As we head into the third season of the Ecstatic Music Festival, I'm glad to realize how much has changed since 2010, when I met with Lydia Kontos and Jenny Undercofler from Kaufman Music Center to discuss plans for a possible 2011 festival at Merkin Hall. At that meeting, we threw around a number of ideas, revolving around a basic question that we were attempting to answer: what's the festival that New York City actually needs? In a city that supports more, and more kinds, of new music than anywhere else in the country, where one has the privilege of choosing from among multiple compelling concerts in different kinds of venues and genres every single night, where there is no shortage of big and small festivals popping up every season, each meant to support an idea or highlight a scene or give energy to a venue, why start a festival at Merkin Hall? I am a big believer in Starting Things, but like any endeavor, the Thing has to be Started for the right reasons and with the conviction that what you are Starting makes a necessary contribution to the landscape that already exists. As a composer, every new piece I write has to be able to stand for itself in a world that is saturated with great music. As a curator, especially in New York, my festival has to have a raison d'être that goes beyond my happening to like the music I decide you should hear.
As you probably know if you're reading this, the Ecstatic Music Festival wound up being based on three principles: the development and support of new musical works (1), built around collaboration (2) involving artists who come from different musical spaces (3). These principles have proven broad enough to encompass a wide range of extremely different musical activity while serving their intended purpose: to create opportunities for artists to develop work that falls outside the normal trajectories of their musical lives, opening up new avenues for them to explore as musicians. In this way, the Ecstatic Music Festival serves a dual function, serving both the audiences who come to hear our new musical offerings and also the artists who are supported in pursuing musical endeavors that traditionally receive less support than their "normal" activities.
I said at the start of this essay that something has changed since 2010. The shift that we anticipated (at Ecstatic but also at New Amsterdam Presents and many other likeminded organizations, including Le Poisson Rouge, the Brooklyn Philharmonic, Wordless Music and MusicNOW), away from older, conservative approaches to curation and presentation, based on an outmoded and uptight adherence to traditional genre distinctions, has been substantially realized. More and more cultural presenters around the country and the world are taking open-minded approaches to musical development and curation, thinking of their series and festivals not in terms of genre but in terms of quality and innovation, both broadly-defined. This is an incredibly exciting development, and a welcome one.
From the standpoint of the Ecstatic Music Festival, this development means that we don't have to make the case for our principles anymore, but instead are operating in a world that largely takes them for granted. As it turns out, it's not very interesting to discuss the absence of genre in a genuinely post-genre world. Audiences care less about the starting principles themselves than they do about the works of art that result from them — which is fine by us! And with more institutions taking a similar approach to curation and project development, there are more musical collaborations out there that meet our criteria than ever before. This creates opportunities to work together across different geographical regions, giving greater impact to each project and bringing more energy and resources into the overall pool. In March, for example, we're presenting Simone Dinnerstein and Tift Merritt, a collaboration that was fostered by Duke Performances two years ago; likewise, this past October, Duke presented the Mountain Goats and Anonymous Four, a concert we put together with the Barbican last year. As a music community, we are collectively building a new infrastructure that supports the projects that creative artists want to pursue. That's great for audiences and artists alike.
With that in mind, I'm going to discuss this year's festival in three installments. The first is here and the next two will be coming out closer to the shows they're discussing. I hope you enjoy this year's festival and thanks for reading!
An Introduction to the January 25 & 26 and February 2 & 6 Concerts
The opening night of this year's Ecstatic Music Festival takes us off-site for the first time, as we head to The Greene Space at WNYC and WQXR for a collaboration between Shara Worden and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. The impetus for this collaboration came when I heard Shara's “Before the Worlds” (for the Chorus) at last year's Crossing Brooklyn Ferry festival, a performance that was one of the highlights of the festival. Always an exquisite songwriter and, of course, vocalist, Shara has come into her own as a composer over the past two years, and these songs are a perfect showcase for her ability. The Brooklyn Youth Chorus is an incredibly talented and versatile ensemble, one that goes far beyond the normal expectations for a youth choir, and Shara writes for them expertly. They'll be doing two new works of hers and joining her on songs from her recent My Brightest Diamond catalog as the centerpieces of Friday's program.
On Saturday night, the 26th, we open at Merkin Hall with a long-awaited premiere for the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) by composer Carla Kihlstedt, well-known for her work with groups such as Tin Hat and Sleepytime Gorilla Museum (you can stream or download her latest release with Tin Hat, the rain is a handsome animal, here. Over the past three years, ICE has given composers (selected through an application process) the opportunity to create new works in a virtual "lab", an ongoing residency with the ensemble that allows these composers to work through ideas and test out material en route to the piece's completion. For 18 months, Carla has been developing ideas about dreams into a work for her to perform with ICE, gathering these ideas from a broader community (click here) and the ensemble itself. As with all ICElab commissions, the piece has had workshops and partial performances — here's a sample of the music — all building toward this show, the culmination of that effort and the premiere. Carla is a musician I've long admired, ICE is one of the best new music groups working today, and I'm honored that they're able to use the festival as a platform for this collaboration. It's going to be a memorable evening. To give a sense of Carla's broader musical life, we've invited one of her bands, Causing a Tiger, to play a set, and as a special bonus, Kaufman Music Center's resident teen new music ensemble Face the Music will join ICE for a performance of George Lewis's Artificial Life 2007.
On Saturday, February 2, DJ /rupture and Zs (two artists who combine intelligent concepts and direct engagement in their own, provocative ways) will come together for a different kind of collaboration than we've had before on the festival. Instead of combining on a new work that's the centerpiece of their program, they'll create a series of new works — partly pre-conceived and partly improvised — that serve as bridges between short sets that they will perform continuously in the two halves of the program. Their collaboration comes out of a project called SCORE, in which Zs offered their recorded catalog as a template for creative activity by other artists and the public at large in various fora over two years. Given that concept, it was natural to turn to DJ /rupture, perhaps the most omnivorous musician working today, to bore deeper into that catalog (and beyond) for their Ecstatic collaboration. This is one of those shows that sounds utterly high-concept in theory but which in practice will translate that concept into a thoroughly transfixing pair of continuous musical sets. Between /rupture's intricate sets of incredibly conceived combinations of sounds and Zs's wild and dizzyingly experimental approach to the concept of the "band", these are artists who know how to do just that. That said, for those who crave even more theory, check out the Apple Store visit by Zs on January 31, and after the Ecstatic show, go see SCORE in practice (and get involved yourself!) at Public Assembly on February 3.
The following Wednesday, February 6, is a wonderfully sprawling show, featuring a seemingly endless array of new music for voices and ensemble (as well as a special mini-choir!). I've invited back a trio of artists from the festival's first season: Clogs, now appearing in a three-person incarnation, and the vocal/composer team of Shara Worden and Sarah Kirkland Snider. Here, Sarah presents the premiere of material from her new, large-scale song cycle, Unremembered, with lyrics by Nathaniel Bellows and vocal performances by Shara, Clogs's Padma Newsome, and DM Stith. Joining them all will be Orchestra for the Next Century, conducted by Gary Schneider, who will also present new orchestra works by Padma and a set of arrangements of songs by Shara and DM (disclosure: I wrote his arrangement, which you'll hear on DM's next album). Clogs is celebrating their new EP, which you can read about and hear on Pitchfork. I'm not sure we've packed this much exciting new music onto one show since our opening marathon two years ago.
More on the rest of the festival will be forthcoming soon!
Until then, thanks for your support and I hope you enjoy these first shows of the 2013 Ecstatic Music Festival.