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Daniel J. Kushner, traipsing through sounds

Posts Tagged ‘william brittelle

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

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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