On Sunday mornings, my parents always came upstairs. A certain set of records accompanied those mornings: Patti Smith’s Easter, Love’s Forever Changes, The Velvet Underground & Nico. I introduced Arcade Fire into the Sunday morning rotation. Light and sound filled the house, if only for a few hours, before work began again.

 

“Sometimes it moves so fast / If you stop to ask / It’s already passed” Reflektor, “You Already Know”

“[The window] opens, it closes; it separate the spaces of here and there, inside and outside, in front of and behind.” The Virtual Window

 

Nearly a decade since their first record, Funeral, Arcade Fire find themselves in an uncomfortable position: they are North America’s premier rock band. Their last record, 2010’s The Suburbs, won the Grammy for Album of the Year. They worked with Google and director Chris Milk to create The Wilderness Downtown, an interactive music video that stages “We Used to Wait” on the streets surrounding the viewer’s childhood home. They made a short film with Spike Jonze, Scenes from the Suburbs, turning America’s anonymous subdivisions into expansive landscapes. Arcade Fire do not simply make records, they build entire worlds. Music becomes the primary access point for something much larger.

Reflektor continues to push the boundaries of what an album is and can be. Where does the frame hang around a record? All of Arcade Fire’s performances around Reflektor, from a secret show in Montreal to an NPR session at Capitol Records, have been done under a full-band pseudonym: The Reflektors. By changing the band name, Arcade Fire reframe themselves, granting critical distance to the work and opening up play within it. At a small show in a Bushwick warehouse on October 18th, formal attire or costume was mandatory. Arcade Fire were performing as another band, so their audience listened under other identities. James Murphy, the record’s producer and fellow leftfield pop culture icon, introduced three people in large papier mâché heads as “Arcade Fire.” The band bumbled through their opening chords. Moments later, a curtain dropped on the other side of the venue to reveal The Reflektors, charging into “Reflektor.” “Sorry we played a trick on you,” Butler giggled. They played the same trick a few days later on The Colbert Report, and again Tuesday night on Jimmy Kimmel Live.

The first glimpses of the album were revealed through paintings on the sides of buildings, chalk drawings, graffiti, and silver stickers all over the world—from Madrid to Montreal. Photos of the insignia, the letters R/E/F/L/E/K/T/O/R placed in a diamond formation inside of a circle, were documented by an Instagram account of the same name. The photos started popping up in early August, though the band did not acknowledge any connection for three and a half weeks. The experience of Reflektor unfolded before us, always mediated, always watched. The panoptic question flipped: who is watching whom?

 

“Shot by a security camera / You can’t watch your own image” Neon Bible, “Black Mirror”

“The mirror casts mon reflet partout (my reflection everywhere)” Neon Bible, “Black Mirror”

My parents and I went to see Arcade Fire at the Hollywood Bowl in 2007. On stage, they were accompanied by a series of small circular screens, onto which film clips and feeds of the performance were projected. They opened with “Black Mirror,” the entire Bowl draped in black and white shadow. As they transitioned into “Keep the Car Running,” both stage and screen burst into color. We were seated far back into the crowd, distanced enough that it was easier to watch the band play on the large screens floating above the audience. At times, the cameras would eclipse each other, capturing both the band on stage and the projection of the band playing. Arcade Fire were in many places at once.

In her book, my mother describes the visual phenomenon of mise en abyme—the multiplicity and recursion created by standing in between two mirrors. Windows within windows, doors within doors, screens within screens, all ad infinitum. Literally translated as “placed into abyss,” the term attempts to describe a phenomenon that exists primarily in image, not in words. Such is the experience of Reflektor, a record that draws its borders loosely, framed with its edges intentionally blurred.

 

“What if the camera / Really do / Take your soul? / Oh no!” Reflektor, “Flashbulb Eyes”

“The virtual is a substitute… an immaterial proxy for the material” The Virtual Window

The first music from Reflektor came via a “virtual projection.” The word “virtual” is often thought of in conjunction with cyberspace—an imagined elsewhere. Yet, as my mother would insist, it is more than that; it refers to the experience of a transfer between formats. Metaphor is virtual, rendering images into words. Photography is virtual, rendering three dimensional spaces into two dimensional prints. Memory itself is virtual—the transformation of an event into an image in the brain. Virtuality is an attempt to capture the otherwise inaccessible.

Arcade Fire’s collaboration with interactive filmmaker Vincent Morriset plays with the ideas and definitions of virtuality. At justareflektor.com, you synchronize your phone and computer screens. The site prompts you to hold the phone screen up to the computer’s webcam. By changing the position of the phone, you can shift the focus and framing of the video on the screen, or direct light onto the faces of the actors. Sonic elements come out of the phone’s speakers, blending with the larger soundscape. For the first half of the video, the webcam feed only tracks the phone’s movement. Halfway through, the feed is suddenly displayed back at you, inverted and projected onto a broken mirror. You see your face, broken and refracted, holding up one screen to another. The reflection multiplies—mise en abyme. This moment haunts, both for its inversion of technology and its reflection of person onto his/herself. You can’t access yourself in the virtual; the image is broken, face sandwiched between screens. “Like the window,” my mother writes, “the screen is at once a surface and a frame—a reflective plane onto which an image is cast and a frame that limits its view.”

“Afterlife,” the album’s second single, first appeared in a lyric video with the track’s words laid over Marcel Camus’ 1959 film Black Orpheus. The track struggles with what happens after death—both of person and of love. Win and Regine ask together, “When love is gone / Where does it go?” The problem is that of a system that doesn’t necessarily close; something is always lost into the ether. The track takes melancholy tone and morphs it into physical action. Using a deeply locked groove and vocal chants, the locus of the chorus (“Can we just work it out? / Scream and shout ‘till we work it?”) is the dancefloor. Catharsis seems possible here in a reverse rendering—if we’ve lost so much transferring physical to virtual, there’s hope in mapping the virtual back onto the physical. On The Colbert Report, interviewing as a member of The Reflektors, Win Butler stated that their ideal is to have you “shaking that ass with a tear in the eye.”

 

“Took a drive into the sprawl / To find the house where we used to stay” The Suburbs, “Sprawl I (Flatland)”

“We can know the past only in terms of how it has been constructed for us…mediated through the lenses of the present.” The Virtual Window

It was in our glass house that my mother passed away. In her final weeks, she phased in and out of the present. I spoke to her in a bedroom in Los Angeles in 2009 and she replied from a trip to Paris in 1995. Time slipped and morphed, its horizontality folding into a vertical stack. The Suburbs came out nearly a year later. I drove around the hills of Los Angeles with the stereo loud, plumbing the emptiness. I wished for the streets to rearrange like the town in “Suburban War.” I sped down the 101 late at night, waiting to feel.

My mother described the flatness of Champaign, IL, the suburb in which she grew up, as “almost two-dimensional.” I entered her street into The Wilderness Downtown and watched the flatness expand on the screen in front of me. It was a collapsing of perspective and visual planes, each visual element its own moving window. Windows slipped and morphed, layered in a vertical stack. In The Virtual Window, she asserts,

 

“Perspective may have met its end on the computer desktop.” The Virtual Window

“We watched the end of a century / Compressed on a tiny screen” The Suburbs, “Deep Blue”

The key to Reflektor may be in its retelling of Greek mythology. “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” and “It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus)” play with the myth of Orpheus, who attempts to bring his wife Eurydice back from the dead with music. Of course, he can’t. Win and Régine map the characters onto themselves, singing at each other across an impermeable divide. The two tracks are inverses, mirrors, windows into each other. “Awful Sound” ends, “We know there’s a price to pay / For love in the reflective age / I met you up upon a stage / Our love in a reflective age.” Myth updated, the track ends with the recognition of impossibility: “Oh no, now you’re gone.” The finality of death hits as the song swoops up into a vacuum, sound shutting off entirely as if collapsed into a black hole.

Yet, as the next track pines, “It’s Never Over.” Régine sings as Eurydice: “Hey, Orpheus! / I’m behind you / Don’t turn around / I can find you.” Of course, she can’t. In the second verse, she switches to French, calling out, “De l’autre côté de l’eau / Comme un echo,” which translates to “On the other side of the water / Like an echo.” Win sings back, “Hey Eurydice / Can you see me?” The two worlds come into dialogue, yet never break through to each other. At the close of “It’s Never Over,” Win and Regine sing together, split in stereo. Male voice on the left, female voice on the right, the song ends with them far apart, trying to breach the span through the listener’s ears. Unable to reach the other side, they lament: “It’s over too soon.” If The Suburbs is a mid-century American novel, Reflektor is a Greek tragedy.

 

“After life / I think I saw what happens next / It was just a glimpse of you, like looking through a window / Or a shallow sea / Could you see me?” Reflektor, “Afterlife”

“I know you’re living in my mind / It’s not the same as being alive” Reflektor, “Supersymmetry”

I took my dad to see Arcade Fire in 2010 at the Shrine Auditorium. The back of Win Butler’s piano had been replaced by a screen, showing video of roads, clouds, and houses in uniform rows. A large LED billboard hung over the stage. They opened with “Ready to Start,” and Butler bellowed, “I would rather be alone / Than pretend I feel alright.” We exchanged few words that night.

My mother concluded The Virtual Window with a note on the suicide of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, who threw himself out of his apartment window in 1995. She explains, “for Deleuze, there is always a beyond, outside this frame, an ‘out-of-field,’ a more ‘radical elsewhere.’” Through death, “Deleuze found this elsewhere.”

Death itself is virtual, an attempt to transfer into something uncapturable. Yet there is always something lost in this transfer, inaccessibly on the other side. Separated by the window, staring at a screen, reflected on the other side of the water, the memory of my mother recedes, mise en abyme.

TRISTAN RODMAN B’15 thought he found the connector.