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 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!