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Ecstatic Music Festival

Merkin Hall, Jan 9, 2017
by Stephen Kaye
Tue Jan 10th, 2017

In it seventh year, the Ecstatic Music Festival’s opening concert proved that new music is gaining an audience – the hall was sold out – and is gaining in maturity. The concert featured the Bang on a Can All-Stars and celebrated the 30th Anniversary of Bang on a Can.  John Schaefer of WNYC’s New Sounds Live once again played host.


It was refreshing to recognize the instruments scattered over the stage as those belonging to a traditional orchestra.  These instruments were capable of producing a broad range of sounds, tones, modulations and vibrations.  They were all hooked up to sound equipment, but the volume was kept low and the distortions minimized.


We heard new pieces by Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Juan Felipe Waller and Nico Muhly all of which were supposed to be related to field recordings—sounds or images from the outside world.  Anna, one of Iceland’s most celebrated composers, was inspired by a walk amid flowers and sunlight, Muhly from the droning of an overly long airplane trip, and Waller from disturbing sounds.  Anna’s was lyrical, light, impressionistic with a background landscape of cello, sax and base ornamented with piano and guitar.  Waller’s sounds included a background of sirens. Mulhy’s short piece included a screeching baby artfully created by Ken Thomson on sax, an incessant droning and a sense of humor.  A piece entitled “sunray” by David Lang, one of the founders of Bang on a Can, was inspired by the sign of a dry cleaners that was his hotel room’s windowscape while he attended the music festival at MASSMOCA. It began with a ringing tonality suggesting light rays that developed into textures, thickening and becoming heavy.  All these pieces had movement, structure, development, hints of counterpoint; all were musically satisfying.


The second section was devoted to what might be called the heavy hitters.  We heard classics of the new music repertoire.  Michael Gordon, one the three founders of Bang on A Can, was on hand to introduce “St Remy from Van Gogh” set to a text taken from Van Gogh’s letters written while he was living in the asylum to which he had committed himself.  It is the last movement of six that form an opera.  It was chanted/sung by Eliza Bagg and Charles Yang with all the group adding voices. It takes us into the sound world of Van Gogh who describes his surroundings and the yellows of the cornfield he was painting at the time.  It is a moving powerful piece.


Julia Wolfe, the third of the co-founders, was also on hand to introduce “Believing,” perhaps a paradox in an age of disbelief. This was set to a nervous near-ferocious pace, the repetitions evolve into new sonorities; there is a freedom of jazz, voices emerge, and it builds into a wild, frantic ending.  This was a joyous piece of music and makes believing a genuine experience.


The concert ended with two seminal pieces by Philip Glass, “Bed” from Einstein on the Beach and “Closing from Glassworks,” both performed with appreciative care by the talented members of the Bang on a Can team. All these players have long and distinguished bios: Ashley Bathgate, cello and voice; Robert Black, double bass; Vicky Chow, piano and keyboard; David Cassin, percussion; Derek Johnson, electric guitar; Ken Thompson, clarinet and bass clarinet and saxophone.  In February, the All-Stars take their music to Abu Dhabi.