On a warm June evening, the novelist Rick Moody sat on the floor of the placid backroom of the Ludlow Street bar Pianos, peeking out from beneath the brim of a porkpie hat at a shag-haired musician named Hannah Marcus. She was crooning about “dragon fruit” and stealing lap blankets from United Airlines. They were both there for a sold-out party celebrating the second annual music issue of The Believer, the self-consciously earnest literary magazine published by McSweeney Publishing.
Two songs later, Mr. Moody climbed onstage, pushed up the sleeves of his worn-out gray sweatshirt, picked up a guitar and strummed along. During a pause, the sax player was introduced as having been reviewed in The New York Times that day, and one musician had just wrapped a film about the Slovak philosopher Slavoj Zizek.
“This song’s based on a line in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary,” Ms. Marcus said by way of introducing her next number. Everyone nodded.
During the song, when the door between the quiet backroom and the boisterous bar swung open, Ms. Marcus stopped singing and said, “Listen to the noise of life.”
Some in the crowd seemed a bit impatient as they waited for indie starlets Wolf Parade to perform. “This,” said one partygoer under his breath, “is a veritable dorkfest.”
When Christian indie-folk star Daniel Smith took the stage, the hushed mood became a bit reverent. Mr. Smith, who performs as Br. Danielson, usually dresses as a tree when he sings, but tonight he was wearing a pink polo shirt and pale-blue argyle sweater vest. He tapped the microphone and responded to a few quiet questions from Mr. Moody, his biggest fan.
“I’d come home on the weekends and collaborate with my mom on sculptures-quilt sculptures,” he said. “I’ve never been interested in rebelling from my parents; it was my peers I was interested in rebelling from.”
Hannah Marcus’ parents looked pleased with the sentiment. “Hannah’s composed songs since she was 3,” her mother said. Surveying the crowd, her father nodded: “We expected she’d end up here.”
Out in the bar area, locked in the hustle and bustle of elbows, Andrew Leland, managing editor of The Believer, was trying to arrange for an extra ticket to his own party. “Can I change the name of a will-call ticket?” he politely asked a Pianos employee. “Change it to Nick Hornby. He’s bald and British.”
A bespectacled college dropout with a penchant for puns (“Which fork is tine-ier?”), Mr. Leland actually spent most of the evening in the bar’s more mellow upstairs room, watching a TV simulcast of the performers. John McMillian, a history and literature professor at Harvard University and author of The Radical Reader, had the same idea.
“I wrote this article about bananas on page 18,” he said. “It turns out you can’t really get high by smoking them, which I guess was a sort of urban legend.”
At the peak of the evening, while Wolf Parade windmilled their guitars below, McSweeney’s managing editor Eli Horowitz stayed upstairs with Mr. Leland and arranged a pile of Michel Houellebecq books into a makeshift pillow, upon which he took a snooze.
But when the artist Brandon Bird came in and introduced himself, the duo perked up. “You’re the one who painted that painting of Chuck Norris in our bathroom,” Mr. Leland said. “I thought that was by Dave Eggers for the longest time.”
“Nope,” said Mr. Bird.
Back downstairs, Matthew Derby, a writer ( Super Flat Times) and the organizer of the evening, admitted: “This event was largely composed so I could see Wolf Parade live. They just don’t come to where I live.”
Asked why they were chosen to headline, the band was nonchalant.
“We try not to be mainstream,” said singer Spencer Krug.
“I’ve read The Believer,” drummer Arlen Thompson added. “But one of our members-who’s missing right now because he’s planting trees in Canada-he’s an English-literature major.”
Mr. Moody stuck around, hanging back in the crowd.
“Songs,” he said. “They get at something faster than literature. For all our words, we still always need a good song.”
The audience seemed to agree: At the end of the evening, boxes of unsold McSweeney’s books were being loaded into a borrowed car. Mr. Leland held up four $1 bills.
“Here’s the money I made from selling two Nick Hornby novels,” he said.
- Adriane Quinlan
The latest underground fad is oratorio parties. These are gatherings where conversation is forbidden; one may only sing.
For example, suppose you’re at an oratorio party and you notice the clam dip has run out. You sing to the host: “Is there more clam dip?” (Or you may choose to express it in German: “Ist dort mehr KlaffmuschelsoBe?”) Your host may well reply:
Let us go,
let us go
to the refrigerator
You may use traditional melodies or improvise your own. All conversation, in fact, is performed in this manner.
“Once you get into the rhythm of it, it becomes quite easy,” explained cellist Sam Waters, who has attended a number of such gatherings. “Strangely, it can be less intimidating than conversation.”
Oratorio parties began in the Inwood section of Manhattan, when musicians would meet to sing actual oratorios. The singing became contagious and eventually infected all conversation. At some point, the musical scores were put away and replaced by spontaneous utterance.
“I’ve been to two oratorio parties in Brooklyn,” reveals graphic designer Deborah Flatts, “but they were much more affected by indie rock. The second one actually had a backup band.”