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

Julia Wolfe’s Rage Against the Machine

John Schaefer was onto something when he picked a Carnegie Hall performance of Julia Wolfe’s Steel Hammer by the Bang on a Can All-Stars as his favorite concert of the year a few years back. Then again, that wasn’t such a difficult choice for the WNYC host. To say that it doesn’t get performed enough simply means that we need more stagings of this eclectic and intense choral/instrumental suite by the Bang on a Can avant garde institution’s house band. It was a rare treat to see the group play it last night at the World Financial Center. If you missed it, you’ll be able to hear the concert in the weeks to come on Q2 and then on Schaefer’s Soundcheck program on WNYC  along with the show tomorrow night, Oct 16 at 7:30 PM here, a new arrangement of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells (better known as the Exorcist Theme) played by guitarist Grey McMurray with the Wordless Music Orchestra.

Wolfe’s music can be harrowing, but it can also be playful and fun: this piece is both, but more the former than the latter. As usual with her work, context and subtext are everything. This one mashes up the lyrics from a grand total of over 200 versions of the folk song John Henry, the tale of the man with the hammer in his hand who went up against the steam drill. Droll Americana riffs were sprinkled throughout the sometimes austere, sometimes lush, insistently and sometimes cruelly rhythmic work. Singers Molly Quinn, Emily Eagen and Katie Geissinger opened it, developing a hypnotically rapturous theme with the anxiously enveloping quality of a renaissance motet. Then percussionist David Cossin introduced the anvil beat which would serve as antagonist to the resilience and persistence of the echo-fueled vocals and shifting, Louis Andriessen-ish, percussive melodies of the rest of the piece.

Wolfe grew up steeped in Americana, and as she explained before the show, her first stringed instrument was the dulcimer. Guitarist Mark Stewart played some of that, and also the banjo, hammered on his body along with clarinetist Ken Thomson and ended up supplying percussion for a long interlude by stomping out a clog dance rhythm with his boots. Much as that was comic relief, it also viscerally voiced the angst of the man-versus-machine theme. A hauntingly murky, resonant segment about midway through built by bassist Robert Black and cellist Ashley Bathgate drove home the point that John Henry did not survive the duel. Take that forward into the present, then do the math.

Pianist Vicky Chow supplied dulcimer-like plucking inside the piano when she wasn’t hammering out an endless anvil choir on the keys, while Cossin switched between drumkit (heavy on the toms), vibraphone and boomy low timpani. Quinn’s crystalline soprano soared over the meticulous rhythms of the other two singers’ mantralike volleys of lyrics, phrases and syllables, which they repeated ad infinitum, sometimes comedically, sometimes to raise the menace level. Anyone wondering what this was all about needed only to watch how Bathgate was reacting: when things got funny, she couldn’t resist a big grin, but when things got intense, she’d be all business. The original folk song theme finally appeared as a stark coda right before the swirling atmospherics of the conclusion, which turned out to be part gospel, part Arvo Part. Bookmark the Q2 homepage if you want to experience all this for yourself at a yet-to-be-determined date.

October 15, 2014 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Cutting Edge Night at the Jewish Museum

It took a lot of nerve for the Jewish Museum to stage their first collaboration with the Bang on a Can folks. That the Bang on a Can folks – New York’s most entrenched avant garde franchise – could deliver a program that required as much nerve to sit through as this one did testifies to their ongoing vitality. The bill last night – designed to dovetail with the Museum’s current minimalist-themed sculpture exhibits – was as electrifying as it was exasperating.

Both of those qualities were intentional, and in tune with the compositions on the program.  The duo of guitarists James Moore and Taylor Levine, from the reliably exciting Dither guitar quartet, opened with David Lang’s Warmth [dude: get to know Title Case lest you someday wind up in the E.E. Cummings category], a series of subtly interwoven circular riffs which Moore attributed to Lang as being “really sad stadium rock, two guitars doing their best to play together and failing miserably.” As a subtle parody of dramatic gestures, it made a point, even if that point could have been made in somewhat less time than it took.

They followed with a selection of early John Zorn extended-technique guitar etudes that were more challenging to hear than they were to play. Those dated from the late 70s, in the days when Zorn might have been found blowing bubbles through his alto sax into a bucket of water in the basement of King Tut’s Wah-Wah Hut (now Niagara Bar on Avenue A; you can google it). By contrast, Michael Gordon’s City Walk,  the lone instrumental piece from an opera the Bang on a Can triumvirate (Gordon, Lang and Julia Wolfe) did back in the 90s with iconic New York cartoonist Ben Katchor, worked a tirelessly counterrhythmic, counterintuitive, minimalistic pulse, the guitarists joined by Bang on a Can Allstars‘ David Cossin on percussion (was that a car muffler, and then vibraphone?) and Vicky Chow on piano.

Moore switched to bass, but played it through a more trebly Fender DeVille guitar amp, for a take of Philip Glass’ even more hypnotic, subtly shapeshifting Music in Fifths, true to Cossin’s description as being “quite epic and really fun to do.” They wound up the show with Louis Andriessen’s Worker’s Union, a defiantly hammering 1975 piece that a larger Bang on a Can contingent had performed a couple of weeks previously at this year’s Marathon at the World Financial Center. That performance left any kind of resolution open: would the drilling, industrialist rhythm, absent harmony or melody, be triumphant, or a failed revolution? The answer wasn’t clear. Stripping it down to just bass, guitar, percussion and Chow’s electric piano – a cruelly difficult arrangement that she often wound up playing on the sides of her hands, chopping her way up the scale – they circled and circled and finally found what looked like a victory. The audience – a surprisingly diverse demographic – gave them the win. The next Bang on a Can event here is on November 6 featuring iconic progressive jazz composer and alto saxophonist Steve Coleman.

July 11, 2014 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment