With its current connotations, the term “festival” seems like a bit of a misnomer for Ecstatic Music. There are no midriffs; there is no molly; there is no dubstep DJ-du-jour. Its organizers provide an altogether different kind of ecstasy, doled out over three months of performances, most of them in decidedly academic settings rather than trampled, muddy fairgrounds. The idea, they say, is to “give true meaning to the notion of ‘Ecstatic Music’ as joyful and adventurous collaborations giving some of today’s most compelling musicians the opportunity to work together in exciting new combinations,” and, for five years now, they’ve been doing just that. From Deerhoof to DJ /rupture, from tUnE-yArDs to Saul Williams, EMF’s curators have a way of identifying indie outliers and pairing them with contemporary classical avant-garde ensembles and composers that have included Rhys Chatham, William Basinski, and SO Percussion, among many, many more. For show-goers in search of the ever-elusive, one-of-a-kind live music experience, Ecstatic Music is a kind of heaven.
There are certainly artists whose off-kilter ethos works well with these unusual, inspired pairings. For Julia Holter, the Los Angeles–based art-pop chanteuse with three critically acclaimed solo records under her belt, collaboration comes easy: She made her EMF debut in 2013 with Laurel Halo and Daniel Wohl’s TRANSIT ensemble. Returning to the Kaufman Music Center’s Merkin Concert Hall last night, Holter was backed this time by Chicago’s Spektral Quartet, an exuberant chamber ensemble with a penchant for quirky arrangements. Before Holter emerged from backstage, they performed a lively set that brilliantly bridged the gap between Mos Def and Stravinsky.
That may seem like a huge divide to span in four songs, but Spektral Quartet’s playful reverence for the material made it all feel natural. It helped that each member of the quartet took turns introducing the careful selections in a way that not only explained the origins and inspirations behind each piece, but also hinted at what compelled Spektral to include each of them. Beginning with “Zin zin zin zin,” a piece composer Liza White based around a vocal scat from the Roots’ “Double Trouble,” Spektral used unusual methods to coax conversational tones from their instruments, from startling drones to sprightly plucking. Up next was a gorgeous arrangement of James Blake’s “I Never Learnt to Share” wherein the vocal loops Blake used to build on the repetitive chorus translated to layered strings. The group spoke-sung a kooky poem about a man who literally falls apart in “Oh My God I’ll Never Get Home,” a movement from The Ancestral Mousetrap composed by Dave Reminick and Russell Edson especially for the quartet. The final piece, Igor Stravinsky’s “Concertino,” was startlingly modern for having been written nearly a century ago, and was a highlight of the night.
Following their short set, the quartet welcomed Holter for a presentation of “Memory Drew Her Portrait,” originally commissioned by the L.A. Philharmonic. A heady piece based on a collection of letters sent between long-distance lovers, “Memory” examined the delusion and heartache created in the void left by an absent partner. Though the lyrics toyed with a certain whimsy, there was something deeply sinister about the hallucinatory infatuation Holter’s character seemed to harbor; at the high end of her vocal range and with an almost unhinged glint in her eye, the performance felt a bit like theater, and it was interesting to see Holter as something of an actress in those moments.
Before a brief intermission, Holter headed over to her grand piano for a string-accented version of “Marienbad,” the opening track on 2012’s Ekstasis. Lithe piano and haunting, bell-like vocals, though hardly vanilla, seemed far less eccentric bookended by “Memory” and certainly by what came next: a ten-movement suite written for Holter and Spektral Quartet by Chicago composer Alex Temple. For this piece, titled “Behind the Wallpaper,” Holter carefully enunciated the details of a surreal story in which showerheads appear diseased and bus passengers have the faces of aliens.
Both the title and subject matter seemed to reference Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s feminist classic “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Though Temple’s character is not confined to one room, her odd visions signify the same descent into psychosis brought on by a life of mendacity. Holter’s exaggerated, elongated syllables and measured, bouncy tempo were more reminiscent of Björk’s timbre than Holter’s often more ethereal overtones. But the feeling of disorientation and displacement is one that Holter has previously examined, most notably on her 2013 LP, Loud City Song. Though Loud City takes an approach based more deeply in reality, “Behind the Wallpaper” felt like an exploration of a different side of the same spinning coin, a dizzying collage of dreamlike impressions cleverly obscuring a straightforward narrative.
While at times it was difficult to get a firm grasp on “Wallpaper,” there was also a sense that Temple wanted it that way — somewhere between avant-garde composition, mysterious artifact, and sci-fi thriller. Even at a time when genre tends to blur and bend, it’s still rare to see performances as unique and risky as this, and the combo of Holter’s bewitching vocal delivery and Spektral Quartet’s spirited strings provided an especially stirring showcase for the work. We have Ecstatic Music Festival to thank for that, at least in part. With upcoming pairings from ETHEL with Kaki King and John King, Xiu Xiu with Mantra Percussion, an 80th birthday celebration for Terry Riley, and a handful of others, there’s no shortage of distinctive, idiosyncratic events to give music fans plenty to feel ecstatic about.