Summing up Crossing Brooklyn Ferry

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Bryce Dessner, co-curator of the festival, says as long as there's a Crossing Brooklyn Ferry festival, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus will be a part of it.

Last weekend, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry returned to BAM for its third year. Curated by Bryce Dessner and Aaron Dessner of The National, the festival included a nice representation of the new-music community alongside bona fide art-rock stars like TV on the Radio and Dirty Projectors’s Dave Longstreth.

Each of the three evenings opened with classical performances, setting the tone for a festival that baited its attendees with a hipper-than-hip lineup of indie rockers and reeled them in with an electicism that included contemporary classical, hip hop (The Roots) and Afrobeat (Antibalas). It was a democratic approach to music that doubled as a way to introduce listeners to similarities between the indie rock scene and the at-least-as-DIY indie classical scene.

And it worked.

Composer-pianist Timothy Andres opened the festival with a late afternoon set in BAM’s 2nd floor café. It was 5 pm on a Friday, but the half-full audience, which included an transfixed David Byrne, drank their happy-hour beers in almost holy silence as the afternoon sun streamed through the room’s oversized windows and Andres alternated Chopinistic scalar runs with low-end thunderstorms.

His set fittingly included, alongside his own At the River and Schubert’s G-flat Impromptu, a mesmerizing transcription of Brian Eno’s Everything Merges with the Night, which in this context worked powerfully as a post-minimalist meditation, one that left the audience in a blissful daze.

Timothy Andres talks about tailoring his set to the sound of the festival with "songs without words."

Violinist Sarah Neufeld, who performs with Arcade Fire, delivered a less meditative, more energetic, and equally engaging set. Audience members waiting for some of the evening's bigger-draw acts (The Roots and Julia Holter) were treated to a solo violin performance that married the see-sawing, high speed double-stops of the Appalachian fiddling tradition with touches of Arvo Part's holy minimalism—particularly in the closing piece, a requiem for her late uncle. 

Clarinetist-composer Derek Bermel appeared with the flexible Mivos string quartet to open the second night. His performance featured collaborations both as duo with cellist Mariel Roberts and with the full quartet, during which the music glissed outward from tonal centers like paint peeling off of a wall. It was perhaps the most "out" set of the three evenings, but again, the context of the venue and the festival coupled with the raw energy of the performance kept the audience—arguably not the performers' regular listening base—captivated.

Derek Bermel contemplates the connecting thread between the festival performers.

Another highlight was Dan Friel’s blistering set, which teetered between the sounds of a computer malfunctioning, noise rock and impossibly hook-y pop. Friel comes from the noise punk world; his band Parts and Labor was a player in Williamsburg's early 2000s underground scene. But he also recently performed on guitar for Tyondai Braxton’s live performances of Central Market with the LA Phil and was recently commissioned to write a piece for ETHEL string quartet.

Dan Friel discusses the appeal of writing for classical musicians.

Friel fit into a small, intriguing category of festival performers who weren't exactly performing "new music," but who have a foot firmly planted in that world. Julia Holter studied composition at CalArts before earning a name for her hazy approach to pop. Olga Bell, a member of the Dirty Projectors (a band that itself incorporates plenty of contemporary vocal techniques), has worked with Osvaldo Golijov and Philip Glass. The art-punk duo Japanther draws influence from Erik Satie and choreographer/John Cage collaborator Merce Cunningham.

Japanther's Matt Reilly and Ian Vanek talk about working with dancers and obsessing over Erik Satie.

Perhaps the most seamless blend of the two worlds was with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, who opened the festival’s final evening. Led by conductor Dianne Berkun, the ensemble began with composer John King’s Light, for which the choristers lined three sides of the audience, immersing it in a chilling, pulsing field of microtones. From there, the choir performed several pieces written specifically for them from both inside and outside the “contemporary music world” proper. Nico Muhly’s Short Prayers In Respect of a Storm, which paired the choir with a string quartet launched the performance, which also included originals from Bryce Dessner (which included guitar accompanied from the composer himself), Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry and Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond, many of which will be revisited during the choir's upcoming performance with Kronos Quartet.

Dianne Berkun talks about working with Bryce Dessner and bridging the worlds of classical and popular music.

A particularly arresting moment came later that evening, with "Graphic Score." Bryce Dessner joined keyboardist Thomas Bartlett, percussionist David Cossin and [electronically manipulated] trombonist Benjamin Lanz to intepret a graphic score by artist Clara Claus in the BAM Cinema. It was revelatory approach to the performance of graphic music; generally the audience is kept in the dark during such performances, unaware of the musicians' specific interactions with the shapes and lines that guide the music. Watching the artwork scroll across the screen with the musicians performing from different points throughout the theatre both made sense of the music and allowed for a mesmerizing and engaging visual counterpoint—an "in" to a highly academic approach to music notorious for priding itself on inaccessibility.

As we filtered out of the cinema, I overheard a fashionable young listener inadvertently declare Crossing Brooklyn Ferry's unofficial mission statement: "I've never seen anything like that before. That was really cool."

Watch a slideshow from Crossing Brooklyn Ferry