As the 2012 edition of the Ecstatic Music Festival is about to start, we asked 5 questions to Judd Greenstein, composer, curator of the festival, and co-director of New Amsterdam Records/New Amsterdam Presents. Oh, there’s a bonus question too…
Where did the need for another New Music festival in NY come from?
Very few festivals, or concerts, start from the premise: “let’s ask artists what they want to do”. Most presenters ask artists to do some variation of the thing that made them famous, or notorious, or at least known to the presenter. Since I’m an artist myself, I wanted to make sure that the festival was all about creating opportunities for musicians to explore territory that they normally couldn’t, or to develop their voice in a direction that was interesting to them. I also wanted to move past the juxtaposition of likeminded artists, putting two or three groups or people on the same bill, and actually get those artists to work with each other. This is especially interesting when you get artists from different musical worlds or communities and that’s exactly what we try to do. So while I can’t answer whether New York “needs” a festival that promotes collaboration as a means of generating new ideas and new sounds, that’s what we offer, and it seems unique from my (admittedly biased) vantage point. It might be better, in an ideal world, for this festival to take place in a less well-served city, but this is where I was given the opportunity to curate, so that’s where it began.
What is the biggest challenge in curating such a festival?
There are three big challenges. One is finding successful artists who have space in their schedule to try something a little more experimental. Plenty of artists who I approach are interested, but are in the midst of a touring or recording or writing period that makes their participation impossible. In a few cases, artists have blown up right when we were in discussions, and suddenly all these new touring opportunities came onto their plate, and they felt like they had to seize the moment and could no longer spend a significant portion of their year on Ecstatic. It is a real commitment. The second challenge is that sometimes artists jump in the waters and then realize that they are working in a completely different arena, and feel really uncomfortable with the work they’re doing. Then it’s a matter of talking through the process, working with their collaborator, possibly even bringing in someone new. One of the big obstacles is the language barrier — some people read and write music, and some don’t, and that’s a tough translation process, in both directions. The third challenge is financial, since right from the outset, I’m talking about chopping every concert budget in half, at least. It’s like shooting yourself in the leg, almost literally, since “collaboration” also means “more people involved with each show”. So you have to get creative, and see how you can make these shows come together in a way that doesn’t feel exploitative, because I’m not going to put artists in that position. I’d rather they not perform than feel like this is any kind of burden or exploitation, of course.
Has Ecstatic raised criticism by the “Old Guard”?
If it has, I don’t know about most of it. Justin Davidson wrote a somewhat supportive, somewhat critical article in New York magazine last year, saying that our generation of composers needed to get angry and fight against something. Whatever you think of that critique, and I don’t think much of it (though I admire Justin’s writing and respect his opinion, as well as his willingness to engage with me about it when I responded), it doesn’t feel like a critique of the festival concept as much as of the participants he happened to hear. Other than that, I know there are plenty of people who are threatened by the dissolution of barriers between the old genres, people who like the way things were, and want to go back to their safe and happy place, but that’s always been true and it’s always going to be true so the presence of conservative-minded folks can’t be an impediment to anything. I’m sure I’ll be crotchety in about 10 years, and super-crotchety in 20, and totally insufferable in 30. Come interview me then, it should be amusing.
For its second annual edition, the Ecstatic Music Festival will feature more than 150 performers and composers and 11 collaborative concerts—an incredible feat! Where do you see Ecstatic 5 years from now?
Thanks. Though I never think about it in terms of the number of people who are involved, it’s about making each show totally incredible and engaging and compelling on a variety of levels. I think we’ll have 11 shows that do that this year, so that makes me happy. I hope that in 5 years, we’re doing Ecstatic-style programming all over the country, and maybe even the world (one of this year’s shows is co-presented by the Barbican, so that’s already happening). I’d like this concept to seem totally normal, and for more presenters to move beyond the merely transactional model, where you look for acts that fit a certain profile and fit them into a certain slot, and toward a real curatorial model, where they are active agents in making new work come to life. Imagine if that was happening in multiple cities in every state, and all around the world? It’s already happening with much greater frequency in Europe, which is cool, but I want American musicians to have the same opportunities for personal development that European artists enjoy, so we can develop our unique American traditions into whatever weird hybrids will form going forward.
Bonus question! If any band/composer/performer in the history of music were available to play/write for Ecstatic, what would your dream bill be?
I think I just fainted from excitement in thinking about this. If I could force two artists to work together from all time? No question: JS Bach on the organ and John Coltrane on the saxophones. Whatever happens to us after we die, let me pop up into heaven for an hour so I can hear them play a set together.
Fore more info on the Ecstatic Music Festival, visit: http://www.ecstaticmusicfestival.com Some shows are already sold out so don’t wait too much…