Photo: David Andrako/Courtesy of Kaufman Center

Before any of the musical gadgetry could be used on night three of the Ecstatic Music Festival at Merkin concert hall, the audience rang the evening’s first notes by singing “Happy Birthday” to So Percussion member Jason Treuting, joyfully absent due to the birth of his child earlier in the day. In jeans and t-shirts, the present members (plus Jason’s skillful stand-in) then gathered around a large bass drum stage right and began the evening with a wonderful introduction to their music: chimes mixed with frenetic drumming rhythms I dare not describe.

The young men were then joined onstage by guitarist Grey McMurray and performed pieces from their Where We Live project. Simply put, various friends and family of the band submit short videos in the intimate format of YouTube, to which the group scores an appropriate number. First, a fellow brushing his teeth was projected onto the large screen behind the stage. The quartet wrote a harmonic and buzzing piece, turning the awkward video of a frothy mouth into a pretty drone of varying proportions. Next was the cutesy video of a baby playing with a bright orange balloon. Fittingly, orange balloons sat idle until they were tossed into the audience, adding the sound of our batting the air-stretched plastic to the beautiful sing-song inspired by an infant.

Two more pieces followed, the first a showcase of Grey McMurray’s guitar as it warbled and synthesized from the stomping of various pedals, the rumble accompanied by birdsong sourced from a computer file. Martin Schmidt of Matmos appeared in the night’s final video projection as the interesting denizen of an audiophile’s basement, his egg-shaking antics appropriated by the five players in a medley of electronic-acoustic wanderings a la the Boredoms. But these musicians come from a background of Bach, Ives, and worldly rhythm, surely a sign that prior giants still influence our present and future networked moment.

Photo: David Andrako/Courtesy of Kaufman Center

This junction of staid tradition and electronic confusion would later cause frustration, but first it was Deacon’s turn to supply the evening with a memorable approach to audience participation. We had already sung to Treuting and percussed with balloons, but now Dan Deacon roamed the stage in his shuffling wont while vaguely explaining his composition; members of So Percussion passed sheets with instructions to the audience. We began by calibrating our cellphone alarms to Deacon’s designated time, an interesting notion considering cellphone clocks are about as standardized as the early railroads. Some faces were bemused, others completely baffled – it was awkward, and while Dan Deacon himself is not a suave presence onstage, he hides well behind self-depricative humor. The joke became serious as he walked off the stage, settling in with the audience while waiting for the cell phones to signal the beginning of the piece. Faces looked for cues like children in a teacher-less classroom.

Without being too particular, the piece began with the eased, focused breathing of the title: Take a Deep Breath. The calm gave to unease as soft noises began to emanate from the crowd while necks craned for further signs. People clapped, more hummed, and the momentum carried the piece forward like a cyclonic bell-curve; early sounds increased like the first bits of rain until the splatters of the audience heightened and passed, then rising to the next or excitedly resting as some glanced at Deacon himself, far in the front corner and dutifully following the instruction to “take each instruction to the utmost extreme”. When it called for screaming, some folks did so with serious intent. Others sat with unease, refusing to follow a single instruction; yet throughout, eyes rolled and squinted in equal measure, quietly sounding out that this was something. By the end, the staid confines of Merkin’s interior had been prodded by a composition that wrapped both the baby-boomers and post-tweens in a people’s chorus punctuated by beauty.

The final piece was a collaboration among the headlining artists, titled Ghostbuster Cook: The Origin of the Riddler. It began with the imaginative appropriation of soda bottles as instruments, wired to Deacon’s set and struck to a dizzying effect by So Percussion’s mallets. The soda bottles were then exchanged for drums and congas as Dan Deacon enlivened the room with his machinery to a volume rarely heard in Merkin.

Photo: David Andrako/Courtesy of Kaufman Center

The theme of the evening was spectacle. Beyond the volume, beyond the digital-acoustic divide, this final piece contained a sequence that frustrated the audience more so than Deacon’s instructions. So Percussion left their drums and returned to the soda bottles, puncturing them to allow for the sound of the pressurized liquid to spray out into a basin below as they picked up other bottles on the stage floor and emptied their contents into the basin. The soda released at the pace of “are you fucking kidding me”, the sentiments of a concert goer as he politely clattered the door behind him. Ten minutes later, So Percussion began to play the vibraphones in a final declaration of their musical prowess, a fitting bit of technical mastery on an otherwise freewheeling evening.

Much has been made in recent days of Deacon’s Fluxus-like composition. It would be easy to dismiss it as a gimmick, but a gimmick does not affect. As the performers of the piece, the audience’s glare was turned onto itself for a short time. Some hesitated while others exuberantly embraced the odd racket; others sat diplomatically neutral throughout, and yet only a couple people actually got up to leave, a testament to the bewilderment unravelling throughout. And while the piece did not upstage any of the other works, it allowed Dan Deacon to muck with the formality of being a composer. Deacon’s scene is of the sweat-inducing flippy-flopping kind; the evening’s formality (gasp – a sitting audience!) allowed him the outsider status that he kindly exploited. And it had to be awkward to work, otherwise we would have chorused with the bland enthusiasm of a jaded bunch. Movies and television shows cheat by showing brutal images that cause us to squirm. When a bespectacled musician in a neon green shirt does it with nothing more than a piece of paper, it’s worth more than mention.

Photos by David Andrako

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