In my head, Sxip Shirey‘s house looks like the secret lair of some crazed Orffian pedagogue, strewn about with glockenspiels and melodicas and countless bells and whistles (and I mean actual bells and whistles). And if the stage at Merkin Concert Hall for Tuesday night’s Ecstatic! Music Festival performance—what Sxip Shirey described as “Judd [Greenstein]’s forced play-date—(featuring Sxip Shirey, Angélica Negrón, Todd Reynolds, Noveller, and Jonny Rodgers) was any indication, my mental image may not actually be that far from reality—the stage packed so tightly with all of the above in addition to various other toys, a music box, five Pyrex bowls, and a toy accordion that there was barely room enough for the performers to tiptoe precariously to their own place among the music-makers.
There were also tuned water glasses. (Did I mention the water glasses?) That’s where Jonny Rodgers (formerly of Shara Worden’s proto-My Brightest Diamond project, Awry) comes in. Benjamin Franklin believed the pure tone of a tuned water glass to be one of the most beautiful sounds imaginable, though I doubt that even Doctor Franklin, when he invented the armonica 250 years ago, could have foreseen its use in tandem with toy accordions, looped violins, and bicycle bells on a stick. But with the glass harp, an instrument Shirey described on the night as “long reverb trails that make intelligent harmonic decisions,” the possibilities are—apparently—endless.
With the artists themselves appearing onstage in various collaborative permutations (e.g. Todd Reynolds appearing on Jonny Rodgers’ “Spero/Sparrow” and Face the Music, the Kaufman Center’s in-house youth orchestra on Angélica Negrón’s “El Gran Caleidoscopio”), Sxip Shirey defaulted to the role of de facto emcee. Shirey demonstrated his flair for stage banter and extended techniques early on with the introduction to his own solo number, “Trains”, a piece for prepared guitar (a guitar with a piezo pickup, strings prepared with paperclips and played with a harmonica and additional gated reverb) meant to mimic the sounds of trains in the mountains of Missoula, Montana. And, whether planned or not, his interjections proved a serendipitous stroke for a program that could just as easily have suffered as succeeded at the hands of its own playful eccentricity.
It’s almost unjust to try to single out highlights from an evening stacked end to end with new sounds and eye-catching performances. Sxip Shirey’s “I Live In New York City” (probably the most popular piece he’s written to date, here performed with violinist Todd Reynolds) and the aforementioned “Trains” are stellar numbers not to be missed.
But still, a handful of pieces, like “Asa Nisi Masa”, stand out for their exceptional beauty. A collaborative effort, written and performed by Angélica Negrón and Sxip Shirey, “Asa Nisi Masa” is an invocation featuring numerous bells and glockenspiels and a breathtaking stretch of several moments of false anticipation. And, while the slow, deliberate, swirling chord progressions of Noveller and Negrón on “At Dusk” sound almost like Vidulgi OoyoO doing Arvo Pärt, Jonny Rodgers’ “Spero/Sparrow”—taken from a phrase meaning “while I breathe, I hope”—and performed with the seemingly improvisatory but perfectly placed accents of violinist Todd Reynolds, makes for a stunning ode to a charity dealing with human trafficking.
For a program loaded with artists of such seemingly disparate compositional tracks and influences, day two of the Ecstatic Music Festival proved once again that even a forced play-date can prove a match made in Heaven.
To hear the archived broadcast of Sxip Shirey and Angélica Negrón from Ecstatic Music Festival, check out the Q2 Music website. The next Ecstatic performance—featuring Nick Zammuto and Jason Treuting with janus, Grey McMurray, and Daisy Press—takes place Thursday, February 23 at 7:30 PM, at Merkin Concert Hall.