Ecstatic Music Festival Recap: Marathon
Uptown Debut

Ecstatic Music Festival Recap: Week One

Over the course of three programs at last week's Ecstatic Music Festival, musicians from the indie and classical worlds collided, producing sparks of various colors and hues. Depending on who was involved, some sparks flew farther and faster than others.

On Wednesday night, the Chiara String Quartet - who also played Monday's marathon - performed new works by Nico Muhly and the Icelandic composer/producer Valgeir Sigurðsson, best known as Bjork's go-to producer. Nico and Valgeir have been working together for several years now: Valgeir produced and released Nico's debut album, Speaks Volumes (2007) and have been performed together numerous times in the past, including a Wordless Music Series show that also featured Sigur Rós.

The concert was conceived last year, when the Chiara Quartet asked Nico to compose a work for them. As part of the deal - an ongoing series which the quartet has dubbed "Creator/Curator" - Nico also got to program the rest of the concert. According to the Chiara's lead violinist, Jonah Sirota, most other composers in the series chose to surround their piece with existing works, whereas Nico served up a new work by Valgeir. So, they'd basically be getting two premieres for the price of one. 

Only catch: Valgeir had never written a piece of classical music before. Ever.

So, I'll be charitable and say that the quartet that Valgeir wrote, Nebraska - named for the school where the Chiara has been in residence (University of Nebraska) since 2005 - was a noble first attempt. What it may have lacked in depth or complexity, it made up for with rich textures and driving, repeating motifs that owed more than a small debt to Philip Glass. (Nico, who used to work with Glass, no doubt offered a helping hand here and there.)

But Nico's quartet, Diacritical Marks, gave them something more substantial to chew on. Written in eight movements during a random, bleary-eyed trip to Bangkok, the modal quartet was centered around a repeating motif from which radiated soundscapes of varying intensity and color. Among the many brilliant moments, there was a duet between the 2nd violin and cello which came off sounding like either a truncated quarrel or a friendly chat in the street, depending on your point of view. In a way, it reminded me of the duets/arguments Elliott Carter peppered throughout his 3rd Quartet (though I seriously doubt Nico had Elliott top-of-mind while he was writing.)

In between, the music vacillated between Valgeir's atmospheric film music - played by the Chiara, Nico and Nadia Sirota - and fantasies by Byrd, Dowland and Gibbons, whose music Nico grew up singing and to which he is still deeply devoted, if not indebted. As a composer friend pointed out to me on the way home, Diacritical Marks was written in the same modal fashion as those 16th century forebears, but with a higher degree of focus, illuminating every last possible detail until it shined like a highly polished jewel. 

Much hay has been made about the Ecstatic Music Festival's ambition to take this music - which is usually heard at places like LPR or Galapagos - and bring it to an uptown (and presumably, new) audience. But, on Thursday night, a whole other sort of migration took place: namely, the wholesale migration of Dan Deacon's tribe of devotees from Williamsburg (and its environs) to the Upper West Side.

When I arrived at the box office to pick my tickets, there was a massive standby line of mostly teen- and twentysomethings hoping to somehow get into the sold-out concert: Merkin's capacity is 600, which is fairly small for Deacon. But this was anything but a typical Dan Deacon show: as he told us from the stage, Dan studied composition as an undergrad before transitioning into the world of DIY electronics he's become known for.

"I realized there was no money in trying to pursue a career in art music," Dan said. "So, I went into the pop world instead, and for the past six years, I've been trying to fool someone into letting me back into this world. I guess they finally bought it."

Seemingly incidental to the whole affair was the fact that So Percussion - hardly unknowns in their own right - were actually the main players on the bill: apparently, Dan had spent the entire week crashing on a couch in their loft. They led off the show - accompanied by journeyman guitarist Grey McMurray but sans Jason Treuting, who was in the hospital with his wife and their first child - with various selections involving percussion, electronics and video, including Matmos' bowtied Michael Schmidt making various silly noises on videotape. 


That set the stage for Dan, who played his audience participation card by having So Percussion pass out a set of instructions to the audience that asked for everything from shouts and whispers to cell phones placed on speakerphone. For all its seeming newness, it was actually a throwback to the aleatoric works of John Cage and Pauline Oliveros: a fact not lost on the sixtysomething members of the audience, who pitched in with much the same enthusiasm as their younger neighbors.

 DSC05089After intermission, Dan and So Percussion took the stage together for Dan's oddly titled Ghostbuster Cook: The Origin of the Riddler: an ambitious 30 minute work that managed to be both playful and serious, challenging and rewarding. It started with the members of So banging on mic'd 2 liter bottles of soda while Dan worked the knobs on his familiar table of wires and knobs. 


Then came the big payoff: the members of So moved over to a row of bass drums and started pounding away at deafening volume while Dan upped the volume on his increasingly-crazy electronics. The intensity rose to fever pitch, with the kids in the audience bobbing their heads in rhythm. I think I even heard a couple of "Whoops!"


Then, it was back to the soda bottles, where the members of So poked pinholes in them, the liquid inside slowly emptying into plastic tubs placed underneath. They then stood over a battery of vibes, mallets in hand... and proceeded to do nothing as the bottles emptied. This went on for literally ten minutes: yet another Cageian gesture blurring the definition of music. For the most part, people in the audience realized what was happening and waited patiently for the bottles to empty, though one guy shouted: "Are you fucking kidding me?" and stormed out.

Finally, the bottles emptied and So began to play the most beautiful melody on the vibes, like church bells in Spring, sweet and pure. They played for just as long as it took the bottles to empty out, leaving us with only a vague recollection of how long we'd all sat there listening to "nothing." When it was finally over, the whole theater exploded in cheers: like an abusive boyfriend, Dan always knows how to pick us up at the end, cheerfully cajoling us into coming back for more. And, inevitably - happily - we do.


Over the past decade, former Shudder To Think lead singer Craig Wedren has made the transition from the world of avant-rock to art music, scoring film music as well as spiky, often dystopic solo music. (Apparently, Trent Reznor isn't exactly a trend setter in this arena.) On Saturday, a well-dressed Wedren in a black 3-piece suit performed a selection of his solo music, using nothing but guitar and some looping pedals: it reminded me of how Ted Leo used to perform, post-Chisel and pre-Pharmacists.

Wedren acme 
After intermission, Wedren was joined by local new music ensemble ACME to perform a cycle of art songs about various aspects of love (On In Love), written with composer and former bandmate Jefferson Friedman. (Friedman prefers the phrase "concept album" to song cycle.) When I last saw ACME and Wedren do these songs at Bowery Ballroom in Sept '09, the experience was thrilling, a shot across the bow of musical segregation. But here, in the confines of Merkin Hall, it felt strained, as if Wedren was trying to live up to a more rarefied set of expectations. It didn't help that noone thought to adjust the stage lighting, leaving just a cold whiteness flashing off Wedren's shaved head.

Wedren guitar acme
It also didn't help that Wedren sang most of the songs clinging to the mic stand, leaving ACME to fill in for his familiar plugged-in band. Finally, he picked up his Les Paul for the final song in the cycle, "Glacier": a post-rock anthem that felt almost spectral in its inertia. Gradually, the music built with emotional power, surging from dark menace to an epic climax worthy of Explosions In the Sky. Yeah, more of that.

Wedren acme friedman

More pics on Flickr.