Uptown Debut
Nico and Company

Dan Deacon: Composer


"When I first started touring in 2004, I was a very different person and I was writing very different music. I have a different ideology now. Not an ideology that's separate from that, but I feel like it encompasses more... I'd like to continue down a path that has a wider road rather than a narrower path." Dan Deacon, Exclaim, 12/23/10

Dan Deacon wants to destroy classical music. And remake it in his own image.

That's the conclusion I've reached after a trip to Kitchener, Ontario this past weekend, where Dan heard his first-ever orchestral piece performed by the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony: a 50-member outfit led by the intrepid American conductor Edwin Outwater. (Followers of FoM may recall my last visit to Kitchener in 2009, for the biennial Open Ears Festival.)

This was Dan's second "classical" concert in as many weeks, coming off his recent collaboration with So Percussion during the first week of the Ecstatic Music Festival. For those who may only know him from his convulsive stage shows, Dan had a prior life as a composition student at SUNY Purchase before falling sway to the electronic-pop siren, carrying him and his veggie oil-powered bus to all corners of the globe.

But after six years of near-constant touring, Dan, who turns 30 this year, seems set to make the improbable leap back into the new music world, at least part-time. The straw that apparently broke the camel's back was the heist of his beloved green skull from a show last year in Toronto, which he'd had onstage with him for every performance since 2004. The incident caused Dan to do some deep soul-searching about his career path, and although the skull was eventually returned to him, there was no putting the proverbial bird back in the cage.

Apparently, his threat to never perform in Toronto again didn't extend to this provinicial city about an hour west on Hwy 401, accepting Outwater's cold-call commission after Dan posted an open call on his website for musically-trained copyists. Mind you, it's been seven years since Dan had attempted to write any kind of scored music, much less an extended piece for full orchestra. 

The commission had a difficult birth, to say the least. After working on his original idea, The Fiddlenist Rim for close to a year, Dan took a break and listened to an old MIDI file called 2008 remix, which was originally intended for his 2008 album Bromst. Suddenly, he heard tremolo violins and other acoustic instruments emerging from the electronics, and made the abrupt decision to drop work on Fiddlenist Rim and orchestrate 2008 remix instead. The date of this revelation was December 21, 2010: the winter solstice. By then, the parts were due to the orchestra in less than three weeks.

Dan was still working on the piece - now called Song of the Winter Solstice - while he was camped out in So Percussion's studio last month preparing for their Ecstatic Music Festival collaboration. According to the program notes, Dan would spend all day practicing with So, then all night on the phone with KWS' copyist Trevor Wagler, trying to translate his mess of a score (composed, unwisely, in Reason) into readable parts. "If it weren't for Trevor," Dan said from the stage on Friday, "I might as well have shipped bags of sand to the orchestra."

The KW Symphony performed both pieces Friday night, along with the fourth "draft" of Take a Deep Breath: the audience-participation opus Dan also performed during his show with So, which here felt far tighter and less demonstrative. The program, which was hand-picked by Dan, felt like a practical joke, featuring everything from a concerto by Fluxus composer Robert Bozzi (with trombonists blowing their noses and cellists checking their watches) to transcriptions of Moondog's Stamping Ground and Dan's own Pink Batman (both by Outwater). Dan, wearing a red Norwegian sweater over a shirt and tie(!), introduced each of the selections from the stage in his loveable, laughable way.

For someone who's made his career as an electronic musician, it was surprising that Fiddlenist Rim was entirely acoustic: Dan said he wanted other orchestras to be able to perform it without having to go out and secure a huge backline of amps and synths. It started with a solo vibrophone (played by his friend and collaborator Sam Sowyrda) before growing to a joyful, almost Wagnerian spread across the orchestra. Most of all, the piece screamed Fun, with trumpeters slapping high fives and woodwinds standing up or sitting down in sequence. 

Song of the Winter Solstice ended the concert, with Dan warning us that things were going to get a bit loud. "At least, that's what I was told when we did this last night." he said. "I'm not a very good judge of these things myself." A sign posted to the concert hall door advised: "Earplugs may be helpful."

The piece, which lasted nearly 20 minutes, was fairly simple in structure: soft start, slow build with subtle electronics and a thumping bass drum, climax in a massive crescendo complete with screaming childrens choir stationed in the balcony. Rinse, repeat. The patterned orchestration owed much to Glass and Riley, but was all Dan in its carefree playfulness and simple joy. Was it profound or boundary-breaking? No. Was there room for improvement? You bet. But, there was something new and real happening here which was, in its way, as exciting as anything I've ever expereinced in a concert hall.

For all his goofiness, Dan obviously took this show very seriously: everytime I glanced over at him in his mid-orchestra seat, he was either staring at the ground or shooting daggers at the orchestra. After the concert, Outwater told me that Dan "knew exactly what he wanted" when he showed up for rehearsals earlier that week, and didn't hesitate to press the players until he got the result he was looking for. 

When you think about it, the whole thing is pure accidental genius. Dan knew early on that a career in new music would have meant a sentence of obscurity and destitution, but he's also well aware that the only sure path to immortality goes through the concert hall. So, why not have your cake and eat it, too? Why not get your rocks off jamming to rabid fans in the thousands, then coax them in here with music on a wholly different plane? Honestly, this could be the best thing that's happened to concert music since Lenny left Broadway in the 1950's.

He just needs to get an earlier start next time.

DSC05165Oh, and if you don't know what I'm talking about, check this out from a show Dan did in New Zealand last year. Now, imagine that with an orchestra. 

 More pics on Flickr.