I've been spending an inordinate amount of time at Merkin Concert Hall this week, where the inaugural Ecstatic Music Festival has set up camp, hosting shows 4 of the past 6 nights (which is why I'm only playing catchup now.) The festival, curated by NewAm's Judd Greenstein, is all about blurring the lines between new/classical music and indie-pop - though this ain't your momma's Classical Crossover, tailored for aging suburbanites wanting to relive their crazy rock 'n roll youth. (Orchestral Music of The Doors, anyone?)
No, the parties involved here meet squarely in the middle of the classical/rock continuum. Most of the rock people involved either have a background in classical music (Dan Deacon, Owen Pallett) or a deep affinity for it (Craig Wedren, tUnE-yArDs). Conversely, many of the classical peeps have spent significant time in the rock/pop world, either as arrangers (Nico) or performers (Caleb, Jefferson Friedman).
But, at the same time, this sort of presentation isn't really new: Bang on a Can has been exploring this fertile no-man's-land between rock and new/classical music for decades, particularly with their bi-annual musical smörgåsbord, the Bang on a Can Marathon, as well as the Bang on a Can People's Commissioning Fund Concert, which typically recruits musicians from the indie/electronic world to write a piece for the BOAC All Stars. (This year's concert, which has been absorbed by the EMF, will be at Merkin on Feb. 10.) Judd, along with many of the other performers/composers, cut their new music teeth with Bang on a Can, and clearly have taken more than a few pages from their playbook.
So, it was only fitting that the Ecstatic Music Festival kicked off this past Monday with its very own marathon, taking advantage of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday by starting in the early afternoon. The event, which was free, encouraged visitors to come and go as they pleased, provided there was sufficient capacity in the theater.
When I got there around 4pm, Judd was speaking from the stage, remarking how much he wished he'd had this kind of structure and support for new music when he was coming up. He also paid respect to Dr. King, appropriating a quote from one of his sermons as a rallying cry:
"Will we march only to the music of time, or will we, risking criticism and abuse, march to the soul-saving music of eternity?"
As I sat in the balcony absorbing Jefferson Friedman's mournful, melodic, occasionally creepy 3rd string quartet (played by the Chiara String Quartet), I started to question the wisdom of sitting in this warm, windowless concert hall for the next six hours, or my commitment to seeing all of this week's other concerts. And, then I remembered: this is where music is going, not where it's been. Somewhere hidden within all these pages could be the next Britten, the next Bartok. Or, not. But, who wouldn't want a front-row seat for the possibility?
Judd's own meandering, wind-driven "City Boy" (played by the NOW Ensemble) was followed by Brits John Matthias, Adrian Corker and Andrew Prior. All three are active in the London-based Nonclassical scene, which has drawn comparisons to New Amsterdam, both in sound and mojo. Matthias led on violin and vocals, while Prior played piano and Corker added beats and processing on his laptop. (They were almost done in by the soundguy, who kept drowning out the vocals.) I had the chance to chat with Matthias in the VIP Lounge afterwards (free wine!), and he told me that they flew over specifically for this show, courtesy of the British Arts Council. "We always love coming to New York," he said. "There's so much amazing stuff happening here."
Singers were a dominant presence on the marathon, all of whom skirted the line between art song and indie-pop. Former choirster Julianna Barwick sang vocalise into a microphone, looping and processing her serene voice via an electronic sampler. The odd and often-disturbing Corey Dargel - his songs address self-amputation and hypochondria - did his best Stephen Merritt imitation with Other People's Love Songs (2008): a cycle of 13 unconventional love songs based on interviews he did with various gay/straight/other couples. Unfortunately, Corey sabotaged himself by going on way too long, losing half the audience in the process.
Alternatively, Gabriel Kahane played a tight and engaging four-song set of new and old favorites, including "Neurotic and Lonely" from Craigslistlieder. Gabe, who's played everywhere from Rockwood Music Hall to the Allen Room, knows how to work a room, with effortless between-song banter and some serious vocal chops to go along with his intricate piano playing. This is how "crossover" is supposed to sound, friends.
Also prominent on the bill were string players who seemed to want to wield their instruments like guitars. Cellist Ashley Bathgate belied her fresh-faced appearance with performances of Kate Moore's Velvet (with pianist Lisa Moore) and Michael Gordon's Industry (1993), sawing over electronics that pounded the theater walls like a sledgehammer. Violist Nadia Sirota, a featured player on numerous EMF bills, performed Nico Muhly's aching Keep In Touch, also with piano and electronics (supplied by Muhly and Valgeir Sigurðsson, respectively.)
The evening's main event was a collaborative set between Missy Mazzoli's Victoire and the folk-punk duo Buke and Gass, who have long skirted the indie/new music divide (they also played last summer's Bang on a Can Marathon.) As Missy admitted from the stage, these two were set up on a "musical blind date" by Judd, without any real sense of how Victoire's composed structure and B&G's scruffy wail would gel.
The results were mixed. Victoire started off with their own brief set, then were joined by B&G, with the normally-irrepressible Arone Dyer struggling to contain herself as she keened softly over Missy's synths and strings. As if to shake off the awkwardness, once Victoire left the stage, she and Aron stood up and made the whole audience do stretching exercises before launching into their own high-energy set.
Victoire returned for the last few numbers, though at this point they were relegated to the role of backing band to B&G, with Missy and Lorna engaging in choreographed hand gestures while their keyboards sat silent. Also frustratingly silent was the audience, which flattened what would have otherwise been a truly ecstatic experience (pun intended). This was the first in a number of planned cross-pollinations between indie and classical artists that are expected to be the hallmark of this festival; one can only hope the others will better reflect the true spirit of collaboration.
Apologies to Ne(x)tworks, Timo Andres, Face the Music and So Percussion, who all performed while I was making my way on the A train from JFK; you can read about their performances in Steve's Times review. And, there's still more to come on the rest of last week's offerings.
More pics on Flickr.