A genre-bending performance by Laurel Halo, Julia Holter, and Daniel Wohl’s TRANSIT ensemble was the latest instalment in the 2013 Ecstatic Music Festival at the Kaufman Center in Lincoln Square. The EMF, an annual incubator for new and adventurous music in New York City, once again achieved its aim to provide a space for the new and surprising. Despite the fact that the term “experimental” was older than every single member of the audience Saturday night, there was still little indication of what to expect as the heavily processed rumbles and resonances mingled with the pre-concert conversational murmur.

Julia Holter © Rick Bahto
Julia Holter
© Rick Bahto

The concert began straight and full-on, the five ensemble members and the three featured artists filing onstage and taking their marks with as much ritual as one could desire. As the cello, violin and clarinet entered in legato, echoic and slightly disjointed unison, the woodblock’s fragmented gestures flickered over the melodic line like Messiaen-esque birdsong. As the piece progressed, the constantly surging electronic rumble remade my whole body an ear, a vivid sensation that nevertheless became obtrusive in certain moments. The half-sung prose by Julia Holter and Laurel Halo throughout the first half of the program was a bit understated, perhaps unpoetic, but overall it was a good answer to the “office gestures” style that plagues so much of contemporary electroacoustic performance. It was also refreshing (though long past due) that two of the three electronics performers were women – if such a thing were not worth mentioning I wouldn’t, but unfortunately it is.

The music was often clearly aleatoric, with repetitive cells in the strings and piano creating an atmosphere of stasis. Near the end of the first piece, a slow chorale mood set up by the strings, clarinet and synthesizer keyboard was beautiful in its way. Frenetic, cloudy bursts from the percussionist and Wohl’s laptop were clearly meant to provide textural counterpoint, but without a sensitive touch to guide it, poignancy eluded the music.

The second piece before intermission had the same strengths and weaknesses as the first. Laurel Halo seemed responsible for the choreography of the piece, conducting changes as Wohl’s bass made its presence known. However, at the moment Halo brought the instrumentalists’ volume al niente while swelling her own dense, fizzy noise concoction, the same clumsily organized execution reared its head once more. The concept, the spirit was there; the musical touch was not. With a beautifully executed vocal duet between Halo and Julia Holter reminiscent of Animal Collective’s vocal overlaps, the first half of the program ended smoothly.

With the beginning of intermission, the evening’s program started to turn just a little strange. The background music was a bit confusing, starting with Aphex Twin’s Flim before playing a classic Boards of Canada track, which seemed unlikely, given that all three performers surely had plenty of their own music with which to fill the time. Coming back to the third (and, as it turned out, final) piece, the piano began with an obsessively repeated single pitch, before splitting into homophonic dyads. The electronic components entered stealthily, at first only slightly thickening the piano’s sound, then gradually emerging into the by-now-familiar textures employed by the chamber group and laptops. A full-hearted rendition of David Raskin’s Laura gave an unexpected rhythmic and harmonic cohesion to the musical texture about halfway through the piece, and that cohesion persisted through the next several minutes of strict rhythmic unison. By the end, it was hard not to think that those plodding, monotonous chords weren’t just the excuse for having a strings-synth pop anthem for double altos singing their hearts out.

In a final analysis, the impressive assembly of preeminent young composers and musicians in this performance ought to have popped much more than it did. With ties to exciting and hard-hitting labels like Hyperdub and RNVG (in the cases of Halo and Holter), and performances by top-tier ensembles like Eighth Blackbird and the California E.A.R. Unit (Wohl’s compositions are internationally successful), these musicians clearly have talent at their fingertips. This is all assuming that the roughness and shallowness of the performance was a sincere lack, and not the result of pandering to certain tastes that might be predicted in a self-consciously out-of-the-box festival like EMF. In either case, the overall result was too slack to be considered intense or potent, but at the same time too beholden to contemporary classical performance practices to allow the audience a more casual experience.

**111