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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Bang on a Can Marathon, June 22, 2014

Listeners of the webcast are probably familiar (perhaps too familiar) with my admiration for Bang on a Can, the New York based organization founded and run by composers Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolfe to promote their own, and other similarly minded composers' music. Their aesthetic is to basically (and this is my own generalization here) augment or perhaps subvert, various 20th century composition techniques with outside elements like jazz, rock, world and early musics. Besides promoting their own work, Band on a Can serves as a forum for the work of their colleagues, peers, students, teachers and influences.

One of the most visible and popular presentations is their early summer marathon concert in New York City. This is the first year various stars have aligned enough for me to attend, and it was a worthwhile experience. What follows is a brief rundown of the day.

David Lang began what he referred to as the "10,000th edition" of the marathon by bringing out the Great Noise Ensemble from Washington, DC. They presented two lovely, contemplative pieces that were kind of swallowed up by the immense space in which they were being presented. A rather subdued opening for such a long program.

A bit about the space, the Winter Garden at the World Financial Center. A pleasant space with a very high, windowed ceiling looking out across the Hudson River toward Jersey City, that nonetheless has a bit of the feel of a shopping mall atrium to it. The high ceiling requires the use of amplification, and the hard surfaces of the floors and walls create a lot of reverberance (especially of "room sounds", like the air conditioner and the escalators, with which the music must compete), so some groups ended up sounding better than others throughout the day. Music written with amplification in mind had a bit of an advantage, such as the next work, Lean Back and Release, a piece for solo violin and prerecorded accompaniment written by Molly Joyce and performed by Adrianna Mateo.

The Great Noise returned with the last movement from one of Bang on a Can's early hits, 5 Machines by Marc Mellits, a rocking, rollicking crowd-pleaser.

Next, Michael Gordon introduced Bearthoven, a piano, electric bass and drums trio performing
Brooks Frederickson's Undertoad, a rather Michael Gordon-like piece with multiple tempos and overlapping rhythms building and releasing tension and creating several interesting and shifting textures. It will be interesting to see how this seemingly twenty-whatever composer ends up developing these concepts in the future.

David Lang returned to present Anonymous 4 to sing two sections from love fails, one featuring text by the 12th century poet Marie de France, another by the contemporary author Lydia Davis that Lang wrote for this ensemble. The musical influences cross centuries as well, some early melodic and harmonic ideas meeting Lang's overlapping of phrases and additive rhythmic groupings make for a combination of medieval and modern sounds, both unusual and yet typical of Lang's recent work.

Lang returned to grant his endorsement to what turned out to be the only real disappointment of the day, as far as I was concerned. Dawn of MIDI worked out a rather similar but much more simple version of what Bearthoven had done shortly before (although with acoustic bass). Adding beats and notes to phrases in the manner of the early minimalists, but not really developing any ideas until it was too late to be interesting.

The eight person vocal group Roomful of Teeth got things back on track with two knockout performances, first with two sections from Caroline Shaw's recent Pulitzer Prize winner Partita for 8 Voices and then with Judd Greenstein's AEIOU. (Shaw is a member of the group.) The Partita combines spoken words, shape-note singing, shouting, wailing, throat singing and may other techniques into fascinating combinations of sounds. These occasionally overwhelmed the sound system. Greenstien finds a wide variety of ways to make the five vowel sounds of the title, which, when you think about it, are really all you sing when you sing.

Meredith Monk appeared as an elder statesperson of sorts, positively beaming through her performance (and later, saying a few words about Julius Eastman), with her protégé Theo Bleckmann, of various selections from Facing North, her work from 1992. One of the quirks of this space is it's being just off Battery Park on one end, and the World Trade Center site on the other, there are lots of people passing through, some of them rather bewildered by what's going on on stage, especially during this set, as Monk and Bleckmann make an array of unusual and odd vocal sounds (and please know that's not a negative description) to great musical effect, notably on their last number, Long Shadows, where the singers alternate between low throaty gurgling noises and high pitched yaps (again, not negative descriptions).

The first selection by Contemporaneous, a chamber ensemble seemingly made up of twenty-whatevers, what a rhythmic jaunty piece by Andrew Norman called Try. Their second set, which followed Monk and Bleckmann was made up of several works by the young composer Jherek Bischoff reminiscent somewhat of the orchestral works of Arvo Pärt in their hymnlike harmonies and slow moving melodies. One work (they were not individually listed in the program emailed out ahead of time, which is all I have for reference), had several persons ringing tiny bells scattered around the audience, which called to mind the September 11 memorial piece composed by Pauline Oliveros where the footprints of the Twin Towers were surrounded by such persons with bells. The last performance aptly fulfilled the composer's desire to recrate the impression of seeing the stars in the night sky reflected in the still waters of the ocean.

Monk and Bleckmann returned with the members of the Bang on a Can All-Stars plus a few more people to present Panda Chant, a short, fun vocal work which seemed to have been programmed to break up the long breakdown of Contemporaneous, and the long set up of the following act.

Jace Clayton came out to perform the Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner which consists of two pianists performing excerpts from Eastman's Gay Guerrilla while Clayton performs live electronic manipulations. This was interrupted by a clumsy "theatrical interlude" where Clayton interviewed to be some sort of Eastman impersonator for an imaginary Eastman centered institution. (Eastman's fascinating, yet sad tale has best been told via Kyle Gann's liner notes to the Unjust Malaise compilation.) Rap music fans often complain about the "skits" that break up the flow of their favorite albums and I can sympathize. Eastman's music is quite fascinating, exploiting the sonic results of multiples of the same instrument playing the same music and Clayton finds new ways to exploit those exploitations.

The Bang on a Can All-stars were up next. Their first number JG Thirlwell's Anabiosis brought a rock show vibe to the proceedings (not a bad thing, in my book), with an authority as if to reiterate whose house we were all in. (Why should I not pump my fist in the air and shout "yeah" after a piece of "classical" music, if that's the feeling it evokes.) Despite the sonic onslaught, this piece also has it's lyrical moments, especially in the bells and piano melody that shows up a couple of times. Paula Matthusen's ontology of an echo gave an opportunity for some more delicate sounds, like birdsongs and water, both live and prerecorded. Julia Wolfe's Big Beautiful Dark & Scary evokes the noise and the horror and the roar of the September 11 attacks which the composer experienced from her nearby home. These sounds were even more harrowing considering these events took place literally across the street, and nearly destroyed the room we were all in. Wolfe, herself even looked a bit shaken as she walked back up the aisle after accepting applause up by the edge of the stage.

Sō Percussion were next to present Music for Wood and Strings, composed by Bryce Dessner. Dessner described how he had imagined guitar like sounds beyond those playable on a standard guitar, and so he devised some new instruments to play them on. Sort of a hybrid of a pedal steel guitar, a dulcimer and a diddley-bow, tuned to various open chords, and struck or bowed by the performers, the instruments elicited quite the variety of sounds and rhythms. (The lowest pitched instrument has one string with a fretboard so bass lines could be played.) As the sun had set by this point, little spotlights swept across the room, heightening the dream like state.

The All-stars reappeared with added forces to perform Louis Andriessen's Hoketus. Written in 1976, this is a classic minimalist work, and obvious primary influence on much of the music and many of the musicians on stage here today. The hocket is a technique popularized in the middle ages, especially among the Notre Dame school and others in the ars antiqua movement, and is also popular among the minimalists and post-minimalists, largely, though not solely, due to the influence of this piece. A single melody is presented fragmented between two (or possibly more) lines or voices, one voice sounds while the other rests. The term comes from the old French word for hiccup. Here, the ensemble is made up of two pianos, two electric keyboards, two flutes/piccolos, two saxophones, two electric bass guitars, and two percussionists playing conga drums lined up in a V-shape on stage, one of each to a side. A melody is presented, played in unison, and then, on cue, one group drops behind a beat, playing the same melody basically in the spaces between the notes of the other group. Obviously, this builds up to a frenzy of slashing rhythms and a satisfying climax.

The final piece of the day was Timber by Michael Gordon, performed by Mantra Percussion, which is performed by the six members of the group playing an array of 2x4's of varying sizes, exploiting the various overtones these boards produce, with the composer's familiar method of overlapping and nested rhythms. Hearing this hour-long piece for the second time, I unfortunately seem to find the musical substance not quite up to the audacity of it's conception. I want to like it more, but keep finding it a bit overlong and boring. This may, however, have to do with the circumstances of both hearings, at the end of long concerts (my first hearing was at the end of a "half-marathon" Bang on a Can presented at MIT two academic years ago), like a World Cup soccer game, carrying on past the scheduled ending time, with no definite idea when it might actually end. I'm willing to give it another shot some time, with less tired ears and mind.

Overall, this was a wonderful day day spent with some great music and musicians, but I think I may gave finally found the threshold of how much music I can listen to in one day. I hope to catch it again some year, and hope you do too.

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