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Daniel J. Kushner, traipsing through sounds

Posts Tagged ‘Nico Muhly

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

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


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