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Daniel J. Kushner, traipsing through sounds

Posts Tagged ‘indie classical

“Shara Worden: Conspiring in Song” at NewMusicBox

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My latest article, a profile of composer and singer/songwriter Shara Worden (of My Brightest Diamond) can be found exclusively at NewMusicBox. Below is the accompanying video–complete with interview footage and performance clips–produced by NewMusicBox Executive Editor Molly Sheridan.

Shara Worden: Conspiring in Song from NewMusicBox on Vimeo.

Written by winebrick41

November 18, 2011 at 5:18 pm

Beautiful Mechanical : yMusic, The Ready-Made Collaborators

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Chamber music ensembles tend to form because of a palpable chemistry felt between the individual players. But yMusic isn’t quite like many of its contemporaries. The New York-based sextet– clarinetist Hideaki Aomori , trumpeter/French horn player CJ Camerieri, cellist Clarice Jensen, violinist/guitarist Rob Moose, violist Nadia Sirota, and flutist Alex Sopp–came together because it sensed an unnecessary musical disconnect between its individual members and wanted to correct it. During a concert at Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2008 for which indie rock sensation The National had hired violinist/guitarist Rob Moose, trumpeter/French horn player CJ Camerieri, and clarinetist Hideaki Aomori as backing musicians, Moose noticed a lack of musical intimacy.

yMusic, left to right: Hideaki Aomori, Clarice Jensen, CJ Camerieri, Rob Moose, Alex Sopp, Nadia Sirota; photo by Ilya Nikhamin.

I remember during one of the songs at The National show, seeing CJ standing like 60 feet from me across the room and not being able to hear him, and we’re playing the same song but we’re not even having a shared experience. [I] was just feeling like, You know, it’s really great that bands are having more instrumentalists play with them, but the experience was feeling a little bit lacking in terms of actual interaction and arrangement-wise, things were starting to feel a little thrown together…. Since we view the music of these bands with the same amount of integrity that we would put into a chamber music performance, there should be a group that is able to do both things.

Similarly, Camerieri saw a need for a new ensemble:

Nadia was at the after-party, we were like, Why wasn’t Nadia playing? This is insane. Hideaki was on different songs than me and Rob were on–we were like, Why aren’t people using all of us? And they we sort of realized it was because we hadn’t made it obvious that they should be using all of us. So in a weird way, yMusic , the first time we thought conceptually about the group, it was just to make it obvious to other people who we wanted to play with when they hired us for gigs. If you hire me, you should know that I’m gonna want you tor hire Hideaki to play clarinet.

Three years and seven commissions later, yMusic’s debut album Beautiful Mechanical was released on September 27 via New Amsterdam Records. The album features the works of six composers–among them indie singer-songwriters Gabriel Kahane, Annie Clark of St. Vincent, and Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond, all of whom yMusic had worked with extensively in the past. “In the end we realized that we have these two branches,” says Moose. “We are a commissioning ensemble that performs independently and we’re an auxiliary ensemble that performs with bands and can create arrangements for them and really help put that whole experience together.”

As an ensemble, the musicians’ cohesion transcends that of many professional ensembles entrenched in the classical tradition. Rather than interpreting the music as a group of instrumental layers that merely interact with one another, the players create a fully integrated fabric of sounds inextricable from one another. While many chamber ensembles attempt to sound as one voice, yMusic achieves it.

Beautiful Mechanical is singular in its execution: “contemporary classical” compositions packaged in a pop album context of seven tracks and a breezy 43 minutes. Each cut is a self-contained sound world all its own–from the skittish propulsion of Ryan Lott’s (Son Lux) title track to the cinematic undulations of “Daughter of the Waves” by Sarah Kirkland Snider to Judd Greenstein’s pinpoint post-Minimalism on “Clearing, Dawn, Dance.”

yMusic has created something stunning and uncanny–a vital document of the indie-classical movement that simultaneously resists and transcends the connotations associated with the subgenre. Programmatically, there is an implicit narrative of collaboration at work. Four of the six composers were featured as part of the Greenstein-curated Ecstatic Music Festival earlier this year, and three of the seven compositions were premiered at Snider and Worden’s March 16 Ecstatic concert. yMusic is also the featured band on Worden’s upcoming My Brightest Diamond album All Things Will Unwind, out October 18 from Asthmatic Kitty Records. In speaking about the ensemble’s collaboration with Worden on that record, Camerieri had this to say:

[Shara Worden] didn’t write a flute part, a clarinet part, and a viola part. She wrote an Alex Sopp part, an Hideaki part, and a Nadia Sirota part…she wrote for their individual characteristics and how they play and what’s significant to the way they sound. So it’s really specifically these people, and not their instruments….All of her special relationships with us and the way we play really come through super clear on the record. That’s sort of what yMusic is all about. It’s about us forging these releationships and making this music happen that wouldn’t normally happen, we don’t think, without the collaborative process.

Violist Nadia Sirota clarifies the unifying principle of yMusic:

I don’t think we ever really set out to be like, Oh man, let’s have this rock sensibility and apply it to chamber music or let’s have a classical sensibility and apply it to rock music. I think part of the reason we gravitated towards each other is because all of us have very, very wide-ranging tastes, and we like to be involved in projects where we just perceive the music to be good, no matter in what side of the aisle it lies…. to be a successful player of orchestral instruments in the early part of the 21st century means finding a niche and doing some weird stuff there.


“We Added It Up” from the forthcoming My Brightest Diamond album All Things Will Unwind (release date October 18).

In collaborating with the ensemble, composer Ryan Lott sees yMusic’s virtuosity extending beyond technical ability in a way that distinguishes the group among its peers. “If you want to call them classical musicians, they’re classical musicians for an iPod world, where Mozart and Mos Def are together on a playlist,” says Lott. “They’re the product of a world in which music is profoundly diverse, and they have the skill and the open-mindedness to embrace all of it.”

Lott’s contribution to the album is the title track, the name of which is indicative of yMusic’s overall style, according to Rob Moose. “I think sometimes the danger in classical training and classical music is that you get lost in the pursuit of the technique or the craft, and can lose sight of the music behind it,” says Moose. “So our group’s aesthetic is obviously to always project those things simultaneously and let them energize each other. The name of that piece kind of sums up how we approach music.

Composer/singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane explains the group’s singularity in this way:

I had taken for granted the rarity of their masterful hybrid musicianship as individuals, and as a group, by which I mean: nowhere else will you find a group of players who have both an innate sense of phrasing in the more ‘legit’ classical sense, and at the same time have exquisite sense for rhythm–not the case among your average highly-trained classical musician–and pop-oriented groove. It’s a real glory when writing the kind of music that my peers and I do to have such intuitively resourceful musicians to interpret it.

Beautiful Mechanical Compositions In Focus

Composer: Annie Clark (St. Vincent)

Track: “Proven Badlands”

  • Compositional Features: A coolly seductive flute melody underscored by an unsettling cello ostinato and punctuated by cityscape trumpet accents.
  • What to Listen For: Echoes of “Marrow,” from 2009’s Actor, particularly the four-note motive reminiscent of the line, “H.E.L.P./Help me, help me.” You can hear Clark’s voice in the flute melodies. More overtly, “Proven Badlands” is a continuing exposition of the central melodic theme of “The Sequel.”

Composer: Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond)
Track: “A Whistle, a Tune, A Macaroon”

  • Compositional Features: Woodwind-centric textures—including what sounds like sonic archery—and plenty of quivering tone colors,
  • What to Listen For: The clarity of melodic tone, tranquility, and an uncluttered and deliberate splatial sense reminiscent of “If I Were Queen” tranquility from A Thousand Shark’s Teeth.

Composer: Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond)
Track: “A Paper, a Pen, a Note to a Friend”

  • Compositional Features: Worden’s most vivid and idiosyncratic writing for instruments yet, full of fits and starts and loaded with nuanced articulations. Tongue-in-cheek for the ears, this a subtle and deceptively complex work.
  • What to Listen For: The danceable opening groove is a close relative of the expressionistic percussion painting of “Ding Dang” (from the forthcoming All Things Will Unwind) and the thumb piano motives in “Apple” (from a Thousand Shark’s Teeth) and “Everything is in Line” (from the former album). A continuation of the overall playful, almost coquettish quality of the instrumental writing from All Things Will Unwind.

Composer: Gabriel Kahane
Track: “Song”

  • Compositional Features: Spacious Americana courtesy of the trumpet, complete with the characteristic inscrutable melody and chromatic movements; plenty of chord suspensions with delayed resolutions
  • What to Listen For: Significant chordal accompaniment in the guitar, as on the forthcoming Where Are the Arms; the flute contains traces of a descending melody from “Craigslistlieder I: You Look Sexy.”

Note: The phrase “ready-made collaborators,” referenced in the article’s title, is attributed to Nadia Sirota.

For more information about yMusic’s Beautiful Mechanical, visit New Amsterdam Records here.

Closing Arguments: The Ecstatic Music Festival and Exploding the “Steak vs. Candy” Debate (Part 3 of 3)

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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.

For Missy Mazzoli, composer and leader of the chamber band Victoire, the loft culture is a reminder of the hard reality facing today’s composers–the struggle for survival and creative autonomy. “I always go back to Philip Glass–who’s one of my mentors,” says Mazzoli, “and think about how he was playing music in parks and in art galleries and in lofts; just in unconventional spaces, as much because he couldn’t get programmed anywhere else as because it was a cool, interesting thing to do…

My reasoning behind founding Victoire was really because I didn’t want to wait around for another group to decide to program my music. I wanted to be able to program a show myself, and decide where it was gonna be, and decide how the audience was gonna experience the music, and to go in there with a solid group of musicians who knew my music really well, and do it. And I wanted to be able to tour like a band. I wanted to be able to play in clubs and bars and art galleries as well as concert halls, and I wanted to make CDs. So all these things become very difficult if you’re just writing for an orchestra, and you have to wait for them to clear it with the union, and then decide to put it on a CD, and maybe only put out one CD every five years.

Indie favorite Dan Deacon turned to pop music because of similar artistic motivations:

“When I got out of school, I was like, ‘How am I gonna find a 15-person ensemble to learn this symphonic score, and be like, Hey I’ve got no money, and no audience, and no venue–do you wanna learn this piece and we’ll rehearse it every day for weeks and then play it for no one?‘” he remembers.

“…So playing basement shows and adapting to the model of the DIY scene and the underground, and working in the noise circuit seemed to make a shit-load more sense than trying to like submit scores to festivals and you know, journals of new music, and stuff like that,” explains Deacon. “That just seemed like such a backwards way when my whole goal was to have as many people as possible hear the music I was making.”

John Schaefer, a self-described “public radio music journalist” and host of WNYC’s Soundcheck and New Sounds programs, has covered New York’s new music scene for nearly 30 years, and sees this musical Darwinism as a response to the ever-evolving realities of the recording industry. He maintains that major publishing deals and long-term, major-label recording contracts are no longer realistic goals for young composers. “It’s kind of like the big, lumbering dinosaurs are finally dying, and all these nimble little mammals who’ve been scurrying around underfoot are inheriting the earth,” Schaefer says.

Additionally, Schaefer has found that the term “indie classical” is well suited to describe the music these mammals are making. “The neat thing about the term is it sort of indicates that this is music that’s being made around the edges, off the mainstream,” he points out. “And there’s a certain DIY aesthetic that is analogous to what is happening in the world of indie rock, where you have composers taking control over not just the writing of their music, but the recording of it.”

Violist Nadia Sirota, who hosts WNYC’s Nadia Sirota on Q2, finds “indie classical” less apt. “The term is terrible just like everything else. It’s complicated–genre, blah blah blah,” asserts Sirota. “I think what people are searching for with that term is allowing classical music, specifically new classical music, to be vibrant and fun and sexy in a way that pop music tends to be.”

However succinct or clever, just beneath the surface of the phrase “indie classical” is a classic debate, in which seemingly age-old questions emerge: What makes music serious? What makes music non-serious? What makes something “classical?” What makes it “pop?” Is music both classical and serious, or pop and not serious based on the vibe it gives off, i.e. the stereotypes or connotations associated with it? Or is that determination based solely on what the actual composition process is?

When I posed those questions, Deacon gave a seemingly novel, but clearly nuanced answer:

I think there are even greater questions like, What’s so important about being serious? Does being serious about something make it art? Or if you’re not serious, it’s not art? What’s the difference between steak and candy? I think that’s one of the main things–is that people consider art music steak, and pop music candy. Where I think to the greater population of the world, I think a lot of people consider pop music steak, and art music salt. I think that cultural divide is changing…There was a lot of weird stuff that started to happen a hundred years ago. Charles Ives and his dad were doing weird, crazy shit a hundred years ago. Satie was doing shit that was weird.

Ecstatic Music Festival: Dan Deacon & So Percussion from Guy Werner on Vimeo.

To hear Missy Mazzoli try and suss out the serious vs. non-serious dichotomy, it’s really just academia messing with our heads. “There is this sort of split between serious academic music and more accessible popular music,” she explains. “Even if your teachers are accepting of the music that you write…and your peers are accepting of it, there’s still this sort of voice in the back of your head that says, Well what if this isn’t serious? What if this is frivolous? And it’s just sort of all this kind of nonsense in your head that doesn’t mean anything once you step out of academia.”

Sirota seems to have little patience for this line of analysis, and instead relies on the nature of the music itself to lend validity to her artistic endeavors. “Here’s the thing seriously: No matter what the fuck you think about what you’re writing, you have to think that music is a form of communication. You’re trying to communicate some emotional thing via music, and it needs to reach somebody else at the end of the day.

Ultimately, the dubious nature of the term “indie classical” aside–and all the philosophical cul-de-sacs and nonsensical semantics that come with it notwithstanding–the artists of the Ecstatic Music Festival continue to communicate without sacrificing creative sovereignty. “About ten years ago, we’d probably be called ‘crossover,’ explains composer and multi-instrumentalist Caleb Burhans. “But that means that we’re actually crossing over from something, and I feel that most composers that I’m working with aren’t actually crossing anywhere–they’re just staying true to what they do.”

The Ecstatic Music Festival runs 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.

Featured musicians include: Nico Muhly with the Chiara Quartet; So Percussion with Dan Deacon; the Bang On a Can All-Stars, performing world premieres by Bryce Dessner, Karsh Kale,and Nick Brooke; Timo Andres and Gabriel Kahane; Nadia Sirota and Thomas Bartlett with Owen Pallett; Sarah Kirkland Snider with yMusic–and many others.

For more about the Ecstatic Music Festival, including ticket information, visit http://kaufman-center.org/merkin-concert-hall/ecstatic.

Closing Arguments: The Ecstatic Music Festival, New Amsterdam Records, and the Seeds of “Post-Classical” (Part 2 of 3)

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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.

As an introductory descriptor, “indie classical” is apt. Hosted by the Kaufman Center at Merkin Concert Hall, Ecstatic Music Festival’s prominent associate presenter is the quintessentially indie classical New Amsterdam Reecords, the New York City-based label that Greenstein co-founded with Brittelle and Snider in 2007.

Sometimes referred to as NewAm, the label also functions as a presenting organization dedicated to the propagation of new music one could just as easily label as “contemporary classical,” “alt-classical” or as Time Out New York did, the appropriately chronological “post-classical.”

But New Amsterdam couldn’t have become post-anything without a pre-something. For the indie classical crowd, that something was Bang on a Can, the seminal collective formed in 1987 by another trio of composers–Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe. Greenstein is quick to recognize Bang on a Can’s crucial impact while noting the differences between the two organizations:

Bang on a Can is totally essential to what New Amsterdam Records is and does, and the existence of New Amsterdam Records has never at any point been a response to anything Bang On a Can has done–those two things are both true. If Cantaloupe Records [Bang On a Can's record label] had thought that they wanted to put out the NOW Ensemble record in 2007, then maybe New Amsterdam Records wouldn’t exist, right? Because if in fact Bang on a Can were an organization that fulfilled the needs that my community at that time had, then it may not have been necessary to build our own community, but they’re not a limitless organization in terms of resources. They have to make choices, and I don’t fault them for that. It’s just to say, it’s not the case that we’re doing the same thing. If it were, we wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing. We would have been very happy to wind up as part of that organization….Now, it’s hard to imagine New Amsterdam being part of Bang on a Can. It’s hard to imagine the projects that we release and the shows that we do being under that rubric–they have very different characters.

Greenstein views his as the first generation of composers for whom the music of living legend predecessors such as Philip Glass, Meredith Monk and Steve Reich was the “lingua franca,” “the coin of the realm.” Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, more than 34 years after its premiere, even now is seemingly on the tip of every indie classical tongue. To the musical ear of composer and classical guitarist Bryce Dessner–who is best known in indie circles as a member of the rock band The National–the fully formed, prominent rhythms of Steve Reich are particularly inspiring for rock and electronica musicians. “Our drummer, Bryan Devendorf, warms up every night backstage by playing Reich’s Clapping Music with two hands. It’s usually performed by two players. Bryan has no real classical training, but Reich’s music really resonates with him.”

In addition to its compositional forebears, the Ecstatic Music Festival has benefited from the more recent precedent of New York City concert programming, which includes the MATA Festival, led by former Executive Director Missy Mazzoli, and the Look and Listen Festival, once co-curated by Sarah Kirkland Snider. Arguably most germane to Ecstatic, however, is Ronen Givony’s Wordless Music Series, which began in 2006. The series introduced new audiences to contemporary classical music by juxtaposing it with independent pop music in formal concerts. “[Givony] did an amazing thing in this city,” says violist Nadia Sirota, “just for having the balls to say, ‘Hey, this might be a little awkward, but here we are. I’m putting this in front of this.’ And I think what that’s evolved into is something really fantastic.”

By making collaboration of paramount importance to the vitality of the Ecstatic Music Festival, Greenstein has implicitly taken the evolution beyond Wordless Music while paying homage to earlier innovators of new music programming. “Where did people my age get the idea that you could put people from different musical worlds on the same program together?” the curator asks. “Obviously, it’s the Bang On a Can Marathon. I don’t think there’s any question about that.”

As a composer/performer who is well acquainted with the new music scene in New York and the distinctive repertoire that has populated it, Dessner recognizes the current open and flexible performance climate as a continuation of a storied past. He cites the loft culture of the 70s and 80s, clubs such as CBGB and Tonic, historic venues like Brooklyn Academy of Music and The Kitchen, and contemporary spots like Barbès in Park Slope and Zebulon in Williamsburg.

“New York City has always been a nexus of these interesting venues that are home to experimentation and cross-pollination between different musicians,” says Dessner. “There is a very vibrant and open community of musicians in New York City, and all kinds of music being made that defies easy categorization. This is just to say that the dialogue between genres and between musicians with different backgrounds and educations has been going on for a very long time.”

The Ecstatic Music Festival runs 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.

Featured musicians include: Nico Muhly with the Chiara Quartet; So Percussion with Dan Deacon; the Bang On a Can All-Stars, performing world premieres by Bryce Dessner, Karsh Kale,and Nick Brooke; Timo Andres and Gabriel Kahane; Nadia Sirota and Thomas Bartlett with Owen Pallett; Sarah Kirkland Snider with yMusic–and many others.

For more about the Ecstatic Music Festival, including ticket information, visit http://kaufman-center.org/merkin-concert-hall/ecstatic.

Closing Arguments: The Ecstatic Music Festival and The Art of Collaboration (Part 1 of 3)

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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 http://kaufman-center.org/merkin-concert-hall/ecstatic.

Written by winebrick41

March 21, 2011 at 1:00 pm

Ecstatic Music Festival: The First Week in Review

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Buke and Gass at the Ecstatic Music Festival Marathon; photo by David Andrako

Note: Because the Ecstatic Music Festival is in large part meant to highlight brand new works that are born from collaboration between artists, for the purpose of these reviews, the focus will be solely on compositions that were premiered during the festival’s first week.

With February now underway, it’s high time to look back at the Ecstatic Music Festival’s opening concerts. The festival actually began with a soft open of sorts– a Monday marathon culminating in the contemporary chamber band Victoire’s promising collaboration with the avant-rock duo known as Buke and Gass, a creative partnership that composer and Victoire leader Missy Mazzoli assured me would continue.

But it wasn’t until the following Wednesday, January 19, that the festival felt officially “on.” The evening featured the Chiara String Quartet, presenting the third installment of its four-part Creator/Curator series, in which the ensemble chooses four American composers to write a new string quartet and then build an evening’s worth of music around the new composition.

The featured composer on this night was Nico Muhly, who took the opportunity to shed light on the works of a composer–friend and frequent collaborator Valgeir Sigurdsson–who is known largely for his work as a studio producer. Interestingly, despite having the pretense of a Muhly-centric evening, the works of Sigurdsson were more prominently featured.

2011-01-25-Chiara1.jpg Nico Muhly and the Chiara String Quartet; photo by David Andrako

Especially notable was the word premiere of Sigurdsson’s string quartet Nebraska, as the composer was inspired by talk of the “big, open spaces” of the Midwestern state where Chiara is based, and its similarities to the landscape of Sigurdsson’s native Iceland. Here the artist paints a distinct landscape, one that sounds like an American’s view of the unbridled prairie, combined with some unnamed foreign mysticism arriving on the wind. Sigurdsson is offering us the aural image of an America that has been forgotten, or perhaps has only existed in some idealistic dream. This America is always earnest and true, simultaneously stern and tender, somehow unsullied.

Muhly’s new string quartet, entitled Diacritical Marks, proved to be a supremely satisfying work of musical architecture, an eight-movement piece bookended by Debussian pizzicato articulations, col legno technique, and expressionistic hocketing. The odd-numbered inner movements–III, V, and VII–utilized duets to highlight the work’s central melodic/harmonic theme. As with several of Muhly’s other chamber works, there is an unabated longing, but it is an aloof passion indifferent to anything but itself, seemingly fragmented by an unspoken, torturous loneliness.

As a cohesive concert of music, the programmatic focus on Muhly/Sigurdsson was deeply rewarding, and arguably the most successful of the week.

The very next night, January 20, electronic artist and composer Dan Deacon and the quartet So Percussion collaborated before a sold-out crowd in the world premiere of Deacon’s Ghostbuster Cook: The Origin of the Riddler.

2011-01-25-SoPercussion1.jpg Photo by David Andrako

From the very beginning of this four-part composition for various percussion instruments and electronics, it was clear that this wasn’t Dan Deacon as usual. A total of eight unopened soda bottles of varying colors and sizes were suspended from a rig and mic’d. The sound of striking the bottles with mallets was then processed through Deacon’s electronics, which resulted in something vaguely resembling gamelan music. In the second movement, the decidedly Asian aesthetic continued with raucous drumming reminiscent of the taiko ensembles of Japan, as Deacon blazed a pentatonic scale-based melody in the electronics.

If I were asked to surmise which group of people was challenged to expand the palette of their musical tastes more–indie fans predisposed to Deacon’s idiosyncratic electro-pop, or listeners partial to the avant-garde “new music” of the contemporary classical world–I would have to say the former. Particularly in the third section of the piece, which consisted largely of the soda bottles slowly emptying into large plastic bins, and the accompanying ambient hiss of the liquid draining from the containers, the restlessness of the audience was palpable, and in the case of one listener who asked aloud, incredulously, “Are you serious?”–audible. The fourth movement, which consisted of melodic percussion, did not begin until the soda stopped leaking from all of the bottles. This sense of pacing required a patience I would venture to say most audience members–especially those accustomed to the instant accessibility of Deacon’s solo electronic work–were not prepared to exhibit.

2011-01-25-SoPercussion2.jpg Dan Deacon with So Percussion; photo by David Andrako

While the distinct, one-of-a-kind quality of the performance can’t be denied, Ghostbuster Cook at times felt like a piece being workshopped as opposed to a finalized work. This feeling was accentuated by the somewhat simplistic approach to the instrumentation: two sections devoted to the aforementioned bottles, another devoted largely to drums, and still another to vibraphones, bells, and xylophones. That caveat notwithstanding, The Origin of the Riddler is a story I’d love to hear again, and its genre-less musical nature was ideally suited to the ethos of the Ecstatic Music Festival. The complete performance of the new work can be seen here, courtesy of Guy Werner:

The festival’s first week closed with the first complete performance of Jefferson Friedman’s multi-song work On in Love, featuring vocalist Craig Wedren and the chamber group ACME (American Contemporary Music Ensemble). This collection of songs, lacking an overarching narrative or thematic thread that would qualify it as a song cycle, exists simply as an album of songs. The music is at once modern rock and contemporary classical, and yet neither of those things.

2011-01-25-WedrenACME1.jpg ACME with vocalist Craig Wedren; photo by David Andrako

The first song of the collection, “Warz,” was sonically dense, with the strings bathed in distortion and possessing an indefatigable intensity. A dreamlike aura inhabited the collective timbre of the ensemble throughout. Wedren’s supremely controlled, pop-inflected vocal delivery–with its engrossing balance of power and delicacy–belied the complex melodic phrases that embedded themselves within the harmonic framework even while moving freely within it. Composer Jefferson Friedman envisions On in Love as a “record,” and accordingly, it will be exceedingly interesting to hear how the piece translates in its ideal setting–the recording.

If Ecstatic’s first few concerts are any indication, this festival will be too engaging, too thought-provoking, and too musically compelling to pass up.

For more on the photography of David Andrako, visit http://davidandrako.com.

Ecstatic Music Festival Interview #2: Alarm Will Sound’s Alan Pierson and Matt Marks

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Both implicit and explicit in the music featured at the Ecstatic Music Festival is the invaluable influence of its forebears.  I recently sat down with two members of the contemporary music band Alarm Will Sound — Artistic Director Alan Pierson and horn player/composer Matt Marks — to discuss the group’s upcoming January 30, 2 p.m. concert at Merkin Concert Hall with Face the Music, the Kaufman Center’s teen new music ensemble.  Talk inevitably turned to one such important forebear — composer Steve Reich, and his seminal 1981 composition Tehillim, which is featured on the program.

Daniel J. Kushner: Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems that of all the composers whose music you play, Steve Reich might be the most well-represented, at least on recording.

Alan Pierson: Right and it’s very interesting actually, because on recording we really come off as a very Reich-connected ensemble. And Reich is on our board — he’s been a very good friend to us over the years.  In reality, we haven’t played anything of Steve’s for…

Matt Marks: …This will be the first time we’re playing Reich since…

AP: … 2004. It’s been a long time. And the reason is that… Reich isn’t really right for us. And there’s a very basic reason for that, which is that Reich, I believe without exception — I know someone will think of an exception for this — writes for things in pairs. Reich does not write for one clarinet. Reich writes for two clarinets. That’s a bad example, because we have two clarinets. But except for clarinets and percussion, Alarm Will Sound is a one of everything ensemble — and violins. Clarinets, percussion and violins.

DK: So what is it about Tehillim?

AP: Alarm Will Sound’s ticket to New York City and to greater popular awareness was that album we did of Tehillim and The Desert Music that came out in 2002.  And that was performed at a concert we did here in New York — our very first concert in New York — in May of 2001, which we’re approaching the tenth anniversary of. And we haven’t played that music since then, and so working now with Face the Music has given us a chance to revisit that repertoire, and Tehillim in particular, for its tenth anniversary.

DK: Does it feel like you’ve come full circle in a way?

MM: It’s kind of a nice way to celebrate 10 years, by doing Tehillim, basically near our tenth anniversary in New York, which like you [Alan] said was our first ever concert.  First ever concert or first ever concert outside of Rochester?

AP: It was our first concert as Alarm Will Sound.  One thing that I think makes it, for me at least, particularly poignant is that Tehillim was a favorite piece of mine… I was a kid when I did Tehillim for the first time — I was what, like 19, probably. And now, it’s like 17 years later, and I’ve lost track how many times I’ve done the piece, with other groups as well as with Alarm Will Sound. So it’s a piece that I’ve been coming back to at different points in my life, and so for me personally it’s very poignant to now be working on it with these kids. And these are kids — I think the youngest person in Face the Music may be 10 or 11. It’s really crazy, and it’s exceptionally challenging music.  I hope they don’t figure that out. It’s really hard.

MM: I think what’s also so fascinating and fantastic about Face the Music is that you can really see this cultural divide. I mean, I think currently Face the Music is an anomaly in that it’s still highly irregular to have middle schoolers and high schoolers playing Steve Reich, but when we were doing it at Eastman in the ’90s, it was completely unheard of.  I think if somebody would have said, “Yeah, I’m gonna do Tehillim with high schoolers,” people like us would have been like, “What are you talking about? That’s ridiculous.”

AP: We did have that reaction when we first discussed this last year.

MM: Yeah, but I think what they’ve done, Face the Music — they’ve proved themselves, and they’ve done some really challenging stuff. And I think Jenny’s [co-founder Jenny Undercofler] done a great job of completely blowing people’s expectations out of the water. And I’m hoping — as I expect that she is and her supporters — that this will kind of pave the way for children all around. If I would have been able to participate in a Steve Reich performance when I was in high school, I think it would have completely changed my life.

AP: Tehillim is a piece that predates the whole connection of popular music and classical music that the Ecstatic Music festival is exploring, although I think that Reich is a big part of what made that possible… I sense there’s an argument to be made that Minimalism is the beginning, created a sort of language that allowed these musics to talk to each other… Reich’s presence on this program is because he laid the groundwork, in a way, for the whole sort of ecosystem that I think the festival occupies. That’s a pretty grand statement, but I think it’s pretty true.

Kushner’s first interview in this series can be viewed here.

For more information on Alarm Will Sound’s January 30 concert with Face the Music, click here.

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