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SONiC Festival Interview (#5): Du Yun

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It is no secret that the new music community has found a vital home in New York City in recent years. The creative minds behind what is known as “contemporary classical music” are innumerable, and gaining prespective can be an overwhelming task for audiences.

Beginning on October 14, however, the SONiC Festival (Sounds of a New Century) ventures to make sense of the scene–particularly as it pertains to composers under the age of 40–with a 9-day festival in New York featuring a staggering 100-plus composers and more than 17 word premiere performances of newly commissioned works.

I spoke with composer Du Yun, a founding member of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) who will present her work Vicissitudes Alone for guitar and electronics, featuring guitarist Daniel Lippel of ICE , at The Kitchen on Thursday, October 20 at 8 p.m.

Daniel J. Kushner: How does Vicissitudes Alone relate to your previous work?

Du Yun: This is actually a small, solo cadenza section of a larger ensemble work which is called Vicissitudes No. 1. [That work] has this middle section where the guitar comes by itself, so [audiences will hear] the guitar solo from that bigger piece.

DK: Vicissitude means a sudden misfortune or change.

DY: To me, it means the flow and ebb of changing events in life. That was always something really interesting to me. I often feel like life has so many events. Things happen—one event makes a big change. But at the same time, we’re still us. So I’m trying to investigate that kind of relationship between lots of changes while some things still stay the same.

DK: So you do that compositionally?

DY: Yes, especially for that serious piece. The beginning of that piece is very much about big changes, bursts. The guitar is not even included in the ensemble until a third of the way in—the guitarist walks up to the stage to do the solo. So the idea is that one event happens to another event, but somehow for the audience it has to be very organic—“Oh, of course it’s to be there”—even though compositionally, structurally, it might not be that this pitch relates to that pitch.

DK: So in the full piece with the cadenza included, the guitarist comes onstage in the middle of the performance? Why did you choose to do that?

DY: Well, because it’s a very dramatic moment. And in a lot of Japanese theater and Chinese operas we have characters that you’ve never seen before. And all the sudden, they come up, but it changes the events surrounding it.

DK: So it’s sort of like the Vicissitude within the Vicissitudes. How would you characterize this October 20 performance within the context of your ongoing relationship with ICE?

DY: I started at the end of college—I went to Oberlin—so I know most of the people from those college years. And as we grew up, and I wrote more and ICE got bigger too. In a way, you grow up together. They have played my music so many times, so they really understand my vocabulary, my musical sensibilities. When they see my music in a score, they already know what kind of sound I want….It’s an inherent understanding.

DK: Vicissitudes Alone, like much of your other work, utilizes electronics. What is it about electronics in general that you find particularly compelling?

DY: It’s not really coming from the ‘60s modernist way of using electronics, and it’s not really spectral. I’m a very textural composer. I care a lot about textures and gestures. Electronics add so much to that. It’s like a flavor—it creates so much texture.

For more information about the SONiC Festival, visit the official SONiC Festival website.

Written by winebrick41

October 18, 2011 at 5:03 pm

SONiC Snapshots: Oscar Bettison and Rebecca Stenn/Konrad Kaczmarek

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It is no secret that the new music community has found a vital home in New York City in recent years. The creative minds behind what is known as “contemporary classical music” are innumerable, and gaining prespective can be an overwhelming task for audiences.

Beginning on October 14, however, the SONiC Festival (Sounds of a New Century) ventures to make sense of the scene–particularly as it pertains to composers under the age of 40–with a 9-day festival in New York featuring a staggering 100-plus composers and more than 17 word premiere performances of newly commissioned works.

Part One–I spoke with composer Oscar Bettison about his 65-minute opus O Death, excerpts of which will be performed on Wednesday, October 19 at 7:30 p.m. by Ensemble Klang at Symphony Space. (This is SONiC Festival Interview #3.)

Daniel J. Kushner: So the inspiration for the piece is a folk song of the same name. Could you talk about striking a blanance between directly quoting a piece and writing something that’s more suggestive of the overall mood of the original work?

Oscar Bettison: I wanted to set this big immovable object in the middle of the piece—it ended up being the fourth movement…in the song “O Death” the idea of the character pleading with the figure of death not to take him away so soon, it’s not so different from certain things in the Requiem Mass, although in that sense people are asking for absolution or something like that. But still, the idea of a kind of pleading struck me as interesting. So then I started thinking about how this would work as a kind of loose Requiem structure….in fact, actually I think the structure of the piece is much more akin to a symphony than it is to a Requiem Mass, but that was my original intention.

There is more of a blues influence in that melody. I was really interested in the idea of things crossing over oceans, and of course that “O Death” melody and the “O Death” words started off as an English folk thing that was passed, obviously this was taken as immigrants came to the States, and the melody changed substantially.

DK: “Chorus No. 2″ has a kind of muted, almost antiquated sound. It sounds as if it’s coming from a phonograph. Is that effect a way of referencing the historical nature of the source material?

OB: One of my original ideas was to actually have samples of blues records, and that didn’t work out in the end…I nixed the idea of having blues records playing, but in the sixth movement, there are these really loud sections, and they contrast with these really quiet sections. We recorded the loud sections deliberately kind of badly—originally it was going to be like a handheld Dictaphone but we found a more elegant way of doing it—and they get played back through the quiet sections as a kind of shimmer to the sound. That was definitely playing with the idea of the blues as a recorded genre. The blues and jazz were the first genres that exist purely on record.

DK: It strikes me that there is a definite focus on human frailty in this composition. When you think about it, pleading with death is an ultimately futile proposition. It sounds like those considerations were at the forefront of your mind in terms of thematic content.

OB: Death has been an everyday occurrence for humanity right up until fairly recently. But now this is a taboo; it’s rarely discussed. It just strikes me as a strange thing in the modern world. That was also in the back of my mind—this is something that is of course common to all humanity but in our modern industrial age is something we try and shy away from. And it seems to me to be very dishonest.

*****
Part TwoI recently sat down with choreographer Rebecca Stenn and composer/pianist Konrad Kaczmarek to discuss the premiere of their work Zone A, which they will perform at Joyce Soho as part of the 10 p.m., Wednesday, October 19 event “SONiC AfterHours: New Sounds, New Moves.” From the outset of the collaboration, their interest in improvisation and happy abdication of autonomy led the two artists to deviate from the conventional dichotomy of “music first-choreography-second” in favor of simultaneous creation. (This is SONiC Festival Interview #4.)

Daniel J. Kushner: Because this is a pretty rare occurrence in that both of you are performing the work, the audience is going to get a rare look at the often unseen dynamic between the composer and the choreographer. How has this collaboration influenced your perceptions or attitudes about this relationship?

Rebecca Stenn: I’ve always worked with live music—that’s kind of what, in fact, my company is known for, in a way. And not just working with live music, but we’ve been interested in having musicians on stage, interacting with us physically, etc. So for me, that’s integral. I really don’t like performing to [canned music].

The feeling for me with that onstage collaboration—especially in this case because Konrad and I are leaving fairly substantial sections in the piece improvised in a sense, so it’s going to be different every night and it forces us to tune in to what the person is doing—and I think it makes a very present live experience for the audience and for us. But I want the musician/composer onstage. That’s been important to me all throughout my career.

Konrad Kaczmarek: Something that probably wouldn’t have occurred to me until it came up by chance in one of our last workshops was thinking about your proximity to me, because I’m going to be at a grand piano, incorporating that in a dramatic way. That’s a whole other element that we have—physical proximity between the two of us—so in a sense I become a kind of choreographed element to the performance.

RS: Totally. It’s not a solo, it’s a duet. That’s how I think of it. If you weren’t there, and we pressed play on a tape, it would be a completely different experience.

DK: What comes first? Is it a musical gesture? Is it a particular movement?

RS: It’s a bit mysterious, isn’t it?

KK: Things just kind of condense, things coalesce.

RS: In our first rehearsal, I started moving, he started playing. I was listening, he was watching. We started assigning names to ideas or feelings or sections. We have something called “Lop-sided Loop” and something about pointillism, we have “Intimate Delicate”—these are just quiet terms…that started to emerge from the feel created in that improvisation, and then we would say either, “Oh, I really like this, let’s play on it again” or “That one fizzled—moving on…”

KK: That was one of the most interesting and rewarding things so far in this project. It’s sort of like hearing my music through her ears.

DK: So it’s like creating a language that both of you can understand.

For more information about the SONiC Festival, visit the official SONiC Festival website.

Written by winebrick41

October 17, 2011 at 7:50 pm

SONiC Festival Interview #2: Wang Lu

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It is no secret that the new music community has found a vital home in New York City in recent years. The creative minds behind what is known as “contemporary classical music” are innumerable, and gaining prespective can be an overwhelming task for audiences.

Beginning on October 14, however, the SONiC Festival (Sounds of a New Century) will venture to make sense of the scene–particularly as it pertains to composers under the age of 40–with a 9-day festival in New York featuring a staggering 100-plus composers and more than 17 word premiere performances of newly commissioned works.

I spoke with composer Wang Lu, whose Flowing Water Study II for orchestra and video will be premiered by the American Composers Orchestra at the SONiC Festival’s opening concert at Zankel Hall on Friday, October 14.

Daniel J. Kushner: Can you talk about the origins of this new composition?

Wang Lu: I have been studying this Guqin piece. [It's] a very ancient piece which had a lot of different interpretations over the history. The earliest one is more than 2,000 years old, but the version I was interested in—I listened to it many times—was from the late 19th century, and I studied this solo piece called Flowing Water…I found it very interesting because it’s kind of improvised in notation, it doesn’t show any pitch names or rhythm. The noises are created by nails and sliding pitch after the regular attack, so it’s kind of unique. So I studied this piece, I analyzed this piece, I listened to it many times, and decided to write an orchestra piece that’s related to this. It’s also about flowing water…

DK: So the notation is not like Western notation at all in that there aren’t any specific notes?

WL: Right. The notation [Jian Zi Pu] basically looks like Chinese characters, one after another, but it’s not Chinese characters. It’s made of part of some regular characters that mean where on the string you use which hand, which finger, if you use nail or complete flesh, or switch from the flesh to the nail…when you think of this poetic image…basically you know the positions and you have to find the pitch on the string and there’s no rhytmic indication at all. I find that very interesting.

The tradition notation of Guqin, Jian Zi Pu

DK: What do you view as the video’s primary role in the piece?

WL: [I came up with] the piece first, and then I gave the score to Dan Iglesia, who made the video. He’s also a regular composer himself, my colleaugue from school. I gave him the score…[the video means to] in an abstract way to show the poetic images behind the story, behind the score, and also just to indicate the notation, but not by showing the characters one by one. So there will be some brushstrokes moving along the music in the piece, and there’s a lot of images….The strokes will be moving but you actually don’t see a complete character [that shows] you recognize how to play this specific note, but it looks like the process of drawing the characters.

Also the important thing is that the video will be played live, which means he will follow the conductor and the score and trigger different images. For example, if there’s a texture of running notes fast, he might trigger this image he composed for this particular moment, and it will happen when this passage is over, when the music is quieter and the notes get more sparkly,and then he will trigger a different image.

DK: Were there any particular obstacles to combining music and video in this way?

WL: Not really. This music, Flowing Water—that I chose to study and to write about—gives enough very clear descriptions on what kind of images the music is about. It depicts different conditions of water already. So there will be like very small rivers, and small rivers running into each other and going down, and then running against the stones.

DK: At times your music can be rather bombastic. Did that affect how you approached achieving the balance between music and video?

WL: This piece is different from the other pieces I wrote, a lot of them, because this is a very different aesthetic. This music about playing very few notes, but to really emphasize the subtlety between notes other than the orchestra piece maybe you heard.

For more information about the SONiC Festival, visit the official SONiC Festival website.

Written by winebrick41

October 11, 2011 at 4:31 pm

SONiC Festival Interview #1: Alex Temple

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It is no secret that the new music community has found a vital home in New York City in recent years. The creative minds behind what is known as “contemporary classical music” are innumerable, and gaining prespective can be an overwhelming task for audiences.

Beginning on October 14, however, the SONiC Festival (Sounds of a New Century) will venture to make sense of the scene–particularly as it pertains to composers under the age of 40–with a 9-day festival in New York featuring a staggering 100-plus composers and more than 17 word premiere performances of newly commissioned works.

I recently spoke with Alex Temple, a composer of one such work, whose Liebeslied for female voice, electronics, and chamber orchestra will be performed by the American Composers Orchestra at the SONiC Festival’s opening concert at Zankel Hall on Friday, October 14.

Alex Temple performing with new music ensemble The Sissy-Eared Mollycoddles.

Daniel J. Kushner: You’ve described your new composition, Liebeslied—which will be premiered by the American Composers Orchestra and soprano Mellissa Hughes as part of the SONiC Festival—as a “dreamlike refraction of love songs from the 1940s and 50s.” Can you talk about your specific inspiration for this piece?”

Alex Temple: The piece I wrote for ACO and Mellissa [Hughes], it was inspired by a realization I had while listening to the song “Till There Was You” [from The Music Man]…So I was listening to “Till There Was You,” and I was listening to the lyrics, and for some reason it occurred to me to take them literally, and I thought, This really scary. “There were bells on a hill, but I didn’t hear them ringing/Till there was you”—well that’s really kind of a frightening idea. And then I was thinking about “I Only Have Eyes for You,” which is the opposite but equally scary. Rather than being unable to perceive the world until the singer meets their beloved, in “I Only Have Eyes for You,” the singer—as a result of being with the person, can’t perceive the world. And I was thinking about the line “I don’t know if we’re in a garden or on a crowded avenue”—I’m like, this sounds like something out of Last Year at Marienbad or something, some kind of disorientingly [sic] surreal film. And then the other thing I was thinking about is that a lot of music from that period sonically also seems very eerie to me, partially because the vocals are mixed a little too high with respect to the instruments—which makes them sound somehow enlarged or heightened—and partially because there tends to be a lot of reverb….

[In Liebeslied] there’s sort of an introductory passage which is simulating reverb orchestrally, but once the voice comes in it starts out more or less being in the style of a ballad from the 40s or 50s. But it kind of is edging in towards German Romantic orchestral lieder too in certain spots because I was interested in the idea that those two repertoires are more similar than they’re sometimes given credit for, both textually and musically. I found some really strange chord progression—I can’t remember what it is now—in Tony Bennett’s “Because of You,” and I was thinking, Strauss could have written this and it wouldn’t have seemed out of place.

And the piece as it continues gradually starts taking these cells apart and abstracting them and taking them into darker and stranger places, but the initial impetus for it was really specifically conceived of in reference to an existing musical repertoire, and I feel like that’s true of 75-80% of the pieces that I write. I’m very interested in commenting on the musical and cultural history. “Commenting” makes it sound like there’s a specific message, which isn’t necessarily true. And “playing with” sounds a little too humorous, maybe. The best way to put it would be “engaging with.”

DK: It sounds like Liebeslied takes the already existing lexicon inherent in these love song standards and makes them literal and interprets them in a way that’s more true to the experience of falling in love.

AT: That would be a very cynical view of love. I think if anything it’s a critique of how love is portrayed in those songs. I find a lot of the ways that love is portrayed in art in general, both popular and formal, to be very creepy. It tends to be obsessive, it tends to be stalker-ish—it tends to be overwhelming to the point that it destroys your ability to function. I don’t think that’s what a good relationship is like. I don’t think anybody who has good relationships thinks that what a good relationship is like. And so I look at these songs and I think, What a horrible idea, that love would actually make you blind to the world around you. For example, another song I was looking up is “Laura.” That one’s interesting ‘cause it’s in the second person, actually. So the listener is put in the position of imagining themselves as somebody who lost a lover at some point in the past and just absolutely can’t stop thinking about her. “The face in the misty light” and the “footsteps you hear down the hall,” everything that the fictional listener hears or sees is Laura. And again, I’m thinking, That sounds awful! I don’t think it’s romantic, I think it’s distressing.

Alex Temple’s A Presentation to the Board
AT: I’ve written a lot of pieces that are stylistically referential, but I‘ve been moving increasingly over the course of the last nine years or so toward being interested in the meanings of the things I’m referencing. Because when I started out doing it I originally just thought of it as fun and playful, and increasingly I’m interested in it as—well, initially as an oblique cultural commentary and then more and more as actual social critique….Definitely part of my intention is to say, “Hey, wait a second: the images we’re using to represent love—and although those songs are not current the ideas are still around—these images are actually really disturbing. I don’t want to say too much about the ending of the piece because I want it to be a surprise, but I’ll say that the protagonist of the song—I don’t think the relationship that she’s in is such a good one.

For more information about the SONiC Festival, visit the official SONiC Festival website.

Written by winebrick41

October 11, 2011 at 3:49 pm

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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