Going apeshit over Brahms and Sufjan: an interview with Nadia Sirota

yMusic at Ecstatic Music Fetival (photo by David Andrako)

I know you’re all probably tired of hearing me go on and on about how much I love yMusic and how, every time I see them, it’s pretty much the greatest thing ever. Unfortunately for those who feel that way, I saw yMusic again last week at the Ecstatic Music Festival. And, once again, it was pretty effing awesome. So, while I take my travel day to think up some new metaphors to describe how much I love yMusic, you can read this interview I did with violist Nadia Sirota for an article that appeared in the Risk and Consequence zine in October of 2011 (it’s on page 30).

It’s a pretty decent interview by my standards. We discuss yMusic’s new album Beautiful Mechanical, as well as their work on My Brightest Diamond’s All Things Will Unwind and the myriad other artists they collaborate with, and how dumb it is when people make declarations like “classical music is dead”. Anyway, here it is: [Read: Beautiful Mechanical: an interview with Nadia Sirota of yMusic]

Sxip Shirey with Angélica Negrón: Ecstatic Music Festival, Day 2

Sxip Shirey and Angélica Negrón (photo by David Andrako)

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.

Angélica Negrón and Jonny Rodgers (photo by David Andrako)

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.

Todd Reynolds and Sxip Shirey (photo by David Andrako)

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.

Jherek Bischoff and Wordless Music: Ecstatic Music Festival, opening night

Jherek Bischoff with the Wordless Music Orchestra

It’s that time of year again, time for the second annual Ecstatic Music Festival at Merkin Concert Hall—a festival, curated by New Amsterdam’s Judd Greenstein, dedicated to genre-blending music and collaboration. And, as encouraging as it is to see festivals like this succeed with audiences, perhaps even more exciting are the often mind bending performances that result from it. And Saturday’s sold out opening night with Jherek Bischoff, Wordless Music Orchestra, and guests including David Byrne (yes, that David Byrne), Greg Saunier (Deerhoof), Zac Pennington (Parenthetical Girls), Mirah, Carla Bozulich (Geraldine Fibbers), Sam Mickens (Dead Science), and Charlie Looker is perfectly indicative of that fact.

With the all sweeping string gestures and post-Romantic grandeur of an early 60s film score but without the hedonistic self-indulgence of Rufus Wainwright, Bischoff’s music is immediately captivating. And, considering that the first guest vocalist to appear onstage was David Byrne crooning his way through “Eyes”, it’s no insignificant statement to say that the music holds it’s own (and, in fact, dominates) in what could have easily become a star-studded game of vocalist roulette.

Yeah, that David Byrne.

Charlie Looker’s smooth-as-silk vocals carry through the charming and subtly schizophrenic “The Secret of the Machines” (featuring Greg Saunier on drums) into Mirah’s rendition of “The Nest” evocatively laden with all the emotional intensity of a great torch song.

For “Blossom”, the composer himself took to the mic (one of the many musical hats he would don throughout the night) before Craig Wedren’s gorgeous and all-too-brief turn on “Your Ghost” and Carla Bozulich on Bob Lind’s “Counting”. And fans of Serge Gainsbourg will be happy to know that Zac Pennington took to the stage for his duet with Sam Mickens, “Young and Lovely”, with all the flair and dapper deportment of the best of the yé-yé scene—a perfect lead-in to the dizzyingly stirring closer, “Insomnia, Death and the Sea” (perhaps a holdover from the composer’s childhood on a sailboat).

A second half, described as “Songs by Jherek’s friends”, featured Bischoff’s arrangements of songs written by several of the guest vocalists performing on the first half of the show, including with the premiere of David Byrne’s “The Fat Man’s Comin’”. It was during this second set that the composer took the opportunity to address the audience, admitting that he chose the moments following Craig Wedren’s “Heaven Sent” because at any other point he would have been to overcome with emotion to be coherent. And it’s that picture of an artist (who assembled his album by biking around Seattle painstakingly recording and layering a single instrumental line at a time) choked up at seeing his full vision realized an array of innovative collaborators with talent to spare that so perfectly illustrates what makes events like the Ecstatic Music Festival so exciting.

Zac Pennington (center, mic) stealing hearts, Sam Mickens (far right); behind and between them is Jherek Bischoff.

The next Ecstatic Music Festival will take place at Merkin Concert Hall, February 8th at 7:30 P.M and will feature Son Lux, Richard Reed Parry (Arcade Fire), and yMusic (and for those who missed it, here are my thoughts from the last time I heard yMusic play Richard Reed Parry’s music). To my knowledge, all of this year’s Ecstatic performances will also be streamed and archived on the Q2 Music website.

For a complete schedule of upcoming Ecstatic performances, check here.