Dan Deacon, So Percussion revisit roots at NY's Ecstatic Music Festival (1/20)

Dan Deacon concerts are infamous for their symbiotic band-audience relationship. Really, it’s a Deacon-audience relationship. We’ve seen the pictures, watched the YouTube vids, or maybe even been lucky enough to participate in the sweaty throng, dancing ecstatically on the floor, packed in around the zany artist as he twiddles knobs and switches on a mess of day-glo wires, pedals, and circuit boards.

So it must have been something of a novelty for the Baltimore-based artist to be standing on a stage last Thursday night, raised above the audience in the de rigeur manner of the classical music world, with a seated audience boasting a mix of bearded Brooklynites, avant-garde afficionados, and new music-savvy classical music types interested to hear this “unknown” (at least to the classical music world) artist. For Deacon, who graduated from the Conservatory of Music at SUNY Purchase with a degree in composition, this was the world from which he came, where the aleatory spirit of John Cage met the rhythmic drive of Steve Reich, grounded in the complex counterpoint of J.S. Bach.

Thursday night’s concert was the third event in the Ecstatic Music Festival, a program of 14 concerts over three months that, according to the festival website, intends to “exploring the fertile terrain between classical and popular music.” Himself a traveler in both worlds, Deacon alone could boast this hybrid of music making. Throw in the percussion quartet So Percussion, one of the hottest groups performing in the contemporary classical scene today, and the classical/popular genre lines get blurred even further, marrying the popular rhythms of Afrobeat, hip-hop, and techno with the concert hall. With these five dynamic performers onstage, the only certainty was that we were going to hear something completely original and unexpected.

The main event on the program was Deacon’s composition Ghostbuster Cook: The Origin of the Riddler, a collaborative work born out of a week living in the So Percussion studio. Deacon infused the repeating rhythms, sectional form, and oddball antics of the downtown minimalist scene with the wacked-out D.I.Y. aesthetic and full-on dance party beats of the hipster Brooklyn scene. The piece began with a variety of different sized full soda bottles rigged on a rack with microphones. When struck with mallets, and the sound wired through Deacon’s mess of electronics, they resembled distorted Tibetan prayer bells, resonating at different pitches with a deep, hollow sound that warbled with the liquid inside. The members of So Percussion gradually built up a repeating melodic and rhythmic pattern, or ostinato, using these soda bottles, while Deacon manipulated the sound creating washes of tone that resonated in the concert hall.

After this entryway into the piece, the percussionists one by one migrated over to a set of large tom-tom drums, bass drums, congas and bongos to build up a driving, trance-like rhythm, their parts interweaving in polyrhythmic delight, sounding like the most complex house beat ever formed. On top of this rich grounding, Deacon layered loud synthesizer riffs and clusters of sound, distorting and twisting their tones with his many knobs and pedals. The high-pitched melodies, which could easily have been at home in one of Deacon’s DJ sets, danced out over the pulsating drums, creating a full-on classical music warehouse party.

The only low point of the night occurred when the musicians pierced a minuscule hole in the bottom of two soda bottles, slowly draining the liquid and lowering the pitch of the bottles as they emptied. Unfortunately, the bottles drained too slowly, and the performers and audience waited a staggeringly long and uncomfortable eight minutes or more as the bottles emptied. I wondered whether Deacon had purposefully designed this silence to be so long, and whether we, like the audience of John Cage’s famous 4’33”, had become the creators of sound. One audience member audibly muttered, “you’ve got to be fucking kidding me!”

As we watched the last few drops of seltzer drain from the bottle, the tension was obviated with blissful waves of treble-y rhythms, creating an ambient soundscape from bells and vibraphones, glistening and shining like a cartoon sun in a children’s TV show. Listeners familiar with Deacon’s album Spiderman of the Rings would surely recognize this soothing sound, with bits of dissonance mixed in, reminiscent of the best efforts of bands like Sigur Ros or Explosions in the Sky. Aside from the neverending draining debacle (which would have been brilliant at less than five minutes), the piece went off fantastically and was very well-received by the audience.

Photo by Jessica Lee

The first half of the program began with structured improvisations by So Percussion, assisted by guitarist Grey McMurray who set up long sustained tones and then manipulated them with an army of processors and pedals. Accompanied by videos, including one of a baby with an orange balloon and a man brushing his teeth, the performers improvised sounds inspired by and to accompany the visuals, even blowing up orange balloons to be bounced around the crowd as the video baby played with his balloon. These pieces resembled John Zorn’s “game pieces” with their premeditated improvisation.

The other highlight was a new Deacon solo piece hijacked from the non-musical direction pieces of the mid-century Fluxus movement. Titled Take a Deep Breath and written “for audience of any size,” the piece was a series of 24 concrete actions for the audience to follow. Deacon described his happening to us with the bubbly enthusiasm that his music typically exudes, encouraging us to take each direction “to the extreme,” as we were now the ensemble. Most of the directions involved a combination of non-specific sounds and long swells of vocals, repeated and taken at whatever pace each individual wanted. Deacon threw in a number of jarring moments throughout these directions, like the screams for “as long and as loud as you can” that randomly erupted throughout the hall, or the “highest pitch sound you can make.” The piece naturally required a certain willingness on the part of the audience to give themselves over to the moment, and I must admit, I did not take each step to Deacon’s desired extreme.

Throughout the night, the many great experimental composers of the 20th century to whom Deacon was paying homage loomed large. “Take a Deep Breath” was a music-less version of Terry Riley’s In C, the sectionalized drumming and polyrhythms of Ghostbuster Cook evoked Igor Stravinsky, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass, and the distorted timbres of percussive sound recalled Edgard Varèse, John Cage, and Harry Partch. Yet it was all threaded together with the balls-to-the-wall attitude of modern day underground dance music, melodies with a definite pop sensibility, and synthesizers belonging to the world of noise rock or house music. Dan Deacon and So Percussion set out to do exactly what the festival organizers hoped: to find a common ground where popular sounds could be performed in a classical setting. It was avant-garde without being elitist or exclusive. Let’s hope the remaining collaborations on this festival are just as fruitful.

Gallery by Jessica Lee

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