Ok, a lot of people think Dan Deacon is awesome, so this is not such a surprising topic. But it may not be evident why a bunch of classical percussionists would latch onto him among the many amazing compositional voices coming out of our generation. After all, his best known work involves an incoherent faux-rant — memorably accompanied on youtube by a crazy video — as well as mad dance parties where he’s on the floor singing in a chipmunk voice surrounded by ecstatic fans. We’ll be playing with Dan this Thursday the 20th at Merkin Hall as part of the Ecstatic Music Festival, so I thought it would be fun to talk about why I think he’s interesting.
I’m not going to write too much here about different musical worlds coming together. That topic is being covered amply elsewhere, and it’s a really wonderful thing. In reality, musical trends seem destined to keep splitting apart and crashing back together (whoever first tossed secular love songs into sacred latin medieval motets was surely considered to be “genre-busting.”)
In fact, Sō Percussion usually seeks out collaborators based on what we believe we have in common. This may actually be the larger point that folks like Bang on a Can, The Kronos Quartet, and now the Ecstatic Music Festival have been making all along.
It’s just that those commonalities are part of a more complex ecosystem, and don’t fit into the narratives that mainstream culture often – though decreasingly – prescribes for them. I was so inspired to read in Alex Ross’ book “The Rest is Noise” about Charlie Parker ingeniously working in the theme from Firebird as part of his set at Birdland when he recognized Igor Stravinsky in the audience. It occurred to me from my own life experience that people often become artists precisely because they don’t give a whit about the narratives that others try to impose on their lives.
But back to Dan. Here’s a video that I absolutely love. It’s Dan playing and singing a song called Ohio on a local morning news show in the very same state (home to 3 out of 4 members of Sō, including moi).
In case you think Ohio has never seen anything like this before, remember that Devo is from Akron.
This is pure anti-charisma: there is no way this guy is trying to sell you anything, other than his music. To a media-savvy generation, that weirdo authenticity is like catnip. Dale Carnegie and Joel Osteen would be horrified.
To boot, anybody who has made a career of performing can appreciate how difficult it is to shed this much inhibition on stage…I’ll never approach it.
All of this is reason to admire, but why take the step of wanting to work with somebody?
Here’s a song called “Big Milk” from his album Spiderman of the Rings:
This is a straight up percussion ensemble piece. And it’s gorgeous. As I got to know Dan’s music better, I realized that many of his songs rely on samples of xylophones, glockenspiels, vibraphones and marimbas, often employed in the service of dizzying minimalist patterns.
The simpatico became more and more obvious.
In 2008, Sō performed at the Brooklyn Masonic Temple on a triple-bill with Dan and the Dirty Projectors. Although we knew that almost nobody was there primarily to see us, we were delighted to be part of such a hip lineup. At the end, we joined Dan and his ensemble for live realizations of those percussion samples (arranged by Rich O’Meara). The patterns were interesting and really hard to play, and the energy in the room was unbelievable.
At that same show, Dan got about 500 people circled up into a giant group nerd-hug in the middle of the floor. That experience was very influential on our work Imaginary City, where Josh walks out into the audience during the climax, hugs audience members, and asks them to shout “I LOVE YOU” at the stage.
If you haven’t yet checked out the Wham City scene in Baltimore, I think you’re missing out. We brought our Summer Institute students down there for Dan’s Whartscape festival this past summer. The first thing we saw was a guy dressed up in a spaceship/ice cream cone felt costume just falling over for ten minutes. Considering that the first trip of the Institute had been to Lincoln Center to see the complete works of Edgard Varèse, the contrast was delicious.