In 2010, when Lydia Kontos and Jenny Undercofler of Kaufman Music Center approached me about curating the Ecstatic Music Festival at Merkin Hall, the landscape of music looked remarkably different than it does now, only four years later. In that time, we’ve seen a softening of the old, rigid borders that kept different kinds of musicians in specific, pre-determined spaces. As the infrastructure of music has changed, in ways both good and bad, the new institutions and platforms that bring music from its creators to its listeners have proven to be more flexible than those that they replaced. We’re a long way from a completely open, democratic musical culture, but some key assumptions have been dislodged, and it’s wonderful to see the openness that is now widely taken for granted.
It’s important to remember what those assumptions were and why we wanted to move away from them. In considering the landscape of newly-created music in 2010, and how a new festival would contribute something important to the already-saturated musical culture of New York City, it seemed that there was little room for artists to move outside of the expectations that were established for them. As diverse as the city’s concert halls and clubs were, they still were booked with an eye — a strong eye — toward the known and the predictable. Whether for-profit or non-profit, there were very few stages where artists could be booked without some strong certainty of what would happen on that stage.
There were, and are, exceptions to this rule. New York has always had a thriving (if shifting) set of experimental venues that have lovingly nurtured the unknown and unpredictable for as long as the term “experimental music” has meant anything. We are in their great debt. But those venues have also tended to be purposefully and knowingly marginal, creating a sense of isolation from the cultural mainstream. As with the academic avant garde before it, this isolation can trend toward its own form of predictability, even within a seemingly infinitely open milieu.
This was the scene four years ago. Our path toward offering something different with the Ecstatic Music Festival combined three criteria. First, every concert had to have new work on it. Second, each concert would involve collaboration between disparate entities in some form. And third, this collaboration would traverse or challenge some perceived border or distinction between different approaches to making music. Whether one calls it “genre” or “scene” or “approach to making music” or whatever else, the idea was to put people together who either didn’t typically work together, or who wanted to work together in a very different way, and give them an open stage on which to make something new. That stage was Merkin Concert Hall, which carried its own constraints: it was not a rock club, where so much of the “alternate space” conversation had, up to that point, taken place (“Schumann in a rock club OMG”), but instead a beautiful, intimate chamber music hall. We marketed these concerts not only to fans of new music, but to a wide audience, casting a net that made no assumptions about who would or would not want to attend.
The result of these basic criteria has yielded some remarkable results. Musicians have come together who did not know each other and formed ongoing relationships, with new musical projects springing up between them and in various offshoots beyond. Old collaborations have been rekindled and reinvigorated, leading to recordings and tours beyond our stage. Audiences have been treated to concerts that are genuinely surprising, not because the artists were intending to shock, but because the collaborative whole that emerged on stage was, if not greater than, then certainly different from the sum of its part. And often differently great. I believe that the kind of risk we have taken as a festival is unusual in that we are not merely presenting new work — itself a risky proposal — but are putting artists in uncomfortable positions and challenging them to extend beyond their usual ranges. Often, the initial “invitation” isn’t from me, but from the artists, inviting themselves to be pushed by the festival concept toward an unknown end. They invite themselves because, and I say this from both general experience and from my personal musical appearance on the festival in 2011, it is a rare, challenging, and potentially life-changing opportunity. Sometimes, because we are taking genuine risks, we fail. There is no risk where one cannot fail, and the larger the risk, the greater the chance or the depth of the failure. But even failure can be instructive (I say this also from personal experience!) and a culture that allows no room for failure is a culture doomed to a slow, unnoticed, and extremely boring collapse. That cultural outcome is our greatest enemy as artists, curators, and audiences alike.
Fortunately, in 2014, we are pointing toward a hopeful openness, one that sees musicians as encompassing more possibilities than those contained in their hit song, or their last album, or even the entirety of their work to date. The act of an artist trying something new has moved from a marginalizing career move to a near-necessity. Self-reinvention is not only possible but vital in a way that it certainly has never been before, at least in my lifetime. And when artists are moving in different directions all the time, our culture shifts not just on the surface, but in a more profound way.
This shift is much bigger than our festival, of course. It’s bigger than our peer institutions that have likewise been part of this shift’s story: Wordless Music, Liquid Music, Bedroom Community, LPR, New Amsterdam, and so on. It’s even bigger than the dozens of series and venues and ensembles that have sprung up in the past few years around the country, all carving out diverse programs of new music with a decidedly post-genre bent. But it’s not big enough to dislodge the old assumptions from the most powerful cultural seats in our society, the ones controlled by the most money, whether they are for-profit or non-profit. As I said earlier, there’s still a long way to go.
Even as this cultural shift has taken place around us, and even though what we are doing at the Ecstatic Music Festival has gone from somewhat audacious to perfectly reasonable without the thing itself changing much at all, I believe that our small contribution to the cultural landscape of New York and beyond continues to be of the utmost importance. Despite all the wonderful developments in our musical culture over the last few years, there are still no other festivals devoted entirely to new musical collaborations between artists from different musical backgrounds. Each year, we bring forward a series of works that are a unique contribution to what is happening in music today, and this coming season is no different. As we grow and change, I look forward to evolving in ways that are responsive to what our culture needs at any given time. With that goal in mind, I’m optimistic that you’ll be hearing from me again in another five years, when we can look back at a decade of Ecstatic Music.