This is the first in a brief series exploring the Ecstatic Music Festival, a two-month-long musical event pairing musicians from the contemporary classical and indie rock worlds.
Though 30-year-old composer and musician Dan Deacon studied composition at SUNY Purchase, he's perhaps best known for his dance ready synth and electronic sounds and the raucous, sweaty live shows that accompany them. His official biography describes his music as "striving to take contemporary experimental composition and electronic music out of the circle of the esoteric intellectual gangs and hipster communities, placing it into the more informal 'fun time.'"
Last year, at the inaugural Ecstatic Music Festival, Deacon teamed up with the percussion quartet So Percussion, for his new piece "Ghostbuster Cook: Origin of the Riddler" resulting in a wide-ranging performance that included soda bottles, marimbas, synths and percussion. He's back for more "fun time" at this year's Ecstatic Music Festival, where he's collaborating with the NOW Ensemble and the Calder Quartet. We spoke with him about his upcoming performance, the intersection between contemporary classical and pop music, and the ways he'd like to shake up the classical world.
What has it been like writing for musicians, and not your synthesizer?
There are such limitations to human players. I've re-entered the world of writing music for humans and the one thing I've learned are the limitations are what make cool parts cool. It's a very different process. I want to do more of it -- I think any composer's quest is for more sounds, more canvas, more sound sources. I've worked in the synthetic world for so long it's nice to finally have all these rich acoustic sounds to complement the synthetic and vice versa.
Your performances are known for their high energy, party-like environments. How do you feel about concert-style performances, as in your show for Ecstatic?
When they're seated, the audience can really relax and take in the music. When people are standing, with my solo electronic pop sets -- I remember going to shows as a kid and being like, even bands I really like, 'My feet hurt I've been standing for three fucking hours, it sucks, we're all standing looking in the same direction.' I like to make movement a large element of the show. Music is uplifting and dance based and we're moving around and re-contextualizing the space. Physical seats can't be moved, and it's hard to get people to shift and move around, so the focus will be on the stage. They can relax and let the music soak in -- it's a lot more like traditional theater or going to the movies. A lot of the staples of my other shit, like throbbing beats and dance movement and stuff won't work here.
Ecstatic tries to put together musicians from the contemporary classical and indie music worlds. Do you feel like its a particular moment for that kind of blending to occur?
People talk a lot about the merging of indie and classical, but to me that's been happening forever. Folk and pop have almost always been worked into the avant garde. It's more apparent now because we're alive, we're seeing it in our lifetime, but it's becoming more and more fragmented. People who write pop music are also starting to like contemporary classical, because its easier to find -- you can get it online very quickly. The modern-day person thinks composers stopped with Mozart. The cool thing about this, it's changing that and redefining the musician as composer. It seems to be similar to what was happening in the seventies, which is good.
What are the boundaries keeping these fields apart, in your opinion?
You have the mixture of pop music and avant garde and experimental -- the biggest thing keeping the separation is how cheap pop music shows are and how expensive these concert shows have to be. We're starting to see ensembles touring in a punk style in houses and basements. That's the big thing -- the big chasm, the economic gap, you can see a show for eight bucks or you can go to the Merkin Concert Hall and it's more expensive. The world needs both, and I think when were bridging the gap and making both... one thing that'd benefit both scenes both DIY and the new music 20th century compositional world. We need composers and forward-thinking ensembles thinking that way: Getting in the van and touring.
You attended school for composition. The academic classical world does not usually yield performers who get in the van to play shows in basements. Any advice to the students currently studying music in grad schools?
We don't have kids who've wanted to be professional cellists since they were eight getting on the road and sleeping on the van and that needs to happen. Cage, Cunningham and Rauschenberg, pre-interstate highway, would get in a van and go to universities without booking a show and say, "Hey can we play?' That to me is what punk became, but 20 years before.
What's the importance of rock musicians going to the concert hall, and classical musicians getting to the garages?
There's a mental shift and a paradigm shift. It's not just that people are converting to weird music with different instruments -- the only thing that'll make a huge change is that mindset of taking music that's in the concert hall and bringing it out. Currently its the other way around -- people go from rock halls to concert halls.
What do you see as the barrier keeping that from happening?
There's decades of avant-garde music doing everything it could to make itself so distant from popular music, going out of their way almost like a suicidal form to completely destroy any relevance in modern society. Music just became screaming -- my grandparents would be like 'What the hell is this, it's crazy. I'm not spending my one night at the symphony to hear a dude freezing a cello in ice. Minimalism changed that -- it became a populist style, a rebellion against the neocomplexity or supercomplexity that focused on bring back harmonies that are familiar to people -- there was a HUGE resonance in pop music. But [bringing together classical and rock] is at this cusp ... the wave is constantly cresting but its not crashing.
Some critics say that the current generation of young composers don't have a distinctive sound, that musicians today are more interested in mixing different influences than in formulating new styles. What do you think?
I think this is one of the craziest times in music history. We're living towards the death of the recording industry. The flow of information is different -- the media puts out a style and they're like, 'This is the new thing.' I don't think Nirvana or grunge would have lasted a summer in that environment. No one wants to be associated with a particular genre or a popular genre because it wont last more than a few months. As soon as someone's labeled chilllwave it's like, 'Fuck, this fucking sucks!'
How does that play out in new classical music?
I went to a lecture with Meredith Monk, who said that her generation was always trying to do something that had never been done, and she said, 'Your generation doesn't care about that.' The audience gasped, but I think what she was saying was really, really positive. So many people are trying to do something that's never been done just to do something that's never been done. The 20th-century was so obsessed with being the first, that a lot of concepts never got their full run through their course.
So what is the 21st century sound?
Mashups and sampling. That's our generation. It's what it is. It's both its strongest suit and its greatest fault. I think the big change is going to be music that can't be documented, like, 'You can't download an mp3 of this song.' But I have no idea what the next thing is going to be.
So what do composers do?!
They should be thinking about how awesome they can make it sound. They should just worry about, 'This going to be fucking sick, this is going to rule..." Of course everyone wants the art revolution to happen in their time -- of course they do, the selfish fucks -- but it doesn't happen every year. People are like, 'Ugh new music is so derivative." But everything that's ever done is derivative of something prior!
Watch Deacon at the Ecstatic Music Festival in 2011 alongside So Percussion: