Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Bang on a Can Marathon 2018 – A Marathon Report

“I know so many of you have followed our nomadic trail to so many locations,” composer Julia Wolfe demurred, introducing today’s 31st anniversary of the Bang on a Can Marathon at NYU’s Skirball Auditorium. 

“Great to be in a space where we can all listen,” mused her fellow composer and husband Michael Gordon, possibly alluding to less sonically welcoming venues the annual New York avant garde music summit has occupied.

This year’s program was the most compact and New York-centric in a long time, and considering the venue, it’s no surprise that NYU alums mentored by the Bang on a Can composers featured prominently on the bill. Terry Riley’s influence circulated vastly throughout much of the early part of the show; the ageless lion of indie classical took a turn on vocals as the concert wound up.

“We have a duty to go up to the people who come in afterward and brag,” grinned Bang on a Can’s David Lang, referring to the afternoon’s first piece, Galina Ustvolskaya’s relatively brief Symphony No. 2. The NYU Contemporary Ensemble – with woodwinds, brass and percussion – negotiated it calmly but forcefully. David Friend’s steady hamfisted piano thumps ushered in and then peppered steadily rhythmic, massed close harmonies from the rest of the group, Vocalist Robert Osborne implored a grand total of three Russian words – God, truth and eternity – over and over in between pulses as the music veered between the macabre and the simply uneasy. The ensemble really nailed the surprise ending – gently.

Michael Gordon’s Sonatra, the composer explained, is the only solo piano piece in his repertoire, quite a surprise considering that he’s a strong pianist and the best musician among the Bang on a Can hydra. “Somehow Vicky Chow has learned how to play it,” he deadpanned. She made Gordon’s vast, subtly contrasting, rigorously crosshanded Terry Riley-like expanses of steady eighth notes seem easy, engaging every single one of the piano’s eighty-eight keys.

Murky faux-boogie woogie lefthand paired against relentlessly twinkling righthand riffage; that Chow could incorporate Gordon’s relentlessly tongue-in-cheek glissandos with as much aplomb as she did reaffirms her mighty chops as one of the world’s foremost avant garde musicians.

Chamber orchestra Contemporaneous tackled a carbonated, caffeinated, endlessly circling fifteen-minute slice of cellist Dylan Mattingly’s similarly daunting, epically ecstatic six-hour opera Stranger Love. The Bang on a Can All-Stars – as amazingly mutable as ever – made the first of their many appearances with Gabriella Smith’s Panitao, evoking the swoops and high swipes of whale song amid increasingly animated, rippling, sirening ambience. Then they pounced their way through the staggered math steps of Brendon Randall-Myers’ Changes, Stops, and Swells (For B).

A sextet subset of Contemporaneous returned for Fjóla Evans’s turbulent tone poem Eroding, an Icelandic river tableau. With its sharp contrasts – bass clarinet, cello and piano gnashing and swirling amid the flickers from violin, flute and vibraphone – and disarming trick ending, it was the first real stunner among the new material on the bill.

Purple Ensemble – a string trio augmented with vibes, viola and vocals – played three Yiddish songs from Alex Weiser’s cycle And All the Days Were Purple. Singer Eliza Bagg channeled joy shadowed by angst and longing, Lee Dionne’s piano beginning low and enigmatic and then slithering in a far more Lynchian direction over the strings.    

The All-Stars’ were bolstered by Contemporaneous’ strings and percussion for a trio of  commissions. Jeffrey Brooks was first represented by After the Treewatcher,  based on a trancey earlier work which was the composer recalled being vociferously booed when Gordon premiered it back in the early 80s. Guitarist Taylor Levine’s warily oscillating lines undulated amongst emphatic strings and rustling, peek-a-boo suspense-film percussion riffs, building a Riley-esque web of sound that was as gorgeously hypnotic as it was hard-hitting.

A second new work, Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother, featured additional reeds and brass along with pointillistic twin electric pianos. A bustlingly circular, Bollywood-inflected theme gave way to austere, lingering ambience and then a wryly gritty Beatles guitar knockoff.

The Flux Quartet played their first violinist Tom Chiu’s Retrocon, a meteorologically-inspired, spiraling, Philip Glass-ine series of rising and falling microtonal cell figures. Violinist Mazz Swift and keyboardist Therese Workman juxtaposed electroacoustic string metal, new wave pop, a classic spiritual and faux-EDM in their mini-suite Revolution:House.

The big hybrid ensemble reconfigured for a final Brooks work, The Passion – the triptych “Reflects the kind of suffering that goes on every day, not the biblical kind,” the composer emphasized. Lavishly kinetic pageantry with wry Black Sabbath allusions shifted to dissociative, Laurie Anderson-ish atmospherics, Bagg narrating sobering advice from the composer’s terminally ill sister to her children. The leaping, trebly counterpoint of the final segment brought to mind My Brightest Diamond.

Sō Percussion took the stage for Nicole Lizée’s increasingly dissociative, gamelanesque electroacoustic instrumental White Label Experiment, echoed with considerably louder hi-tech energy later on by neosoul singer/keyboardist/dancer Xenia Rubinos and drummer Marco Buccelli.

Veteran new-music string quartet Ethel’s percussively insistent, clenched-teeth performance of Aleksandra Vrebalov’s Balkan-infected Logbook, Part II took the intensity to redline in seconds flat: it was the highlight of the night. Fueled by cellist Dorothy Lawson’s darkly bluesy glissandos, their take of Jessie Montgomery’s rousing dance theme Voodoo Dolls was a close second. They wound up their trio of pieces, joining voices,instruments and eventually their feet throughout the bracing, allusively Appalachian close harmonies of Wolfe’s enveloping, driving Blue Dress for String Quartet.

The Bang on a Can All-Stars took back the stage alongside narrator Eric Berryman in a cinematic, suspensefully rocking arrangement of Frederic Rzewski’s Attica-themed Coming Together, cellist Ashley Bathgate and bassist Robert Black’s heroically furtive pedalpoint anchoring the story’s grim foreshadowing.

Cellist Maya Beiser and narrator Kate Valk teamed up for Lang’s pensively minimalist, gently amusing loopmusic piece The Day, its lyrics mostly a litany of tongue-in-cheek mundanities sourced off the web via a search on “I remember the day.” He explained that he’d deleted the product references and lewdness – a lot, he admitted. 

The night’s coda was Riley’s Autodreamographical Tales & Science Fiction, the composer joining the All-Stars on vocals. Chow’s bluesy Rhodes piano made a smooth segue out of the Lang work in tandem with Riley’s wry beat-poetry reminiscence. Levine’s Pink Floyd echoes added bulk and bombast; Bathgate’s powerhouse soul vocals were an unexpected treat. As was Riley’s turn solo at the piano, part Satie, part Tom Waits.

What’s the takeaway from all this? This year was less a sounding of what’s happening on a global level, as past years’ and decades’ marathons have been, than a simple celebration of the Bang on a Can inner circle, with a few tentative ventures outside. But that’s ok. They earned that a long time ago.

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May 13, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Bang on a Can All-Stars Strike Again

Putting a boy from a well-known indie rock band front and center on the Bang on a Can All-Stars’ new album Big Beautiful Dark and Scary is a marketing move gone awry. The audience for this genre-defying indie classical/art-rock band is probably somewhere in the gypsy rock, or Balkan brass, or jazz or maybe even what’s left of the punk rock camp, as the album cover alludes. Like the idiom he comes from, the pieces by the indie guy are carefree and shallow, and the rest of this album is anything but: even the Evan Ziporyn rearrangements of works by weirdo player piano composer Conlon Nancarrow reach toward communicating an agoraphobe’s angst, even if they don’t quite succeed. Indie rock has been suspect from the git-go and hasn’t been relevant for a long, long time: as it stands in 2012, it’s a ghetto for one-percenters and one-percenter wannabes, the kind of posers who are just as annoying an addition to the indie classical scene (e.g. this year’s Ecstatic Music Festival) as they are in the neighborhoods they’ve suburbanized with their simpering gentrifier sensibility.

But that’s the bad news. The album’s title track is a classic Julia Wolfe showstopper, a series of ascending progressions that grows from agitated, staccato suspense to terrified and anguished, then somber and quickly up again, Ziporyn’s elegaic clarinet rising over the increasingly swirling, insistent intensity of Ashley Bathgate’s cello and Robert Black’s bass. It’s not quite as shattering as Wolfe’s Cruel Sister suite, released last year, but it’s awfully close: as an evocation of the horrors of 9/11, it ranks as one of the most intense, right up there with Robert Sirota’s equally anguished, morbidly picturesque Triptych.

David Lang’s Sunray maintains a brooding mood, with minimalistic, trickily rhythmic piano-and-bass accents over an austerely staccato circular guitar riff that gradually fills out to a rather martial grandeur that wouldn’t be out of place in Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. Michael Gordon’s For Madeline, with its slowly sirening strings over echoey, horror-film piano-and-guitar ambience, packs a wallop. Ziporyn’s Music from Shadowbang is a three-part suite. Its opening segment sets his own nimbly scurrying clarinet accents over elegantly dancing bass – with its warmly inviting Brazilian inflections, it’s the most overtly jazz-oriented piece here. That’s followed by Ocean, a terse, pensive art-rock anthem without words, pianist Vicky Chow layering creepily precise water-droplet piano over a hypnotic central hook. The concluding segment grows from absolutely creepy to triumphant in the same manner of the Lang work, bringing this triptych full circle.

Louis Andriessen’s Life (with short films by Marijke van Warmerdam on the enhanced cd) is a moody and extraordinarily vivid work, one of his most straightforwardly melodic, and it too packs a punch, from the pensive, opening string-and-piano tone poem, through hypnotic, nocturnally strolling, elegaic ambience and then expectant, suspensefully minimalist cinematics. The album ends with Kate Moore’s Ridgeway, which builds from menacingly minimalism to a swooping, sweeping, Gilmouresque intensity driven by Mark Stewart’s biting slide guitar and Chow’s fiery, percussive piano in tandem with the bass. For those who don’t already have this (it’s already had a monthlong life as a free download for those with the broadband to haul in the whole thing), this double-disc set is worth owning for the Wolfe piece alone, let alone the substantial works  by her old BOAC pals Lang and Gordon and the other first-rate composers here.

February 24, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment