Ecstatic Music Festival Marathon

Ecstatic Music Festival
Monday January 17, 2011, 2-9pm
Merkin Concert Hall
Various Performers

Julius Eastman, Stay On It
Timo Andres, “Everything Is An Onion” from It takes a long time to become a good composer
Charles Ives, “The Alcotts” from Piano Sonata No. 2, Concord, Mass., 1840-1860
Missy Mazzoli, Death Valley Junction
Christine Southworth, Volcano
So Percussion, Selections from Amid the Noise and Imaginary City
Jefferson Friedman, String Quartet No. 3

“Let’s think of an important question, and let’s answer it with this festival.” This was part of the opening remarks of Lydia Kontos, the executive director of Manhattan’s Kaufman Center, at the beginning of their ambitious seven-hour marathon of performers and composers to be featured in the Ecstatic Music Festival. The festival, which runs from now until the end of March, will feature fourteen performances spread out over the next two and a half months. The premise, which immediately spoke to me since it’s part of the modus operandi of this very blog, is to highlight the fruitful intersection of classical and popular music.

That’s all nice and good, but it’s an ambition fraught with hopeful idealism that so often falls short of attaining anything worthwhile. Many ventures proceed under these auspices, few succeed in providing what they set out to do: create a space where popular and classical musicians, and more importantly, audiences will come together to reap the benefits of each others’ musical worlds. In reality, though, it’s classical composers trying to write music that brings in elements of pop, and it’s conservatory-trained popular musicians trying to gussy up their music to make it more “classical.” In short, it can be gimmicky.

I attended the first two hours of the free marathon on Monday, which was intended to highlight either a composer, a performer, or both from each of the fourteen performances. What really drew me here, though, was the prospect of hearing a Julius Eastman piece. What’s weird is that neither Julius Eastman, nor the group that performed his piece, Ne(x)tworks, are appearing anywhere else during this festival. It seems that festival curator Judd Greenstein just really wanted to start off his entire 3-month celebration of pop/classical collaborations with this eccentric minimalist work by a nearly-forgotten New York City composer.

Composer Julius Eastman (1940-1990)

You can read all about the ordeal of Eastman’s life and professional career on this fantastic website by Mary Jane Leach, but in short, Eastman was a composer whose was a major figure in the downtown music scene of the late 70s and 80s, the same milieu that gave us Andy Warhol, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Talking Heads, The Velvet Underground, Morton Feldman, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and other groundbreakers. Evicted from his Village apartment sometime in the 80s, his entire collection of scores, and all his other worldly possessions, were thrown onto the sidewalk by the police. He never bothered to retrieve them, went to live the last few years of his life homeless in Tompkins Sq. Park, and died, supposedly of AIDS, in that park in 1990. As a gay, African-American composer, he is already an enigma in the white-dominated world of classical composition, even classical music as “pop” as downtown minimalism. But his music is really interesting, quite good, and because of his circumstances, almost never played. There is one definitive 3-CD set put out by New World Records that has most of his extant recordings, and there are a few scores in archives that have never been recorded. Mostly, his reputation has survived stronger than his music.

His Stay On It from 1973 seems, at first, to fit the bill perfectly of combining pop and classical. Eastman does so without dumbing down either world, but by seamlessly integrating a very pop-friendly theme with the additive procedures of minimalism. I don’t know enough about Eastman’s complete output to generalize about his style, but it’s certainly very different from the other “big minimalist” composers. It doesn’t have the rising swells of long-tone chords over chugging rhythms of Reich, nor does it have the nearly continuous, simple, circular melodic patterns of Glass. Thankfully, it’s not the god-awful endless repetitions of dissonant chord progressions of Feldman (sorry Feldman fans, I can’t stand him…).

The main theme of Stay On It feels like something that might come as the final phrase in a 70s pop song. It rises up with a dominant feel, and then resolves down to tonic. Over and over again. You can hear this main theme at around :31 of this video, which starts with almost 3 minutes of Stay On It:

The melody is presented in unison by the entire group – 2 violins, piano, trombone, bassoon, alto singer, mallet percussion, and synthesizer – for about a minute. At that point, I was getting a little scared, since I was not going to be able to handle 25 minutes of this single melody. The alto sings the words “Stay On It” in syncopation with this theme, and gradually a few little elements change here and there. A sustained note in the violins, a rhythmic hiccup somewhere else, little changes, and with an emphatic gesture from the first violinist, a return to the unison theme. It goes on like this for maybe 10, 15 minutes. What is brilliant is that each departure from the theme gets further and further “out there,” first with silences, then by adding some dissonant glissandi in the violins, then some rhythmic and melodic dissonance from other instruments, and each return to the theme seems to get progressively shorter. Eastman sets up this dichotomy between the stable, major tonality of the main theme, and the dissonant and chaotic world of the interludes. As the piece progresses, chaos takes over more and more of the time. But the main theme is always present, somewhere, buried deep within the texture.

Eventually, any instrument that can play an unbroken glissando (violins, trombone, synth, and vocals) does, starting on an incredibly high note and falling slowly downward, then repeating. These are unsynchronized, resulting in a complex polyrhythmic sound like divebombers. Think of the bombs in Jimi Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner,” now multiply by 5 with staggered entrances and different lengths. It was a sudden departure from the theme that, surprisingly, did not return to the theme. Each instrumentalist seems fixed on their own descending glissandi, while the rest of the ensemble created more chaos, snippets of melodies out of rhythm and harmony with each other. I listened carefully to hear where the theme was, as I imagined it was still present, muffled and buried beneath multiple layers of cacophony. Gradually, instruments began falling out, and amongst the still wailing violins and synth, I could hear the piano slowly playing a minor-mode variation on the theme. It was there, now transmuted into something slower and more melancholy, and as the last of the other instruments fell into silence, it was all that was left.

This piece had really gotten interesting for me – I was not expecting this catastrophic shift of mood, color, and tonality after the cheery opening. As the piano played its solemn theme, it was picked up by the violins now con sordini, and the trombone with a big mute on his bell, and the vocalist, low and quiet. Although everyone eventually picked up this piano melody, unlike the first one it was not played in perfect unisons. Each player seemed to be on his/her own plane, but the resulting sound was beautiful. It crested in dynamics and intensity, and eventually died out as the percussionist picked up a tambourine, and began shaking an even 4/4 rock beat with hits on 2 and 4. Everyone was expecting this solo to lead into the next section, but in fact, it was the end of the piece. A really weird ending, but not surprising from the other exciting episodes of this piece. Eastman’s music is sectional, as evidenced by the almost too obvious head gestures of the violinist at the beginning of each new section that always started with the main theme. But Eastman’s methods of building intensity and excitement within each section, and his refusal to abandon any of the new ideas he introduces, creates a type of dynamism unlike any I’ve heard in other minimalist works. I hope that I can hear more of his stuff in my life.

Getting back to Ms. Kontos’ opening statement, what was the “important question” that this festival would answer? She left that, intentionally or not, vague. Was it “what happens when you try to combine classical and popular?” Or, “how does classical music stay relevant in the 21st century?” If either of those were the question, the first two hours of the marathon didn’t seem to answer it all that well. The seven pieces that I heard, while containing some elements of popular music, seemed to belong firmly in the contemporary classical sphere, which by default is impregnated with the soundworld of 20th- and 21st-century popular music. But it was not the harmony of collaboration that the festival might have been aiming for. From the marathon program, it seems like they reserved a lot of the more “pop” music for the later hours, giving the afternoon to the classical world and the night to the popular, perpetuating certain stereotypes of performance. Still, the music on the first half of the program was superb. I just wouldn’t call it anything other than “contemporary classical.”

Hipster classical: Composer and pianist Timo Andres

Timo Andres certainly looked the part of pop/classical; with his untamed curly hair, thick-frame rectangular glasses, bowtie, non-matching tweed suit, and reading his music off an iPad, he was equal parts Lincoln Center and Music Hall of Williamsburg. I’ve never seen anyone read music off an iPad, silently turning pages with the flick of a finger on the screen – if there’s a single visual image that embodies the popular/classical collaboration, it’s that! He played a piece called “Everything is an Onion” from his larger work entitled It takes a long time to become a good composer. I found out from his website that the work is based on Schumann’s miniatures, and there was definitely an intimate chamber feel to this work. It features a central ostinato, a cycle of 2-chord progressions, moving around through harmonic areas until arriving back and starting over. With each repetition of the full pattern, Andres adds more embellishments around the central ostinato, eventually filling in all the silence between each 2-chord gesture with extremely high and low notes, a plethora of trills, and other small melodic ideas. What was nice is that the rhythm and notes of the central ostinato remain intact throughout, and so what started as lots of silence gradually filled in, but you could always still hear that central idea. Eventually, it led to more percussive chords, and ghost-like dissonant chords in the uppermost reaches of the right hand, reminding me in a lot of ways of the ethereal high notes that linger through Copland’s Piano Variations.

Next, Andres gave a little taste of his concert on March 5 with the shortest, prettiest, and easiest-to-listen-to movement of Charles Ives’s epic Concord Sonata: “The Alcotts.” It’s the third movement, traditionally the slow movement of a four-movement work like this. After the bombastic rhythmic and harmonic dissonance of the first movement, “Emerson,” and the haunting, eerie, grotesque but serene black magic of the second movement, “Hawthorne,” “The Alcotts” comes in like a breath of fresh air. Hints of Beethoven’s Fifth symphony run throughout this entire sonata, but never more gentle and beautiful than in “The Alcotts,” where they come gliding in amongst a sad, sweet tonal soundscape. Ives wrote of the Alcotts:

“There is a commonplace beauty about ‘Orchard House’ – a kind of spiritual sturdiness underlying its quaint picturesqueness – a kind of common triad of the New England homestead, whose overtones tell us that there must have been something aesthetic fibered in the Puritan severity…”

The dissonant echoes of forgotten chords permeate the upper registers of this movement. Ives stands out in this marathon as one of only 3 works written in the 20th century (rather than the 21st!), and this one from 1921 is by far the earliest, by about 50 years. He also stands out as one of the best examples of the popular/classical collaboration, as “The Alcotts” uses the popular tune “Stop that Knocking at my Door” integrated seamlessly into the music. He was, as I capriciously wrote in my program, the Girl Talk of his day. Andres played it with the same salon dynamic as his previous piece, without as many tempo changes as I like, and without the flashes of crazy inspiration that Kirkpatrick inserted. But it was still beautiful. Here’s the incomparable John Kirkpatrick’s version:

After this, I was blown away by the Face The Music quartet – a group of teenagers (the oldest one couldn’t have been more than 15) playing extremely difficult modern music. They began with Missy Mazzoli’s Death Valley Junction, a piece that begins with all harmonics, and drippy sustained notes in the highest registers of the instruments. Typical of music meant to convey a bleak, desert landscape, it felt like a distilled version of the second movement from Arvo Pärt’s Tabula Rasa, without the prepared piano. The players were technically proficient, amazingly so for their age, but lacked the maturity and depth of emotion that comes with age and experience. But the next piece absolutely rocked, literally.

Christine Southworth’s Volcano brought a pianist onstage with the quartet, and saw each string player plugging in their instruments to amplifiers with bridge mics. This piece was total punk rock string quartet. It began with the first violinist intoning the word “Volcano” in a deep bass monotone (impressive for a boy who has probably only been physically able to sing that note for about 2 years!). Alongside this was the loudest string quartet music I have ever heard. They must have turned the amps up to 11, with the sound absolutely blaring through the P.A. system. And to make it that much more badass, the playing was all scratching on the strings, hard and intense tremolos, noisy and cacophonous. It was noise rock meets the string quartet. Old ladies plugged their ears and looked at each other in disgust, while the Williamsburg crowd bobbed their heads and smiled. This piece came closer than anything else to embodying the classical/popular amalgamation. Amidst the screeching tremolos and breakneck chaotic rhythms, the cello began an ascending melody, moving up the first four notes of the minor scale, laying down what sounded and felt like the bass line of a techno track. As if to confirm that, the pianist started playing a bass drum she had next to her piano, four on the floor, crushing it. Rockin out. These kids were loving it, too, perverting the classical instruments their parents had probably made them practice for endless hours into punk rock techno noise. The video below just doesn’t do this piece justice.

Following this was So Percussion, whose upcoming concert with Dan Deacon I’m extremely psyched for. They played three pieces, each an incredible exploration of rhythms and timbres, each a little bit different but all featured a driving beat and exciting metric shifts and polyrhythmic combinations. The first piece was especially interesting, featuring the four players droning a steady rhythm on sticks and vibes while a fifth player toyed with an AM talk radio, tuning into snippets of talk radio shows before zooming through the white noise of frequencies between stations. He eventually left it playing on a right-wing talk show discussing the liberal manipulation of the Tucson massacre to mobilize hatred against the right. An eerie, haunting, nice touch.

The incredibly talented Chiara String Quartet

Finally, the Chiara String Quartet played Jefferson Friedman’s String Quartet No. 3. They show all the maturity and communicative splendor that the Face the Music kids lack, but will hopefully achieve through living a bit longer! I heard Friedman’s second string quartet at a concert at Le Poisson Rouge last year, and I loved it. The third was just as rhythmically exciting and dynamic as the second, evincing a tonal soundworld peppered with ambient moments, intensely fast rhythmic sections, and antiquated two-part counterpoint. The first movement began with a mired, murky sound, giving way to an intense tremolo drive from all players that sounded like guitar strumming (like the Who in Tommy). The second movement was very long, with a number of distinct sections. It began with a single melodic line in the viola, with sustained peaks of sound in the violins, and a rhythmic see-saw back and forth in the cello. The violins began playing long tones in one-to-one species counterpoint, giving the piece a distinctly “early music” feel at points, in the same sad style of Barber’s Adagio for Strings but not quite as heart-wrenching. This gave way attacca to a jaunty dotted rhythm played spiccato, with the bows hammering on the strings percussively, before leading back to the contrapuntal section. With the cellist playing unbelievably high on his instrument, the rest of the ensemble fell into screeching harmonics while somehow remaining gentle. This mood shattered into sinister, broad bow strokes back to the opening “strumming” intensity of the entire piece.

The audience applauded wildly believing that the piece was over, but Friedman inserts a final denouement movement, which features the cellist simultaneously playing both in front of and behind the strings with two bows! This ambient drone in the cello lay underneath minimalist viola melodies, providing a quiet, serene, minimal ending to this previously fiery piece. Check out the 2 bow action:

I’m checking out a number of the concerts of this festival, and I’ll be blogging about them for Consequence of Sound, a blogging gig that I just recently picked up. I’ll link here to my articles there. As for a new music festival, Ecstatic has it figured out. The jury’s still out on how successful the pop/classical collaborations will be, but with any luck and a lot of skill, it will be something totally worth hearing.

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~ by Jake on January 19, 2011.

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