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Daniel J. Kushner, traipsing through sounds

Posts Tagged ‘missy mazzoli

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

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

Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Penelope: An Album Review

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When the song cycle Penelope is released on Tuesday, October 26, 2010, for many intrepid music lovers it will be an introduction to the work of composer/New Amsterdam Records co-founder Sarah Kirkland Snider. Performed by the chamber ensemble Signal and singer Shara Worden under the direction of Brad Lubman, the album is being released by New Amsterdam.

DM Stith's cover art for Penelope.

My first introduction to Sarah Kirkland Snider and her compositional creations, was also through Penelope, back in late 2009, when I first spoke with the composer about an in-progress song cycle project in collaboration with My Brightest Diamond frontwoman Shara Worden, a classically trained mezzo-soprano/songwriter with a penchant for engrossing art rock songs that can simultaneously capture essences of opera, garage rock, cabaret, soul and the blues.

Ms. Snider told me that Penelope would in effect be a re-imagining of Homer’s Odyssey, told from the perspective of Homer’s wife. This alone sounded like a smart premise, but merely discussing a work that had yet to be released as an album did not prepare me for actually listening to Penelope, the work.  To my recollection, Penelope is the most vivid, mesmerizing psychological nightmare set to music I’ve heard.

Like most of the New Amsterdam composers, Ms. Snider composes music that is perhaps best defined (if any attempt should be made at all) by the “chamber music” settings that serve as the most appropriate environments for experiencing it.  That particular environment is more often than not the “rock concert/nightclub/lounge venue,” in which those who subscribe to the polite diligence of traditional classical concert etiquette and more rowdy attendees are equally at home. Galapagos Art Space, in DUMBO, Brooklyn, where New Amsterdam hosts its monthly Archipelago series, is an excellent example:

Galapagos Art Space, the interior.

Stylistically, Penelope at once possesses an unabashed pop sensibility and a subtle sophistication, as it merges more traditional chamber orchestra instrumentation with the thoughtful incorporation of quintessential rock sonics–electric guitar and drums. The strings do most of the heavy lifting with the melodic and harmonic themes, but the complex textures and confluence of timbres provide the most reward after repeat listens.

The use of electronics is particularly artful here. Unlike other contemporary compositions that place electronic sounds at the forefront of the sonic palette (which is not necessarily a bad thing), Penelope utilizes electronic sounds only so far as they enhance the dreamlike prism through which Penelope views her predicament. Rather than dominating the mix, the electronics often add merely one more texture, imbuing the music with an intangible ambience that suggests the instability of her mental state.

It should be noted here that the production value of the recording is particularly high. Producer Lawson White–whose work is also showcased in William Brittelle’s Mohair Time Warp and the recent release from Missy Mazzoli’s Victoire, entitled Cathedral City–achieves the ideal balance of the instruments, voice, and electronic manipulation. The result is a supremely polished yet genuine and spontaneous-sounding album that bursts with maturity.

The lyrics, written by playwright Ellen McLaughlin, detail the experiences of a comparatively modern Penelope, who quickly finds that her life shares an eery affinity with that of another Wife Penelope from antiquity. A brief synopsis, according to the official Penelope web site, is as follows:

In the work, originally scored for alto/actor and string quartet, a woman’s husband appears at her door after an absence of twenty years, suffering from brain damage. A veteran of an unnamed war, he doesn’t know who he is and she doesn’t know who he’s become. While they wait together for his return to himself, she reads him the Odyssey, and in the journey of that book, she finds a way into her former husband’s memory and the terror and trauma of war.

The remarkable thing about Ms. McLaughlin’s text is that while the basic plot seems intentionally vague and open-ended, the individual emotions expressed, feelings revealed, and images evoked are very specific and loaded with immediacy.

This striking paradox has the effect of making the listener Penelope’s sounding board–as if she has temporarily escaped the house to which her long-lost husband has returned, in order to breathlessly, perhaps deliriously convey her plight to whomever will listen. And so, while we can surmise from the song cycle’s plot that her husband has indeed physically returned, we really can only verify this fact through Penelope’s psychological perception, her memories–however credible.

One could interpret our protagonist’s words to represent her own inner dialogue, an interior conflict between her eager expectations of her connection with her husband and the tragically somber reality of an irreparable chasm that has formed between them.

The listener only hears directly from Penelope herself, and although she appeals to her husband directly, he never voices his own perspective. It’s possible that the wife still awaits her lover’s return, or that he returned long ago, and she is still bound to the bitter memories of their ill-fated reunion.

In order to communicate through music the mental disorientation, the contagion of dizzying desperation that comes with the realization of a life built together now decimated, Ms. Snider gives vocalist Shara Worden beautifully understated step-wise melodies that captivate as they meander, and quickly embed themselves in your consciousness, never to relinquish their spell.  One of many highlights in the song cycle, “The Lotus Eaters” is nearly impossible to banish from your mind once it nestles in and finds its home there.

Sarah Kirkland Snider and Shara Worden; photo by Murat Eyuboglu.

When larger melodic intervals do emerge, their occurrence is all the more dramatic and emotionally rending. The passage of time is suspended, and the hypnotic quality of Ms. Worden’s clear, nearly vibrato-less tone–with a disarming smoky timbre in the lower registers–takes over.

And while the back-and-forth sway of the melodies induces a kind of aural seasickness, Ms. Snider implements precise rhythmic devices that augment the ebb-and-flow of the music with deceptively complex shifts in time signature and an intuitive sense of when one phrase ends and the next begins.

This elusive sense of time is exemplified in the cycle’s opening song, “The Stranger with the Face of a Man I Loved.” The NPR story linked below contains the complete song:
“The Stranger with the Face of a Man I Loved”

He Left me here/Half a life ago/But this is where he came/A stranger with the face of a man I loved/This house, this house, where the past of our times/I try to remember/And the rest of the time…(I try to forget the times he lied and I lied before)/Before you just left me….just left me here.

As I reflected on the cryptic lyrics above, I remembered that the subject matter– a jilted woman left to choose between being forever mired in her infatuation with his memory or accepting the harsh reality that he will never return–has a very resonant precedent: in the music of Shara Worden and My Brightest Diamond (MBD).

A doppelgänger of the “The Stranger” is “Gone Away,” from MBD’s debut album Bring Me the Workhorse. The link to audio for a live in-studio version of “Gone Away” may be found here:

My Brightest Diamond’s Daytrotter Session, 02/04 07

Far away you’ve gone and left me here/So cold without you, so lonely dear/May, June, July, I come to town/Every minute I go takes the smell of your clothes further away…’Cause you’ve gone away/Where there isn’t a telephone wire/Still I wait by the phone/You don’t even write to say goodbye, say goodbye.

I have saved every piece of paper/Like grocery lists and old cards/To-do lists and race scores/So just in case you change your mind and come back/I’ve kept everything safe.

When the two songs are heard side-by-side,  the listener begins to envision an even more collaborative partnership between Ms. Snider and Ms. Worden, in which the vocalist’s pitch-perfect knack for aching melancholy finds a fortuitous friend in the composer’s engrossing, cinematic soundscapes.

But where the heroine of Ms. Worden’s “Gone Away” seems utterly lost in the wake of her beloved’s absence with no real hope of recovering (similar to Cio-Cio San of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly), Ms. Snider’s Penelope longs to be rid of her persistent apparition, and a seemingly strong resolve may well lift the burden.  But ultimately, Penelope is doomed.. In “Baby Teeth, Bones, and Bullets,” the penultimate song, Ms. Worden sings:

Let a wind come, let a wind come/Blow it all away/ Let a rain storm, let a rain storm/ Let a rain swallow me/Can’t you do that?/can’t you do that?/Can’t you hide me God?…Can’t you save me from you?

But why is Penelope’s struggle to be free of the haunting memories utterly futile? We get the answer in “Home.”

Home is where I’m going but never coming/Home is some place I can’t recall….No, no you can’t go home she says, the world/Where do you think you’re going?/We’re not done with you/The world is never done with you.

The world wants her travelers to stay lost/The world swats their eyes as they run through it/She grasps at them, pulling and tugging/She grasps at them.


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