Category Archives: Ecstatic Music Festival

Percussive Musicking, in Ecstatic and Juilliard Flavors

“Maybe this is what some guys feel like when they go to a baseball game,” it occurred to me as I settled into my seat at Alice Tully Hall on Tuesday evening.  The Juilliard Percussion Ensemble, directed by my long-ago Tanglewood classmate Daniel Druckman, would be starting soon.  I felt relaxed, happy, curious, full of anticipation for what I was sure would be an evening of unexpected pleasures.

Juilliard Percussion Ensemble (from

I just love percussion ensemble concerts (including the student and professional ones at DePauw, where I teach). I’ve had a good music education and can follow what’s going on. I’ve played a little hand percussion, but I don’t have a desire to be a percussionist. A really enthusiastic, appreciative audience member, that’s what I am. There’s almost always some instrument or two I haven’t heard about.  The teamwork and non-verbal communication among the players is always something to watch.

And it was the second percussion night in a row for me.  I love New York!

Monday, I’d been to the final concert of the Ecstatic Music Festival at Merikin Hall, a very full evening of five concertos, composed by Bobby Previte for soloists plus the four members of So Percussion. It was broadcast live as part of WQXR‘s New Sounds Live series.  You can hear the webcast for yourself.

Here Bobby talks about the piece is a promo video:


And the members of So Percussion. [Update: oops–for some reason when I first saw this video I thought it was about their Previte concert.  It’s actually about their Jan. 20 show.  But it’s cool, anyway, so I’m leaving it here]:


The two programs couldn’t have been more different.  The Juilliard concert, “Ceremony and Ritual: Percussion Music of Japan/Part of Carnegie Hall’s JapanNYC Festival,” set in the gorgeous Alice Tully Hall, had a certain dressy-casual elegance to it. Everything was fully composed, the music often elegant and spare. Definitely contemporary concert-hall music. The Ecstatic Music Festival, meanwhile, has focused on a sense of music felt by curator Judd Greenstein, described by its education director Argeo Ascani in a program note.

Born and raised in NYC, the melting pot of all melting pots, Greenstein’s musical upbringing resembled the diversity of the city around him–hip hop “popular” music and the piano-lesson “classical” music of the conservatory.  For him, there was no differentiation–it was all just music. . . . And he’s not alone.

And so you get things like Previte’s wildly eclectic “Terminals, Part I: Departures,” five concerti for percussion ensemble and improvising soloists.  Jen Shyu (voice and er hu), DJ Olive (turntables and computer), Zeena Parkins (harp and electric harp), John Medeski (Hammond organ and piano), and Previte himself were the center-stage protagonists.

Since I go through phases where I improvise a lot (and others when I don’t), I was especially interested by the improvisational aspect (which made this a must-attend event for me). Improvisation, of course, is not an all-or-nothing thing.  Much music throughout the world has a improvisational component while having some sort of fixed framework, composed or passed down through oral/aural traditions. Such is the case with Previte’s Terminals;  the ensemble music was fully composed, while the soloists had much room for extemporizing.

In an on-stage interview with New Sounds Live host John Schaefer at the start of the concert, Previte explained he originally intended to use motives from 35+ years of his own drum solos as the basis for the compositions.  He put out word “on the Internets” and friends and fans sent him recordings, many bootlegged, from throughout his career.  It must have been fascinating to hear all those collected improvisations.

Many times I’m soloing in the context of someone else’s band . . . some [solos] are informed by other people’s music. You write music and then in the music you have someone improvise.  Now whose music is that?  Is it your music, is it their music? You know, you get kind of genius people to play and it becomes your music, interestingly.

Great question.  Is it the composer’s music, the improvising performer’s music, or does it all somehow become the music’s music?

The program started with a (recorded) mash-up of some of those Previte solos, put together by DJ Olive.  And mash-up describes is the perfect description of the evening.  A tremendous amount of fascinating, effective ideas. For me though, they were thrown so closely together that the music often felt aimless or, at other times, chaotic. I often found myself wondering what the musical point was. Where the structure was.  There certainly was an experimental-music feel to the evening, and experimental music by its nature rarely features a Beethoven-like motivic development.

As far as the improvisations go, while it was possible to surmise what sections (especially the unaccompanied ones) were improvised, you couldn’t tell for sure what was composed and what wasn’t.  So in the context of the pieces, the improvisations were really effective, as was the space and context created for them.

But I just didn’t get the music.  I’m listening to the webcast as I write.  On second hearing, the music still feels as it did that night: brilliant yet self-indulgently overly-long.  (Like my blog entries, at least in the self-indulgent, overly-long aspect.)  My overall impression was of an extraordinarily talented composer who, inexperienced with crafting long forms, packed in too many ideas and didn’t have a sense of what to cut out. But that’s me; this may well have been something where I have a blind spot and just didn’t get it.

It was, in any event, a great experiment. The very fact that this concert, and the entire festival, happened, and happened at a mainstream, Lincoln-Center area venue is cause for celebration. It’s something I’m really glad to have experienced (and wish I’d been able to make it to more of the festival’s concerts).  And maybe if I had been stoned I would have loved it this concert.  (Those were the days.)

If Monday night felt like too much of too many things, Tuesday exemplified the “less is more” virtues of Zen-like simplicity.  Not that all of the music was simple by any means.  Allan Kozinn’s Times review gives an excellent summary, which I won’t try to repeat here.  These were beautifully crafted pieces by composers not finding their way in a new medium, but clearly at the top of their games.

Being there had its amusing moments unrelated to the activities on stage.

“It’s all Japanese music!  It was supposed to be half Japanese and half something else,” announced the strong-voiced lady seated to my left, thumbing through her program before the concert started.

“Who told you that?” asked her companion, perhaps wondering, like me, why anyone would have expected a concert that was part of the Carnegie Hall JapanNYC festival to have anything but Japanese music on it.

“I have a paper at home about it,” she replied.  “I’ll have to look it up when I get back.”

If she’d been a sitcom character, she’d have seemed too much of a caricature, a stereotype  of a an elderly New Yorker who talks too much, too loudly.  “I’m all discombobulated,” she announced as she struggled to take off her coat.  “Oh my, I’ve somehow lost my program!”  I had ended up with two, so I offered her one.  “Thank you.  I just don’t know . . . oh, there it is, under the seat!”  Reclaimed item in her hand, she returned mine.  “Here.  You keep it your extra in case I lose mine again.”

“Oh, Takimetsu!  I remember he did something weird over at Philharmonic Hall (the original name for the space now known as Avery Fisher Hall) years ago.  It was very weird.  Oh, my.”

To my right, two children, brother and sister about 11 and 9, I’d guess, with their grandfather between them.  They were quiet and fascinated, and the family softly discussed the music between pieces.  What a special night for them, I imagined, and thought as well that they’ll likely be concert-music patrons in the future.

Toru Takemitsu’s Rain Tree was ethereal, not “weird,” and the concert-opening Masakazu Natsuda‘s Wooden Music exemplified the virtues of space and silences.  Akira Nishimura‘s rousing Ketiak, with congas, yellow maracas, headsets, and rhythmic chanting, was the most exciting piece and would, I thought, have made a more rousing finish to the program then Jo Kondo’s cowbells and gong Under the Umbrella.  But obviously Daniel Druckman wanted to end not with a bang but a . . . cow bell.

Sorry, I can’t help but write more about being there that night.  “I wonder why they have those things on their heads!” my voluble next-door neighbor for the evening, , spotting the head sets with microphones several of the players were adjusting, wondered out (very) loud before the Nishimura.

“It will be obvious once it starts,” came the forceful, annoyed-but-trying-to-be-polite voice of a man in the row ahead of us, who twisted around to explain, hoping, it seemed, to quiet her.  She obviously believes in offering color commentary right until the music starts (but she was always silent during the music). Druckman raised his hands to begin one piece, the audience quieted, and her voice rang throughout the hall.  “I wonder if we’ll get free wine again after this?” (She’d obviously been to one or more of the Tully Scope concerts, where there was a free glass after the show.)  “Probably not.”  Beat.  Music.

My son loves the UConn men’s basketball team, has watched every game he could this season. Passionate about it. The fabulous Juilliard Percussion Ensemble is like a top college sports team.  Maybe even better.  Because just to get in to a place like Juilliard as a percussion major, you have to play as well as many professionals. The level of skill is a joy to behold. (And some of them look so young that people around me wondered if those players might be in high school.)

Several pieces had no conductor.  So, as in all good chamber music, you could see the leading and following, the attentiveness to each other, the swirling energy. Percussion music, with the players standing and often moving from one instrument to another, has a unique athleticism to it.

And as in a good game on any level, there are errors and saves.  During the second-half opening piece, the premiere of Hiroya Miura‘s Mitate, a drum stick slipped off a music stand, and, while rotating, was caught deftly in mid-air. At the final note of the same piece, the same fellow’s cymbal flew off its stand. With almost superhero speed, he bent over and grabbed it just before it hit the floor, freezing in position.

Who was he?  No numbers or names on the shirts, so I’ll never know.  To me, he’ll forever remain the amazing adroit, if a bit clumsy, young man in the gray shirt.

It’s music.  And, sometimes it’s sport, too.  I love percussion ensembles.  I love the Juilliard Percussion Ensemble.  And I love New York.


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Filed under Alice Tully Hall, Bobby Previte, concert ettiquete, DJ Olive, Ecstatic Music Festival, Improvising Performers, Jen Shyu, John Medeski, Judd Greenstein, Juilliard Percussion Ensemble, Percussion Ensembles, WQXR, Zeena Parkins

Waiting for Sufjan: Clogs, Shara Worden, and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus at the Ecstatic Music Festival

(It’s do-laundry and catch-up-on-posting-about-concerts day.  So let’s see how caught up I can get!)

On Saturday March 12, my daughter and I went to hear Clogs, Shara Worden, and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus perform at Merkin Concert Hall as part of the Ecstatic Music Festival.  (Great photos here.) There is so much going on in New York, and I’ve gone to far fewer Ecstatic concerts than I’d hoped (and now wished).  So often there are two, or three, or even four events happening at the same time, each of which I’d like to be at.  And occasionally, I’m rehearsing, or performing, or just exhausted and/or musicked out.

Brooklyn Youth Chorus, Shara Worden, and some of Clogs on stage at Merkin. By David Andrako at

Anyway, Clogs is another of those wedded-genre groups (a friend read another post and commented on Facebook that he loved my phrase “wedded genres” but it turned out I had said about everything but that phrase, which occurred to him, so thanks John B!) and the performance sounded so fascinating that I chose it over that evening’s Les Arts Florissants Tully Scope event. Which I really wanted to see.

I got my daughter to join me.  She was reluctant at first;  I’ve taken her to some weird stuff, and this was a long subway ride from the East Village.  But when I mentioned I’d gotten an email from a publicist mentioning in part that Sufjan Stevens, whose name was vaguely familiar to me, was going to be performing, too, she was sold. (He’d also been just been added to the listing on the website.) “Sufjan Stevens!  He’s great!  Pete [her brother] has all his albums and I have a lot of his stuff on my iTunes.  I can’t wait to tell Pete we’re going to hear Sufan!”

I guess the Metro ride seems shorter when Sufan Stevens is on the other end. Nothing like celebrity to get someone to a concert.  Which is great if you can afford a celebrity, or are friends with one who will play for free.  Those TV celebrities selling their own hair treatments and whatever?  Think they really went out and decided to devote their lives to coming up with the world’s best face cream?  No way.  Almost always, some great marketer like Dan Kennedy (and it usually was Dan Kennedy, by the way, especially if the infomercial is successful) went and hired them for a face-cream client.

If you don’t have/can’t afford a celebrity, our culture’s fame addiction is a real pain in the ass.  You can do absolutely great stuff and it is next to impossible to get people to come to your concert, or buy your CD, or your face cream, or whatever. Clogs?  They had Sufjan, and, bless them, it meant I got an evening with my daughter.

We arrived at Merkin about 15 or 20 minutes before the concert was scheduled to begin, and there was a huge line.  Was it for Sufjan?  Was it because there were a zillion kids in the chorus and therefore a zillion-squared relatives attending? Are Clogs that big a draw?  I don’t know.

There was just one person working the box office (shortly joined by another).  And some confusion in the line.  Was this the line for ticket holders?  Or to get tickets?  Turned out to be the latter, and as the news spread, the line thinned out a little.  Wow!  I thought.  This is kind of like one of the hot events at LPR, like when we stood in the rain waiting to hear Zoe Keating.

It took a while to get the tickets sold and everyone in, and the concert started a bit late.  Clogs is an unusual quartet: Bryce Dessner on guitar(s), Rachael Ellliott (bassoon), Thomas Kozumplik (percussion), and Padma Newsome (voice, mandola, and viola; violists can be so adventuresome!).  All terrific, inventive musicians.  As the evening progressed, a Penn-and-Teller dynamic revealed itself.  Newsome and Dessner talk to the audience and teasingly and playfully with and about each other; Elliott and Kozumplik stay silent.  Great rapport with the audience, in a folk-concert sort of way. The choir, not surprisingly, didn’t talk to the audience, either.

I really liked Clogs (and everyone else, just hold on).  A four-person band with bassoon and guitar–what more do you want, if you’re a let’s-do-things-differently guy like me?  Here’s part of their self-description:

Clogs are four musicians from the U.S. and Australia whose work traverses time and place and through which seemingly disparate influences are seamlessly drawn in. They compose and improvise using sounds and textures from across the musical spectrum—the immediacy of folk and rock music, twisted Americana, the complexity of modern composition.

And that’s why I had to hear them–and more of this Ecstatic Music series.  Immediacy and complexity, “sounds and textures from across the musical spectrum”–that puts it so well.  It’s what draws so many to this developing amalgamated-genre musicking (ooh, there’s a new phrase) in which the pieces and performances appeal to many but don’t fit in any particular category.

There were several additional instrumentalists (two violins, a cello, and percussion), and Shara Worden singing and playing guitar, and the wonderful Brooklyn Youth Chorus, mostly adolescent girls with a small handful of guys mixed in.  So when the show started with beautiful songs by Padma Newsome, not having having yet read the list of who was who (no individual names were listed on the page with program, they were buried several pages back), I was wondering who was who and which one is Sufjan Stevens?

I didn’t care that much (I hope), but that’s who my daughter had come for.  And he is a celebrity, after all, in her world.  Where’s the celebrity?  I want her to be happy.  I’m the guy who took her to see . . . what’s his name again?

Turned out, once Padma Newsome started talking to us after the opening two songs, with Bryce chiming in a bit, that it was, oh well, just them.  Clogs and the choir and Shara.  No Sufjan.

They’d started with “Cocodrillo” and “On the Edge,” two songs by Padma from a new album by Worden and Clogs, with a wonderful choir part added (if my memory is correct;  I didn’t know it would take me over a week to get around to writing about this, or I would have taken better notes).  “2:3:5,” and instrumental piece full of complexity and layered rhythms, “all in my guitar part,” as Dessner joked, followed, and then “Voisins.”  There was quite a bit of discussion about “voisins” meaning “neighbors” in French, and possible programmatic aspects, but, really, they said, it just happened that they were in the town of Voisins when they wrote it.  Charming banter, and a nice piece, which, if I’m not mistaken, started out in 7 and morphed around the metric spectrum a bit, all while retaining the folkish feel that was ever present in the evening.

So, I was wondering, having scanned through the program and finding the list of personnel, are they are going to have this Sufjan guy do a little solo set as a kind of guest star? It was obvious that the program was printed before he was added.  The suspense was building.  Wait till he comes on and we tell Pete about this! (Hmm.  Maybe I’m more into this celebrity thing than I thought. Oh, hell.  I love celebrities.  I WANT TO SEE FAMOUS PEOPLE!  Even if I didn’t know they were famous until just a bit ago.)

Anyway, no Sufjan yet. Be patient.  The concert’s fantastic without him.

The two big works on the program were co-commissioned by the festival: Bryce Dessner’s Tour Eiffel (text by Vincente Huidobro) and Padma Newsome’s three-movement Unattended Shadow (texts by himself and Susannah Keebler).  The Manhattan New Music Project also supported both, and St. Ann’s Warehouse the Dessner piece.

I enjoyed both.  Were I an actual music critic (not just playing one on this blog), I’d have taken better notes or written about the music right away.  What I remember is that the Brooklyn Youth Choir, directed (on stage) by  . . . oops, her name didn’t get in the program, was terrific.  (Actually, it was Dianne Berkun, who founded the group and is listed on the BYC website).

I loved the poems, especially the three in Unattended Shadows. The first, by Keebler, was inspired by a shirtless, shoeless bicycle rider in Newsome’s home town, who would avoid shadows while riding around.  The third, Newsome’s own “Dog Pooh Corner in Seattle,” was prompted by a church, not (just) feces.  In part:

Dog pooh corner in Seattle,
With infinity comes a song.
Two jesters, a mandarin cat, sat looking at an empty space.
Along comes a man and a dog,
The man pees while the dog watches on,
At the Tuesday lunch line at the door,
At the Tuesday lunch line for the poor.

My temporary room in NY overlooks a church which feeds many poor people, among its other services, and there’s a low-income “hotel” next to it.  In this Upper West Side neighborhood with its multimillion dollar apartments (including in the building where I’m staying, although not the rent-stabilized run-down unit where I’m a guest), there are panhandlers on the street. “Sir, sir, can you help me out?” I’m asked several times most days. (“I’ll be honest with you sir,” a very disheveled guy shared with me one night. “I’m an alcoholic.  And I really need a drink.  That’s what I need the money for.  It’s my birthday and I need a drink.” So I gave him five bucks and another guy, seeing what happened, started to tell me it’s his birthday, too.) I’m sure more than one has peed while a dog watched.  And there’s not infrequently poop on the corner. So it resonated with me.  My daughter, on the other hand, found it the one thing she really didn’t like.

After the big pieces, a couple more to go.  Well, now I bet they’ll bring Sufjan Stevens out!  What’s he going to do? A little solo set?

The penultimate piece, “5/4.”  No Sufjan.  No Sufjan? Is he not here?  We’ve already told Pete on Facebook about this!  What are we going to brag about?

That’s all I remember.  No Sufjan.  It probably was in 5/4. Pretty sure it was.  It may have been instrumental or had vocals.  I just don’t recall.  All I remember, no fucking Sufjan.

Finally, in the very last piece, “We Were Here,” (or in the encore, but I think that was just Clogs) Sufjan Stevens (yay!) came out on the stage.

Cool-looking kid. (Well, he’s in his mid-thirties, but he still looks like a kid to me.) All in black, I think.  Plugged in his guitar banjo. OK! It’s Sufan time!

And he sang along with everyone else.  No solo. Shara Worden sang, too. Sufjan probably has a nice voice.  He must, he’s got a big career.  We just didn’t hear it, at least by itself, that night.  (Well, we heard a little.  It’s sensitive and sexy.  I’ll probably end up downloading an album.)

My daughter and I had a huge laugh over the whole thing. (“I think they really overused that Sufjan kid,” I teased her.) She really enjoyed the concert, and I’m so glad she got to hear the great concert she heard. Even if she was kind of tricked into coming.

And she did get to see Sufjan.

Sufjan at Merkin, from


Filed under Clogs, Ecstatic Music Festival, Ensembles, Festivals, Shara Worden, Singers, Sufjan Stevens