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Daniel J. Kushner, traipsing through sounds

Posts Tagged ‘Brooklyn

Crossing Brooklyn Ferry Festival and the Invisible Architecture of Musical Taste

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As I left the Crossing Brooklyn Ferry Festival on its closing night, Saturday, May 5, I couldn’t escape the feeling that I had wasted so much time—not at the festival itself, but long before.

I had grown up listening to music oblivious to the domineering constructs of ubiquitous genre definition, the invisible architecture of non-substantive taste. I’m not sure which attitude was worse—contented ignorance of how the conventions of constant classification had put unnecessary limits on my musical discoveries, or my more recent belief that the use of genre labels to separate real/perceived differences in music was a necessary evil.

Guitarist Bryce Dessner performs with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus; photo by Mike Benigno, courtesy of BAM.

Upon experiencing Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,however— the New York City festival that Bryce Dessner and Aaron Dessner of the band The National were commissioned by Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) to curate—genre distinctions emerged more grossly superficial than ever before.

Conceptually, the approach of the brothers Dessner seemed straight-forward and unadorned—invite artists and musicians whom they liked and respected to perform. The performances throughout the three-day festival, which began on Friday, May 3, were distributed among three separate performance spaces at BAM: the intimate Rose Cinemas, which hosted both musical sets and the screenings of nine short films by Bill Morrison, Matthew Ritchie, and others; the versatile BAMCafé, the site of performances by a truly eclectic mix of musicians—the Jack Quartet, Buke and Gase, yMusic, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and Oneohtrix Point Never among them; and the Howard Gilman Opera House, which functioned as a “main stage” for such artists as So Percussion, The Antlers, Tyondai Braxton, St. Vincent, My Brightest Diamond, and Beirut.

Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond; photo by Mike Benigno, courtesy of BAM.

Above all, the genius of Crossing Brooklyn Ferry was in the logistics. The performances in each of the three venues overlapped with one another, with festival patrons moving freely from one space to the other. By design, one could catch the beginning 15 to 30 minutes of the film screenings, catch the middle of an Opera House performance, and then head upstairs to the café for the open bar and the end of another set.

The formality that audiences may have come to expect at performances by composer Judd Greenstein and The Yehudim, violist Nadia Sirota, the NOW Ensemble, and others was jettisoned. And by having three simultaneous options at any given time, the experience of the listener/viewer felt varied and organic. Yet because all of the scheduled performances are staggered, as opposed to scheduling acts during approximately the same block of times, the festivalgoer had more genuine choices with which to craft an individual experience of musical discovery. Instead of the masses herding themselves from one stage to the next at the pre-appointed time, it seemed impossible that any two people had the exact same experience.

Apart from Bryce Dessner’s annual MusicNOW Festival in Cincinnati, the Ecstatic Music Festival, established in 2011 by the above mentioned Judd Greenstein, is Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’s most immediate and relevant predecessor. The creative circles of both Ecstatic and Brooklyn Ferry are essentially concentric; several artists, including My Brightest Diamond, So Percussion, Buke and Gase, yMusic, Missy Mazzoli and Victoire, Jherek Bischoff, and Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire have contributed to both festivals.

Arone Dyer, left, and Aron Sanchez of Buke and Gase; photo by Rebecca Greenfield, courtesy of BAM.

Such artists are inherently uninhibited by the dichotomy of vernacular versus formal, to which I had subconsciously adhered. And both festivals are excellent environments in which to be stylistically unencumbered.

But while each festival begins with the premise “Let’s have makers of great music all play on one bill,” the central conceits that Ecstatic and Brooklyn Ferry each project to their audiences differ in telling ways. The qualitative difference lies not in the music itself, but in the way the music is presented.

The Ecstatic Music Festival has from its inception clearly delineated which artist was more “classical” and which was more colloquial in each of its collaborative performances: So Percussion with Dan Deacon, Anonymous 4 with The Mountain Goats, composer Rhys Chatham with Oneida, etc.

But the mere acknowledgment of these genre distinctions lend them a validity that I sense is unintended. The result seems to be a contradictory concession of sorts that says using genre distinctions are vital to explaining why genre distinctions are unnecessary. The paradox is typified in the festival website’s heralding of “contemporary ‘post-classical’ music.” If labels were truly inconsequential and ultimately irrelevant, there would be no reason to employ them in the setup. Somehow, it undercuts the authenticity and dynamism of Ecstatic, and credence is given to the invisible yet still perceptible wall between classical and non-classical.

From left to right, Adam Swilinski, Jason Treuting, and Josh Quillen of So Percussion, photo by Rebecca Greenfield, courtesy of BAM.

The Crossing Brooklyn Ferry Festival seeks to showcase the aforementioned borough’s music scene , but makes no effort to address genre at all. This approach suggests a way toward ensuring that the once obtrusive architectural eyesores of musical labels are not merely just invisible, but altogether intangible.

Experiments in Opera: Under Deconstruction

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It seems to me that one’s relationship to the monolithic Opera—with a capital “O”—is rarely love at first sight. It’s often much more akin to a slow courtship. Such was certainly the case for the three composers that comprise the core of the Experiments in Opera collective, which presents its Spring 2012 Series at 8 p.m. on both May 10 and 11 at Roulette in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Aaron Siegel’s interest in opera evolved from his enjoyment of theater. “In a way, the vocal sound of the opera singer, was the last thing I became interested in,” says Siegel. Matthew Welch found opera by way of film soundtracks, as he puts it, “getting used to seeing a clearly marked space where movement and characterization is supposed to be happening along with a music source.” For Jason Cady, working with Wesleyan University professor and avant-garde opera composer Anthony Braxton, with whom all three composers have studied, was a seminal experience.

Video for Experiments in Opera’s January 2012 concert

Progressing from its inaugural concert this past January at Le Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village, Experiments in Opera continues to showcase its co-founders’ current opera projects—Siegel’s Brother Brother, Welch’s Borges and the Other, and Cady’s Happiness is the Problem. And while Cady emphasizes his desire to present works that someone would readily identify as genuine “opera,” all three artists are united in an active effort to resist bottling up one notion of opera as one Authoritative and Unequivocal Thing. According to Siegel, choosing not to explicitly define opera enables the trio to “raise more questions.”

I think that our idea is that anything can be under review… —Matthew Welch

This seemingly evasive conceit reflects a decidedly nuanced approach to the storied, well-trodden path that is Opera—openly acknowledging more recent “experimental” precedents even while turning further back in operatic history for creative inspiration. Inevitably, it seemed, my recent discussion with all three composers frequently made reference to the spoken word of Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives, the overt use of percussion in the works of Steve Reich, and biopic operas such as Philip Glass’s Satyagraha and John Adams’s Nixon in China. And yet the members of Experiments in Opera cite pre-20th century techniques as significant to their current projects. “We internalize some of the forms and we choose to isolate certain ones over others,” Welch asserts.

His opera Borges and the Other—in which the author Jorge Luis Borges, while in a dream state, encounters himself at a different age in life—employs the kind of melismatic phrasing one could readily find in vocal music from the Renaissance and the Baroque. “There is something inside the word at least that is worth exploring…how you can take a word and sit on it for a long time and give it various shades of meaning, or throw in old ideas of word painting,” explains Welch.

Similarly, in Jason Cady’s Happiness is the Problem, which is simultaneously rendered in comic book form by Nadia Berenstein , the composer finds a seemingly antiquated method—Baroque-style recitative—to communicate vernacular English. “I wanted to use the recitative, but of course I don’t want to write something that sounds like Baroque opera,” Cady says of his reboot of the form.

One third of Aaron Siegel’s Brother Brother—detailing the relationship of the historical Wright brothers and the fictional siblings red and blue—is comprised of choruses, which are often noticeably absent in many contemporary chamber operas. “Choruses are interesting parts of what’s going on,” says Siegel. “It gives you a little bit of chance to get out of the intensity of the individual soliloquy and allows you to have little bit more of a distanced experience.”

It would appear at first odd that Cady, Siegel, and Welch have each chosen to draw from Opera’s comparatively distant past to help form their versions of its future. That said, it seems apparent that opera’s relevance has less to do with genre distinctions and stylistic choices, and more to do with how the Gesamtkunstwerk (as Wagner put it) engages us. Siegel makes the connection to our present day in this way:

We live in a time where we are starting to all think in multiple medias all the time, and it’s not just about multimedia, but it’s just part of the way that we live. That’s the story, that we live in an operatic time, in a way.

For more information on the May 10-11 events, visit the Roulette web site.

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