Ecstatic Rituals

Dan Deacon, ecstatic. Photo: Josh Sisk.

Ecstatic Rituals

What makes music ecstatic? A New York festival suggests that it can all hang on a single moment.

Ecstatic Music Festival: So Percussion & Dan Deacon 
20 January 2011
Merkin Hall, New York City

Ecstatic Music Festival: Alarm Will Sound & Face the Music
30 January 2011
Merkin Hall, New York City

The last drops of water leaked out of an amplified bottle of ginger ale – for all the action in the Ecstatic Music Festival, this moment is cemented in my mind. Dan Deacon’s composition Ghostbuster Cook: The Origin of the Riddler begins with four percussionists playing a number of bottles of varying sizes. The amplified bottles are resonant enough to fill the space with modest amplification, and the harmonic and rhythmic stasis of this sound gives the wandering melodies a ritualistic feel. The whole composition encompasses this feeling of ritual, broken into four distinct parts, distinguished by the quartet walking from one homogenous set of instruments to another, their relocation almost a rite in itself. There is invocation, involving the amplified bottles; release, provoked by electronics from Deacon; relaxation, as the bottles, still amplified, drain; and, finally, cleansing, with soft waves of mallet percussion.

Steve Reich’s Tehillim, for voices and ensemble, performed by New York group Alarm Will Sound with the student ensemble Face the Music, has four explicit sections as well, but these are demarcated by the text: four different passages from the Hebrew Book of Psalms. Reich’s static modal language and continually changing meters – the rhythmic patterns drawn from the text – create a shifting bed for the text to float above. The text is broken into repeated, obsessive phrases that shift with each musical alteration, drawing attention to very slight changes, such as when the maracas go silent after having played for upwards of a hundred bars.

The ‘ecstatic’ in this music is in counterpoint to stasis. Ecstasy is what happens when the status quo is undermined – and this seemed to be the common, but unspoken, thread of the festival’s take on the idea of ecstatic music. In Deacon’s composition this is the silence that happens when, after seven minutes, the last of the ginger ale sprays out of a plastic bottle; Reich marks pivotal moments by switching up a few pitches, after having stuck with the same five or so notes for minutes. Through a ritual of development and exhaustion, an extended stasis gives way to something new, and everything changes in a single moment.

Published on 1 February 2011

Andrew Christopher Smith is a composer and pianist living in Brooklyn, New York.

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