When the Ecstatic Music Festival (EMF) launched five years ago, genre categories still held sway, and it was still somewhat audacious for a pop artist to compose music for a classical orchestra, or a string quartet to perform at a downtown rock club. In the context of the vital, thriving new music scene right now, the concept of genre can seem quaint if not downright antiquated. “In 2010 the landscape of music looked remarkably different than it does now, only five years later,” explains EMF curator Judd Greenstein. “In that time, we’ve seen a softening of the old, rigid borders that kept different kinds of musicians in specific, pre-determined spaces. We’re a long way from a completely open, post-genre musical culture, but some key assumptions have been dislodged, and it’s wonderful to see the openness that is now widely taken for granted.”
Inaugurated in January 2011, the EMF brought together artists from different genres or scenes who didn’t typically work together and gave them the opportunity to create something completely new on the stage of a traditional, intimate chamber music hall. The result: invigorating, often genuinely surprising concerts audiences would not have been able to experience anywhere else. “When Kaufman Music Center launched the Ecstatic Music Festival five years ago, we wanted to give both artists and audiences a unique opportunity to experience something completely different,” says Lydia Kontos, Kaufman Music Center’s Executive Director.
Pairings like electronic artist Dan Deacon with So Percussion (2011), the indie cult favorite The Mountain Goats with the unearthly a cappella quartet Anonymous 4 (2012), and the multi-instrumentalist/vocalist/composer Carla Kihlstedt with the International Contemporary Ensemble (2013) have led to extraordinary one-night-only shows that embraced the post-genre movement and pushed it into new, unexplored territory. Critics quickly hailed the EMF as “a who’s who of the current music scene” (WQXR) and “the most bracing combinations of adventurous, fulfilling music in recent memory” (NPR). This festival has become, as the New York Times acknowledged this fall, “the alt-classical world’s main showcase.”
“Creating the music for our show was an incredibly gratifying artistic experience,” says composer/performer William Brittelle, whose chamber ensemble Bright Wave premiered several new works with the electronica-inspired acoustic trio Dawn of Midi at the 2014 EMF. “It was an experience that challenged our conceptions about how music is constructed and created. The Ecstatic Music Festival represents a huge opportunity for growth to all the artists it features. I hope this vital new presentation model continues to serve as an inspiration for presentations throughout the U.S.”
Highlights of the 2015 festival, which began on January 15 with two concerts at the Winter Garden at Brookfield Place and continues through April 16 at Merkin Concert Hall, include John Zorn and Talea Ensemble; ETHEL, Kaki King and John King; Julia Holter, Alex Temple and Spektral Quartet; Xiu Xiu and Mantra Percussion; an 80th birthday party for Minimalist legend Terry Riley; and the Bang on a Can All-Stars, who will premiere works by Glenn Kotche (Wilco), Jace Clayton (aka DJ/rupture) and Ben Frost.
In the last five years, presentations of the kind of post-genre music incorporating diverse influences that the EMF has helped pioneer have proliferated and become the norm, but the EMF’s emphasis on meaningful, well-chosen collaborations continues to create creative contexts for exceptional new work. “Despite all the wonderful developments in our musical culture over the last few years, there are still no other festivals devoted entirely to new musical collaborations between artists from different musical backgrounds,” says Greenstein. “The EMF is unusual in that we are not merely presenting new work, but are putting artists together in surprising combinations and challenging them to extend beyond their usual ranges. The results are a unique contribution to what is happening in music today.”
Musical partnerships first forged at the EMF have flourished beyond the festival, leading to further collaboration, performances and recordings by EMF artists such as Victoire and Glenn Kotche (Wilco); Richard Reed Parry (Arcade Fire) and yMusic; and Merrill Garbus (tUnE-yArDs) and Roomful of Teeth.