Bluish lights mottled the stage at Merkin Concert Hall. The space was set for what appeared to be an orchestral concert, but for the table, drum set, and microphones. At the 7:30 start time the vintage-clad crowd was still in the lobby sipping wine, or ambling into the hall as if going to a rock concert.

Jherek Bischoff
Jherek Bischoff

This was opening night of the Ecstatic Music Festival, the second annual series that brings together classical and indie-rock musicians performing at the edge of their genres. The festival’s program states that it is “re-defining music for the post-classical generation,” and indeed the audience was significantly younger than what you find at your typical classical music concert. Perhaps in part this was because the performers have established careers in indie-rock music, while incorporating some elements of what is normally considered classical music. This new “alt-classical” style is often characterized as genre-bending or genre-busting music, but, as this concert demonstrated, a genre can be bent to such an extent that it fits squarely in another genre entirely.

Opening night was dedicated to the music and collaborative circle of Jherek Bischoff, a young, Seattle-based composer and a mean ukulele player. He was paired with the Wordless Music Orchestra, a New York ensemble that presents music ranging from Esa-Pekka Salonen to Radiohead. The evening unfolded with a parade of special guest artists singing versions of Bischoff’s songs he had arranged for orchestra, with some also performing their own works in the second half. Celebrities were not in short supply: David Byrne of the Talking Heads sang the first piece, an expansive song called “Eyes,” and returned in the second half for the premiere of his own hilarious “Fat Man’s Comin’.” Craig Wedren, film composer, guitarist, and member of the band Shudder to Think, sang Bischoff’s evocative “Your Ghost,” as well as his own “Heaven Sent,” both of which used rich textures in the strings and word-painting (when one song referenced the seaside, harmonics in the strings sounded like seagulls.)

Bischoff’s music can be described as post-Reichian, with repetitive patterns in the orchestra (strings, electric bass and guitar, oboe, clarinet, trumpet, and trombones) and prominent percussion, especially the glockenspiel. The songs followed similar forms: 3-5 minutes in length, brief instrumental introduction, verses and bridge, and a forward-moving finale usually involving heavier percussion and elements of improvisation.

The earnestness of the performances was striking, with a sincerity and inwardness not always seen in more traditional classical concerts. Carla Bozulich’s voice had a touching emotional warble to it that kept the audience hushed during her song “The Blue Room,” and in “The Nest,” singer/composer Mirah hovered her sultry voice over sustained seventh chords, accompanied by a fluttery violin solo played by concertmaster Paris Hurley. Mirah also performed her own work on the second half: “The Country of the Future,” a striking number with an upbeat Latin flavor featuring a flamboyant trumpet solo played by Sam Boshnack. Bischoff gave a tearful thank-you to all the friends and family who have inspired his music and helped make the performance possible – three Bischoffs were in the percussion section, and his adorable little nephew ran in to hit the cymbal at the end of one song.

The music was fun, spirited, written and performed with care, and there was love in the room. As for bending and blending genres, the music had some of the instruments and timbres of the classical mainstream, but otherwise seemed firmly rooted in indie rock. Reconciling amplified instruments with analog ones is a kink that new music of all stripes has yet to work out: amplification gives a tinny sound to violins, and the dominance of the voice part above all seems to restrict the complexity of the orchestral writing. To support the voice, melodic instruments largely moved in rhythmic unison with the solo. That is, this music has more in common with Richard Rodgers than it does with John Adams – or even Schubert – in terms of the independence of the accompaniment in relation to the voice.

It will be interesting to see how these composers experiment further with classical forms, in addition to their use of acoustic instruments. One wonders how this style sounds when its composers explore longer forms, or more involved instrumental sections. For now, it’s a fun way to bring a nightclub atmosphere into the recital hall.