A Fitting Name: Square Peg Round Hole at National Sawdust

Stepping into National Sawdust in Brooklyn feels somewhere in between stepping into an alien spaceship and a 1970s vision of a futuristic nightclub. The truth is it might as well be both. So-called Classical Music, or Western Art Music, if you’d like, is often viewed as a static medium, where even listening to the innovative music of a composer such as Thomas Adès is still mostly confined to a traditional concert hall full of gowns and tweed jackets. There is nothing wrong with that, but if you seek to find the vanguard of music then the spaceship/nightclub combination of National Sawdust’s venue might be a better fit.

Square Peg Round Hole aims to insert itself somewhere in the genre-bending realm of National Sawdust as a venue and producer. The percussion group released their third LP Branches at an intimate and immersive concert on November 8 in Brooklyn. As the three performers took the stage and began playing, it became immediately apparent that the white, paneled, polygonal walls were the perfect home for what can only be described as a playful exploration through percussion, lights, keyboards, and samples. Their music borders somewhere in between the best lo-fi hip hop music and Phillip Glass-style minimalism. Frankly, even these categories or labels fail to describe their music. Like the name suggests, Square Peg Round Hole does not fit in a narrow categorization nor do they aim to.

Their music suggests an interpretation of genre itself and, with it, an abstraction of emotion. Like many contemporary artists, critique and analysis of both self and society cannot be neatly divorced but are rather incorporated into a single package of art. The best part is that all of this is just one perspective and their entire album leaves it up to listener to determine whether titles like “How to Say Goodbye” evoke a deeper meaning for the work or are words to package beautiful-sounding music. The only reasonable complaint one can have is that there is simply not enough of it. Each piece lasts between 2 to 6 minutes, giving far too little time to break every repetition and melody into its component parts. Maybe the brevity adds a sense of ambiguity or excitement about what is next, but it also leaves room for more exploration and excitement.

However, the greatest artistic feat of their National Sawdust concert is not just the label-defying music. It is what group member Sean Gill called “making it like a rock show,” where lights, music, and the venue are all intertwined into one work of art. This idea, which he compared to a Sigur Rós show, reminded me more of a Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk. Their concert perfectly married not just artistry in musicmaking, but also a brilliant synthesis of light that perfectly occupied the concert space. The electronics that controlled the combination of mirrors and lightbulbs were synchronized to the percussion through manual controls and electronics made by the performers themselves.

After the show, all three artists stepped into the black ceramic canyon-shaped lobby to talk to their recently enthralled audience. Somehow, that simple act transformed a surreal experience into a very human one, where art is not just a finished product for the concert hall but a collaborative work in progress. The same can be said about the group as a whole, marking the beginning of many exciting and playful experiments ahead. The genius of Square Peg Round Hole goes beyond interesting music, it is their ability to make an album debut into a truly unforgettable experience.

Pablo Rasmussen is a Classical Producer for WHRB.