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Out There ... But Where?

February 12, 2008

As Bang on a Can approaches its 20th anniversary, the group's founders — composers Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe — can rightly rejoice that their creation has become a major presence in the new-music scene.
Dedicated to "commissioning, performing, creating, presenting, and recording contemporary music" (that's what the official bio says), the organization has expanded to encompass the annual Bang on a Can Marathon, People's Commissioning Fund, Bang on a Can All-Stars touring ensemble, the group's Summer Music Festival and Institute, various cross-disciplinary collaborations, and Cantaloupe Music's recording projects. All have brought a characteristic New York sound to the contemporary music scene.

Bang on a Can All-Stars

Photo by Ross Kavanaugh

The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts premiere of a free, noon-to-six Bang on a Can West Coast Marathon (modeled on annual marathons in the Big Apple), and a ticketed evening concert in YBCA's Theater, marked the group's latest visit to our shores. Although I regrettably missed the marathon, which featured the All-Stars, Njúton, Necessary Monsters, Pamela Z, Cheb i Sabbah, and others, the "formal" concert on Saturday, which lasted over two hours, was quite a helping in its own right.

Quoting from YBCA's press release, the All-Stars are "part rock band and part amplified chamber group." Core musicians play clarinets (Evan Ziporyn), cello (Wendy Sutter, here replaced by Felix Fan), piano and keyboard (Lisa Moore), electric guitar (Mark Stewart), bass (Robert Black), and percussion (David Cossin), with sound design (Andrew Cotton) thrown into the mix. "The lineup is constructed specifically to blur the lines between classical and pop ensembles and to give voice to a huge range of music and styles."

I'll say. From the informality of the dress to its chosen collaborators, Bang on a Can was far less about blurring the lines than presenting an entirely new music, one far more sensate and visceral than emotional or intellectual. In the first half, until multifaceted composer/clarinetist and raconteur Don Byron joined the group, the term "noise" came to mind. As for Iva Bittová, whom Byron introduced as "one of the world's greatest singers," the woman is so something-else that pithy summations are futile.

The Bang on a Can All-Stars wasted no time in illustrating where its name comes from. With the extraordinary Ziporyn declaring, "We are the 24-hour party people through music," the group launched into its self-declared "anthem," David Lang's Cheating, Lying, Stealing. Imagine two big metal things on pedestals on either side of the stage, banged for all their worth in arrhythmic fashion by Cossin and Black, while Fan plays an evocative legato cello line and everyone else hammers, saws, and pounds away.

An anvil chorus for the 21st century? Music to drive your upstairs neighbors bonkers? Amused by it all, I remained grateful that while the sound system was neither the clearest nor the most colorful on record, volume levels for the multiple-miked ensemble remained at tolerable levels.
Rush-Hour Percussion
Michael Gordon's I Buried Paul, which pays homage to the ending of John Lennon's Strawberry Fields Forever, moved in fits and starts. As a showcase for Cossin's fabulously inventive, take-no-prisoners percussion and Ziporyn's virtuosity, it succeeded admirably. At times reminiscent of the sounds of Manhattan traffic at the height of the afternoon commute, it felt just as spiritually empty. I sat jarred and impressed, but unmoved.

When Julia Wolfe wrote the program note for Big, Beautiful, Dark, and Scary in July 2002, she commented, "This is how life feels right now." I didn't see the comment before I listened, but I found my mind drifting to the chaos of my East Oakland barrio neighborhood (aka "Murder Dubs"). In short, Wolfe's music succeeds in a major way, taking you to a place where warming your heart is not an option.

For heartwarming fare, we turned to jazz great Don Byron. For all his references to racism and political events, the five jazz-fusion compositions he performed with the ensemble varied between the surprisingly conservative (as in lovely, mellow, and engaging) and modern and edgy (as in cacophonous and howling). His explanations of the works' genesis were often quite endearing, as when he introduced Silver Wings with the line, "If you meet a man and he's a real cool guy you should probably sleep with him" (or something to that effect). As his set concluded, I made a mental note to explore his music further.

Czechoslovakian-native Bittová is a trip. Singing presumably in her native language, whose incomprehensibility added to the nonsensicality, she transitioned in her five songs from fetchingly innocent, little-girl highs to piercing shrieks and groveling low notes. Amid what seemed like a more than three-octave range could also be heard occasional nasal colorations, African-style clicks, and beautiful bell-like coloratura runs.

At one point she sang while crouching on her heels, another time while playing an often-screechy violin. Her songs frequently started out sounding like sweet, folkish ballads. Then she got going, and it was off to Bittováland. Once the initial fascination of her incredible technique wore off, and I got her shtick — a 21st-century take on Rossini meets R.D. Lang — I could not help asking, to what end?

Jason Victor Serinus regularly reviews music and audio for Stereophile, SFCV, Classical Voice North America, AudioStream, American Record Guide, and other publications. The whistling voice of Woodstock in She’s a Good Skate, Charlie Brown, the longtime Oakland resident now resides in Port Townsend, Washington.