The Books at the MCA

Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art was an ideal location for the concerts Sunday night (May 3) by the Books. This was not so much a concert as it was a multimedia presentation — a live musical performance in synch with short films. And for a show like that to work, you need a nice auditorium with a real movie screen. Nick Zammuto and Paul de Jong sat down in front of the screen and played calming, almost minimalist music, mostly on guitar and cello, while movies and words and creatively reconstructed audio clips unreeled behind them.

Playing a lot of new and recent compositions, the Books were most impressive in how they brought all of these elements together into one seamless whole. The sampled voices and audio mix in perfect time with the live music. This is sound and voice editing in the tradition of records such as Brian Eno and David Byrne’s My Life in the Bush With Ghosts, though the Books do it in a way that sounds less aggressive than many of those earlier efforts. Without all of those audio samples, some of the music that Zammuto and de Jong play would be a little too bland to attract much attention, but it functioned well as one part of the concert’s overall auditory and visual spectacle, which occasionally achieved real genius. The film imagery was often edited with stuttering motions to fit the tempos, often to humorous effect.

My favorite part of the whole show (and, judging from all the laughter, it was a favorite for others) was the song “Cold Freezing Night,” which featured recordings of some young kids making violent threats to one another. At other points, the Books introduced songs with the following descriptions: “This is a piece about the circulatory system.” “This next song is about geese.” “About male geese.”

Another highlight was a cover of Nick Drake’s “Cello Song.” As the concert progressed, it became clear that the sequence of letters showing on the screen in between songs was a coded set list. The Books played two encores, but left that last song — identified only as “n” — unplayed during the 7 p.m. show.

Photos of the Books.