In an article from the New York Times last week, Judd Greenstein, the curator of the Ecstatic Music Festival, noted how the young chamber sextet yMusic doesnt have a learning curve when it comes to playing classical instruments with a pop music sensibility. Talking about performance practice, a term more often reserved for Rameau and Chopin than Jay-Z and Arcade Fire, Greenstein highlighted the viability of staging an entire festival devoted to the blurring of popular and classical genre designations. The basic gist of it is this: for composers and performers who grew up listening to pop music in the ’80s and ’90s, who came of age with the internet, and who are just as likely to be playing with Bon Iver and The National as they are performing Schubert or Bartók, there is no conscious thought process to playing in a pop idiom; it comes as naturally to them as, well, playing anything.
Steps from the hallowed stages of the NY Phil, the Met Opera, and Juilliard, two artists from the indie rock world – Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire, and the electro-indie singer-songwriter/arranger Son Lux – showcased their music in Wednesday nights Ecstatic Music Festival concert at the Kaufman Center. The music was consistently great and always superbly-played by yMusic, and on more than one occasion showed real flashes of brilliance, while generally staying true to the post-minimalist, pan-consonant style that has become a hallmark of many composers in the under-40 New York scene.
Parry, better known as the tall, redheaded bassist and multi-instrumentalist of Arcade Fire, composes music based on the rhythms of the players’ heartbeats and breathing. Each member of the ensemble listened to their built-in ventricular metronome, using a stethoscope to access their own heartbeats tempo. Parry admitted that the idea came to him after thinking, How come no one makes music that comes directly from the rhythms of the body?, and so he specified the pitch content, but allowed the metrical push and tempo to come from within each player, creating an embodied aleatory, or chance, music.
Parry’s piÃ¨ce de résistance was Interruptions for Heart and Breath, scored for nine players, including Parry on double bass and The National’s twin brothers Bryce and Aaron Dessner on acoustic guitars. The first movement took on an uncanny pastoral quality, with Sirota playing a languid viola melody over Bryce Dessner’s heartbeat-based guitar ostinato. The repetitive melodic structures showed glitches of polymeter, owing to each musician’s attunement to their bodies, yet there was something so delicate in the passionate playing of Sirota, and the overwhelmingly visceral sense of this music; it was as if the instruments themselves were heaving and pulsating.
The third movement began with everyone playing their heartbeat rhythms, creating a jumble of polymeters and tempos that worked wonderfully as a controlled mess of consonant sound. But Parry’s greatest moment was in the closing Sextet for Heart and Breath, a piece for yMusic’s strings accompanied by their wind instruments playing the piano, all six hands at once. The strings moved in a perfectly blended, chorale-like motion, with chilling microtonal slides between notes and occasional harmonics, giving just a hint of dissonant sublimity. The string playing here was expansive, slow, and repetitive, but also emotional and powerfully expressive. I could feel the intensity grow, perhaps because I knew it was their bodies in music.
In a slight contrast to Parry, the music of Son Lux, a.k.a. Ryan Lott, seemed a little bit more studied and in vogue with modern classical composition, but still comfortable in the pop world. Son Lux began with acoustic arrangements of his electronic indie rock songs from his critically acclaimed albums We Are Rising and At War With Walls and Mazes. “Flowers”, a sparsely textured love song with occasional bursts of odd-metered melody (yMusic somehow played the most even 17 against nine), introduced Lotts strained and honest, almost desperate vocals. “Raise” was perhaps more successful in this reworking, blending a pre-recorded electronic drumbeat with a polyphonic weave of instrumental lines.
The best Son Lux pieces were the larger scale compositions intended to be chamber music, yet his sound is so fully integrated that there wasn’t much of a stylistic change between the two types. The concert opened with the driving rhythms of his Beautiful Mechanical, a fast-moving assemblage of ostinati piled up on top of each other, which provided a nice contrast to the relatively slow and static music by Parry. yMusics energy was as palpably exciting as their heart and breath music was viscerally penetrating.
Son Luxs other big piece, Still Points, used pre-recorded excerpts of an orchestral piece by Parry as a keyboard MIDI patch, allowing Lott to literally play Parrys orchestral sounds on a keyboard. Blasts of orchestral sound began the piece, which then segued into Copland-esque openness. The live instruments somehow interacted seamlessly with the pre-recorded sound, leading to microtonal shifts in the strings with more grandiose melodies in the trumpet and piccolo.
Last year, the Ecstatic Music Festival worked out its growing pains, producing a highly enjoyable yet stylistically inconsistent set of programming. This year it seems that Greenstein has found a more homogenous vision, which isnt to say that the shows will sound anything alike. Rather, the festival strikes the perfect balance between classical-leaning pop musicians (Dan Deacon, David Byrne, The Mountain Goats, Oneida, Grey McMurray) and pop-friendly classical musicians (Sxip Shirey, Angélica Negrón, Jason Treuting, and Jherek Bischoff). Greenstein is proving that, in 2012, these genre-designations are eroding quicker than ever before, and the result is ecstatic.
Beautiful Mechanical – Son Lux
Duet for Heart and Breath – Richard Reed Parry
Quartet for Heart and Breath – Parry
“Flowers” – Son Lux
“Leave the Riches” – Son Lux
Interruptions for Heart and Breath – Parry
“Raise” – Son Lux
Still Points – Son Lux
Sextet for Heart and Breath – Parry
Presto – Son Lux
Listen to the whole performance here.