2013.03.14 Dan Deacon at Kaufman Music Center, New York

“Post-classical” evokes, amongst most rock/pop fans, the heavy soundtracks of Philip Glass, the Kronos Quartet, and Jonny Greenwood. But while these artists are definitely within the genre, they don’t capture the fun of post-classical music. The experimentation which is a bit of an echo of Mozart or early Romantics. That’s what the Ecstatic Music Festival is about. Staged at the Kaufman Music Center, the shows are intimate but experimental. Deerhoof played last month, though the name that drew me here tonight (and in the last two years) was Dan Deacon. The jolly genius that brought us last year’s America, a phenomenal album that combined art and fun. As a frame of reference, last year he worked with the group So Percussion, using draining soda bottles as a modulating drum set.

Thursday, he was a much smaller part of the show but still integral. The shows center around one theme, using one or two ensembles to premiere post-classical composers’ new pieces. This year, it was “field recordings,” using or working from sounds recorded outside the studio. For instance, you could record a songbird, remix and play with the recording of the bird, then use it to complement a composition made for the group that would play live instruments at the festival. The evening’s band was the Bang on a Can All-Stars, with the very public-radio announcer John Schaefer. The All-Stars are capable, and visibly enjoyed playing every piece, despite a fairly wide range of style and pacing. Their bassoonist and guitarist probably merit the most attention.

First, Johann Johansson (god, I love Scandinavian names) presented a piece called “Hz,” relating to 50 Hz, the frequency at which electricity is resonant. Then came a fairly predictable ten minutes of buzzing and string work against the sounds of an older Icelandic dynamo. The whines of the recording attempted to play to an inhuman angle similar to German Expressionism, but mostly droned.

Second, Anna Clyne‘s piece, “A Wonderful Day,” was a play on the familiar trope of using a bluesy solo singer under heavy electronic music. While this familiar method can border on exploitative, it played well here, the All-Stars injecting a lot of joy into the blind singer’s recorded track. She also took the time to include snippets of an interview with the singer, making it more personable. A solid example of how post-classical music can be joyful.

My favorite piece of the night was Paula Matthusen‘s “ontology of an echo,” based on recordings of a 19th century aqueduct. The pacing of her composition gives the listener a perfect sense of the echo, especially in a space like the interior of an aqueduct. It was also probably the most upbeat of the show.

Dan Deacon’s work only lasted ten minutes, where I would have preferred a much longer set, but it was still engaging. “Sago An Ya Rev,” an anagram of NASA Voyager, played on the frantic noise of the space probe launching, its inner workings, and then the serene silence of drifting out of the solar system. I can only imagine what rehearsals with Dan are like; he got the All-Stars to work up a sweat. Flossing piano strings, working five or six percussion instruments, switching between a bassoon and clarinet four or five times.

A fair chunk of post-classical music plays on Scandinavian themes, though Fay Kueen Wang was able to avoid repetition in her piece, Weltinseln (“Universe Island”). She talked about recording her own voice in conjunction with Bjork‘s Biophilia iPad app. Admitting immediately to her admiration of Bjork, she joined the All-Stars for a singing part very reminiscent of the pixie duchess of pop. But, her piece alternated between a delightful urgent military tone and the kind of raw power we’ve come to expect from James Bond themes. Fay definitely has work to do on her voice, but her composition was spot-on.

Last, Tyondai Braxton (of prog-rock innovators Battles) laid a dual piece, Trems, playing on church organs and slot machine chimes. While he laughed off the suggestion that the piece was a play on the sacred and obscene, I have to say the contrast was strong enough build a tension. What struck me the most was the use of the casino recordings, at first scratching at the ear, but finally growing into the big sound one often heards with Battles. Tyondai is certainly building a serious talent.

While post-classical doesn’t play everywhere, I urge anyone who reads this blog to search it out. Every chunk of noise rock or orchestral pop has a cousin in the post-classical world, and can be just as fun.
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