Closing Arguments: The Ecstatic Music Festival and The Art of Collaboration (Part 1 of 3)
Since January 17, Judd Greenstein’s Ecstatic Music Festival has presented New York City audiences with one-of-a-kind collaborations between composers and performers who share the creative impetus to explore the musical environment between the monolith of “classical music” and the divergent “indie” aesthetic which draws from popular music traditions.
But beyond the readily observable stylistic hybrid, what has the Ecstatic Music Festival really been about? This three-part series delves into the seminal influences that contributed to the conception and execution of the festival, and what it means for the dialogue between traditional classical music and emergent compositional styles.
Less than seventy seconds into my December phone conversation with composer Nico Muhly, I learned that dubbing the Ecstatic Music Festival an “indie classical showcase” would be a mistake.
“To give you an example of what I’ve done today, I’ve been on the phone with clergy all morning from Westminster Abbey in London,” explains Muhly, “and I’m writing them a series of pieces for Advent–these sort of organ preludes. And so I’ve been dealing with the least indie thing you could possibly do, which is the High Church of England.”
Muhly’s emergent and wide-ranging career–which includes collaborations with Minimalist legend Philip Glass, choreographer Benjamin Millepied, perfumer Christophe Laudamiel, and singer-songwriters Antony Hegarty, Björk, and Jónsi Birgisson–is representative of the multi-faceted creative trajectories of the musicians involved in New York City’s Ecstatic Music Festival, itself a collab-centric endeavor running from January 17 through March 28 at Merkin Concert Hall on the Upper West Side.
While the 14-concert festival features myriad artists whose music draws liberally from both “indie’ and “classical” wells, it would be entirely too reductive and facile to conclude that Ecstatic is merely about the interaction of those two stylistic sectors and the socioeconomic cultures contained therein. Indeed, music one could safely call “indie classical” is well represented–from a consort of young composers with backgrounds in academia, including William Brittelle, Gabriel Kahane, Jefferson Friedman, Missy Mazzoli, Muhly, Tristan Perich, and Sarah Kirkland Snider to preeminent “new music” interpreters like Nadia Sirota, Bang on a Can All-Stars, Chiara String Quartet, yMusic, NOW Ensemble, Alarm Will Sound, Newspeak, and So Percussion.
But also among the 150-plus artists that composer, Ecstatic Music Festival curator, and NOW ensemble managing director Judd Greenstein has assembled are numerous luminaries of realms without the word “classical” in their titles: electronic provocateur Dan Deacon, Bryce Dessner of The National, indie chamber pop artists, Owen Pallett, Thomas Bartlett (Doveman), Craig Wedren (formerly of Shudder to Think), indie producer Valgeir Sigurdsson, avant-garde songwriters Buke and Gass and Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs, and contemporary jazz pianists Vijay Iyer and John Medeski (of Medeski Martin & Wood).
If one word is particularly felicitous to describe the essence of the festival, it’s not indie–it’s collaboration. Intriguing examples of distinctive creative partnerships that have taken place during Ecstatic include Buke and Gass co-headlining the free, festival-opening marathon event with Missy Mazzoli’s Victoire on January 17, So Percussion and Dan Deacon on January 20, Nadia Sirota with Owen Pallett and Thomas Bartlett on March 9, and the March 16 New Sounds Live concert featuring Sarah Kirkland Snider and yMusic. “There are a lot of people who are working in the area around the borderlands between classical and ‘not-classical’ music,” says Judd Greenstein. “…What I’m trying to do in this case is create real collaborative events, where the artists from both sides of the aisle, as it were, are working with the other artists on the program and actually making new work and inserting themselves more directly into one another’s creative lives.”
“The festival for me feels like an incredibly natural extension of the way that we’re all behaving anyway, if that makes sense. What I like about it is that it’s kind of not special, in that way,” says Muhly. “It’s a sort of natural extension of what it means to be young, and what it means to live in New York, and what it means to be friends with people your own age, and what it means to have maybe a non-traditional relationship with the School, and what it means to be a collaborator–I think it’s all very natural.”
The Ecstatic Music Festival runs from through March 28 at Merkin Concert Hall in New York City (129 West 67 Street). The festival is comprised of 14 concerts, during which participating artists who are “re-defining contemporary music come together for collaborations exploring the fertile terrain between classical and popular music,” according to the festival’s web site.
For more about the Ecstatic Music Festival, including ticket information, visit