Live: Dan Deacon and So Percussion Shake Things Up at the Kaufman Center’s Ecstatic Music Festival


Dan Deacon and So Percussion
Ecstatic Music Festival
Kaufman Center
Thursday, January 20

Better Than: Choir practice.

Audience participation is something that Dan Deacon has mastered, though we’re not used to doing it while sitting down. Going into last night’s Ecstatic Music Festival–which aims to bridge to gap between classical and pop music with a series of commissioned works by contemporary composers–we were expecting some sort of direction from the guy, of course: using his usually sweaty, dancing audience as performance pawns is something he’s known to do. But when we found ourselves popping balloons while seated in the plush comfort of the Kaufman Center and screaming along with Deacon and his collaborators for the evening, So Percussion, we began to wonder if we were part of an elaborate joke. This was not a concert for the average Dan Deacon fan. Nor, for that matter, was it one for the 70-year-old woman sitting next to me.

The antics were a part of Deacon’s “Take A Deep Breath” composition, which was more of a do-it-yourself clusterfuck of sound. At least the mayhem came with instructions–24 of them to be exact, with each patron given artistic license to bend each direction as they saw appropriate, just as long as they went in order. Amid many directives to sing an “ooh” or “aah” (at a pitch of your comfort, “for long as one breath,” and as loud or soft as you feel is right), we’re told to call a friend on speakerphone and have them sing a song of their choosing, scream as loud as possible once reaching a half-way point, make “a loud sound not using your mouth”, set off cell phone ringtones, call the person next to us (again, on speakerphone) in an attempt to create feedback, and shuffle our feet at various paces. The resulting masterpiece didn’t hit us until about step 20, when in a move Pauline Oliveros would have applauded, we were instructed to just sit and listen to the sound of our new environment until we felt compelled to continue and join in with a new “ooh” that matched the pitch of someone sitting near us. Some took longer than others to complete their instructions, as was evidenced by a mostly quiet (finished) audience that listened in as “Rolling On A River” blared from the only speakerphone still going.

So Percussion’s pieces required less exertion from the audience. After a concert hall sing-a-long of “Happy Birthday” to the voicemail of their absent bandmate (he had become a father at 5 a.m. that morning), we were left to play with the orange balloons they tossed off stage for the rest of their video-based improv set. A melodica drone and four clicking metronomes played as a video of a man brushing his teeth ran on the screen above. The rubbery squeaking of the balloons came into play while a baby struggled to keep a hold of one on screen. (The silly glee drove the pregnant woman in front of me to squeal with laughter. Aww.) In a bit based on the Southwest Airlines placard, guitar chords fed through a soundboard looped into wobbley synths before fading into an ambient lull. And, in “Basement Bit”, a befuddled Martin Schmidt–1/2 of Matmos and sometime So Percussion collaborator–was projected onto the screen, staring intently into the camera before going berserk with egg shakers and squawking mouthpeices. It was something we weren’t sure could be made into a storyline–until the quartet’s kick drum and noisey guitar reverb rounded out the piece into a neat package of foot stomping chaos.

The night wasn’t all laughs though, as the main event was Deacon’s first original composition for the quartet. Not willing to completely abandon his pop aesthetic, “Ghostbuster Cook: The Origin of the Riddler” began with a slowly building round of soda-bottle drumming. One by one, the percussionists switched over to drum kits, taking on snares, bongos, and bass in tightly knit marching band style before unleashing a bonkers, tribal-infused downpour. It wasn’t until they dropped into a slow rumble that we realized that Deacon was still in the mix back behind his mess of gadgets and wires. Pitch-y electronic static and feedback buzzed away, and the eventual, hand-peddled MPC blips was as close as the piece got to an all-out Bromst-styled dance party before the silence returned.

It seemed like silence, at least. The soda bottles that were once percussion instruments, now let out a hiss, as each member poked a hole in the bottom of a plastic bottle and stood quietly as they emptied. While it was disconcerting to sit in silence for at least five minutes (if not ten) we found ourselves bizarrely mesmerized by the sound of this now growing fountain (staring at a bottle of Canada Dry for that long can make you a little neurotic). With the last drop came the tinkling of mallets on the glockenspiel and vibraphone, a lush comedown from the earlier pounding. So Percussion had barely put down their mallets when the woman next to me started laughing. “Well, that was a hoot,” she declared in a tone that mostly said, “Oh goodness. Kids these days!” I think Deacon would have taken that as a compliment.

Critical Bias: As far as classical music goes, the closest thing to a dance party is a drum quartet.

Random Notebook Dump: A couple walked in mid “Take A Deep Breath”, sat through the remaining 10 minutes, and left.

Overheard: “I thought he was just trying to prove he could reduce everyone here to complete idiocy.” – Elderly lady after being told that Dan Deacon was indeed an “experimental composer” and not a comedian.

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