Tag: Bang on a Can

Sounds Heard: Shelter—Gordon/Lang/Wolfe

The human desire for a safe space—a roof over your head, a room of one’s own, a place to hang your hat and call home—is both an evolutionary constant and yet a fickle target. An emotional harbor as much as a physical shield, it’s a comfort all too easily destroyed at the hands of both men and Mother Nature. Sometimes the longing is rooted in the need for a secure place to sleep, sometimes in the desire for landscaping that will impress the neighbors.

To create Shelter, Bang on a Can founders Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe joined forces to explore the parameters of such architecture.  The resulting seven-movement evening-length oratorio is sung for this recording with crystalline precision by vocalists Martha Cluver, Mellissa Hughes, and Caroline Shaw (yes, that Caroline Shaw) with Ensemble Signal (Brad Lubman, conductor) at their side.

Though teasing apart who wrote what might be an amusing game for serious fans of these composers (see video for insight into their process), in truth their distinct vocabularies braid together with a remarkable ease that only serves to heighten the overall auditory interest of the piece. The arrestingly spare, meditative consideration of doorway activities—looking for keys, taking off shoes—offered in the opening “Before I Enter” gives way to the in-your-face aggression of “Is the Wind.” In this movement, the electric guitar and bass end of the instrumental ensemble drive the pulse, the woodwinds screaming an arc of complaint across the top as the higher strings stair-step their way through aerobic feats of endurance. The emotional tenor of the music continues to shift through passages of grandiose pronouncement (“American Home”) and almost prayerful ascension (“I Want To Live”). The vocal play and instrumental intricacy of “Porch” stood out as a personal highlight, but in truth it’s hard to play favorites here. Even when the tension ebbs, it never fully lets go of the line, clinging to a violence only fully allowed to crash into the structure of things in the piece’s final movement.

Shelter (2005) is the third in a trilogy of collaborative works by this trio of composers, a remarkable series that also includes The Carbon Copy Building (1999) and Lost Objects (2001). Fans of those previous pieces, particularly Lost Objects with which Shelter shares some distinct aesthetic sensibilities, as well as its librettist Deborah Artman, are likely to fall into this final chapter with relish. Even if Shelter is a first brush with the power trio’s output, however, it’s sure to leave a strong impression—whether the underlying panic reads to your ear and experience as the stress of making the next mortgage payment or confronting the specter of rising flood waters.

New England’s Prospect: The Real World

Ken Ueno works the Napoleon Room, March 5, 2012

Ken Ueno works the Napoleon Room, March 5, 2012

Up until last week, I hadn’t yet made it to a Boston Modern Orchestra Project concert this season, a lapse that wanted correction. BMOP might be the most agnostic new music group in town, game for whatever style or school or angle they can get an audience for, or get a grant for, or even just get a hankering for. They were also early practitioners of that staple of new music coolness, staging concerts in clubs.

For a long time, BMOP’s chamber-sized Club Concerts were at Club Café, a large Back Bay gay club and restaurant. Lately, BMOP had moved into Oberon, the happy product of an odd circumstance—a brand-new nightclub in the middle of Harvard Square, created as a venue for the American Repertory Theatre’s Midsummer-Night’s-Dream-meets-Studio-54 extravaganza The Donkey Show, and subsequently filled on off nights by a whole range of fringe, cabaret, and jazz acts. But Oberon was otherwise occupied, so BMOP was back at Club Café on March 5 for a Japanese-themed concert curated by composer Ken Ueno.

It was terrible. Not the music—the music was brilliant. But the venue, frankly, stunk. BMOP was in the Napoleon Room, a tiny cabaret space to the side of the club. It was, not surprisingly, jammed. (Ueno, a Bostonian for a while before moving west, joked how proud he was that his one-time home could sell out a house with new music.) Kitchen sounds and waiters were constantly interrupting the presentation. And the glass wall that separates the room from the rest of the club proved a uselessly permeable barrier to ambient noise. From my seat, the deep, delicate, shifting white-noise landscape of Joji Yuasa’s 1967 tape piece Icon was pretty much drowned out by the exuberant insistence of a bar patron that the first season of the Lynda Carter “Wonder Woman” T.V. series was by far the best. I mean, sure, the writing became far less clever once they moved the setting from ’40s to the ’70s, and what was up with that whole “Steve Trevor, Jr.” business, and oh yes PLEASE SHUT UP BECAUSE I AM TRYING TO LISTEN TO THIS CONCERT.

It was too bad, because Ueno had come up with an excellent program, a remarkably efficient exploration of the Japanese dance between pitch, noise, and silence. There were two richly virtuosic solo pieces by Toshio Hosokawa: Winter Bird (played with acrobatic precision by violinist Gabriela Diaz), in which jeté and pizzicato avian sounds give way to a nifty continuous-glissando double-stop section, like a calligraphy brush splitting into different hairs and then coming back together as you drag it across the paper; and Vertical Song I (pulled off with equal energy by flutist Jessie Rosinski), which worked a similar trick via playing and singing at the same time. There were some hardcore avant-garde tape pieces, not only Yuasa’s Icon, but also Toru Takemitsu’s 1960 Water Music, a stunningly assured manipulation of water sounds, drips and splashes (which, in the context, made the place sound like a dank storeroom in hell’s speakeasy).

Ueno’s own divertingly Beckett-esque piano solo Disabitato, inspired by Roman ruins, still fit the program’s emphasis on the placement of—and space between—sonic events, its small catalog of stony sounds circling each other in an arena of sustain-pedal resonance. (Sarah Bob was the superb pianist.) For a finale, Diaz, Bob, and cellist Jing Li played Bruce Reiprich’s Chozubachi, a Takemitsu homage that evoked that composer’s most cinematic, Messiaen-jazz moods with unapologetic lushness. The performance was terrific. What I could hear of it, anyway.


Audibility isn’t much of a problem for the Bang on a Can All-Stars, who performed at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium on March 10, part of an ongoing three-year residency organized by MIT professor (and All-Star) Evan Ziporyn. Both the All-Stars and the Bang on a Can composers—Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon, and David Lang—work with nearly omnipresent amplification. But what struck me at this concert was how much the group works with authenticity—the authenticity of expression that was such a concern to the existentialists, the authenticity of tradition that’s such a concern in cultural contexts, and the way that, for the better part of a century, musicians have been blurring the line between the two.

The great innovation of Bang on a Can, I think, is the realization that the ways composers and performers signal various forms of musical authenticity could be rich musical source material in and of itself—that the “authentic” is to the late 20th and early 21st century what the “sublime” was to the 19th. BoaC plays this game along with everyone else—part of the authenticity being claimed by this concert was that of celebrity, not only their own, but also the advertised appearances of cult-hero pop-collagist Nick Zammuto (formerly of The Books, as PR materials consistently reminded) and the Elijah of minimalism, Steve Reich. (It worked: Kresge Auditorium, not small, was packed.) But the group also plays with the game, a self-aware acknowledgement and exploration of how and why we like to declare musical heritages.

One of the main draws, besides Reich himself, was the Boston premiere of Reich’s 2×5, written for the Bang on a Can All-Stars in 2008. The instrumentation is a high-class garage-band: Mark Stewart and guest Derek Johnson on electric guitars, Robert Black on electric bass, David Cossin on drums, Vicky Chow and (usually-clarinetist) Ziporyn on two pianos. “2×5 is chamber music for rock instruments,” Reich explained in his program note. “We’re living at a time when the worlds of concert music and popular music have resumed their normal dialogue after a brief pause during the 12 tone/serial period.”

Sure, because no one’s ever tried that with serialism. (Don’t even get me started on the subtext of the word “normal.”) But that’s been Reich’s claim to authenticity almost from the start: the voice crying in the wilderness, calling music back from a hermetic detour onto the straight and narrow. And if that’s what has driven and continues to drive him, the music is beautiful, more often than not.

2×5, though, kept its distance from me, one of that group of Reich pieces that, for me at least, tips over from “bright and insistent” to “irritatingly aggressive.” (I had the same reaction the last time I heard Music for a Large Ensemble. I look forward to your letters.) It wasn’t so much the volume, although it was pretty gloriously loud. It was more, I think, because I tend to hone in on anything resembling a harmonic progression, and 2×5 felt harmonically abrupt, arbitrary, even clunky in places, common-tone and mediant juxtapositions piled on with diminishing returns. Three sections from the end, the piece briefly settled into a bewitching set of changes, Stewart and Johnson chiming accents over a repeated string of chords, to lovely effect. For the rest, it had all the volume of rock but not much of its formal satisfaction.

The other Reich selections were impeccable. Stewart gave a crisp and gorgeous account of Electric Counterpoint, Reich’s layered escapements polished to an irresistible ’80s pastel-and-chrome gloss. And Reich himself was joined by Cossin for Clapping Music, still a small miracle: idea, technique, process, and means in perfect, transparent balance. The contrast between performers was interesting: Cossin swaying and grooving, advertising the music’s affinity with pop, but Reich calm, centered, locked in. The best music doesn’t need special pleading.


The first half of the concert featured a preview performance (the official premiere is on March 20, in London) of Field Recordings, a nine-composer anthology commissioned for the BoaC All-Stars, marking BoaC’s 25th anniversary. (Cellist Ashley Bathgate, left out of 2×5, returned to her usual place in the sextet.) It really was an old-fashioned preview, still working out kinks—video cues weren’t always punctual, the sound mix wasn’t always optimal—but the overall spirit of the piece was apparent, and the spirit of the piece puts authenticity front-and-center. The concept is found footage, each composer building a movement around the pre-existing audio or video of his or her choice. And, of course, that choice revealed each composer’s attitude and approach to musical authenticity.

Julia Wolfe’s “Reeling,” for instance, opted for the imprimatur of folk music, starting with a Lomax-esque record of an energetic, wordless vocal—Appalachian scat-singing, maybe—and then amplifying it through live ensemble imitation into a wall of sound. (One particularly nice effect: sharp inhalations on the recording producing gusts of thick noise from the instruments.) That authenticity of celebrity—new-music celebrity, anyway—was the backbone of Florent Ghys’s “An Open Cage,” a recording of John Cage reading from his diary transformed, Different Trains-style, into modal, easygoing word jazz. Mira Calix’s “meeting you seemed so easy” went the ambient route, with a nod to Brian Eno’s Music for Airports: the burble of an airplane cabin, a fog of transience for some melancholy, circling fragments of melody to cut through.

There was a programmatic bent to David Lang’s “unused swan,” the sound of sharpening knives combined with a gloomy melody and Cossin dropping and swirling metal chains into the bowl of an amplified gong. I thought it didn’t go much beyond the set-up, though, to be fair, other people around me thought it the best of the movements. For me, the more transformative the approach, the more the music reworked, recontextualized, or otherwise messed with the original signal, the more I liked it. Ziporyn’s “Wargasari,” for instance: to start with a scratchy old recording of Balinese singing was probably inevitable for Ziporyn—never far from his gamelan expertise—but the result was awesome, a neither-here-nor-there fusion, the source pushing the ensemble into odd, asymmetrical rhythms, the ensemble turning the recording into a shiny, dissonant, globalized artifact.

Michael Gordon’s “gene takes a drink” showcased a video by Bill Morrison (of Decasia fame), a P.O.V. etude created by putting the camera on the collar of a cat and then turning it loose in a garden. The result was both witty and compelling, given unusual gravity by Gordon’s rippling, limpid minimalism: a cat-video Koyaanisqatsi. Christian Marclay took the notion of “found” footage to its limit in “Fade to Slide,” the ensemble romping through an onomatopoeic soundtrack to a montage of film clips, as cleverly and intricately curated as Marclay’s other cinematic installations. The authenticity here was the grammar of Hollywood—all the rhythm but none of the content of film narrative, the conditioning of pop culture revealed in its Pavlovian glory.

Tyondai Braxton worked a not unrelated vein with his “Casino Trem,” the source here the electronic jangle of slot machines and other casino enticements; through sampling, imitation, and drive, the ensemble turned the sounds into a primary-color, in-your-face symphony, a Beethovenian hard sell as reworked by Scott Bradley. “Casino Trem” was listed last, but the order was flipped so Zammuto’s “Real Beauty Turns” could be the finale, with Zammuto joining the group on guitar and vocals. The music was busy, head-bopping prog-rock; the found footage was collected television advertising footage featuring beauty products, their hopeful/skeptical customers, their before-and-after effects.

The original order might have been better. After Braxton, Zammuto’s conceit, as fun as it was, seemed almost too easy, both in the softness of its comic target (what’s the deal with infomercials?) and in the way its claim to authenticity was the result of a stacked deck—I mean, just about anybody looks cool next to someone enthusiastically demonstrating a motorized hairbrush. Braxton hadn’t let us off the hook that easily, instead taking the sound of one of the most manufactured, “fake” places imaginable and rendering it so ominously ebullient and saturated that one was roped into its siren song without being able to help it. Not the least delicious part of Braxton’s casino extravaganza was the cheer with which he dared to call authenticity’s bluff. In American life, Braxton seemed to be pointing out, the one truly authentic constant is money, the wheel of fortune, winning and losing.

Using YouTube to Find a Pianist

David Lang

David Lang. Photo © Peter Serling, 2009

[Ed. Note: On November 15, composer David Lang launched a rather unusual piano competition that was specifically designed to take advantage the broad connectivity the internet offers. Through the services of the publisher who distributes his music, G. Schirmer, Lang made available, without charge, a downloadable score for his solo piano composition wed. Pianists were instructed to learn the piece and post their performances of it to YouTube until December 31, 2011, tagging their videos with the phrase “David Lang Piano Competition 2011,” to ensure their performances could be easily found. In the beginning of the new year, a group of pianists—including Andrew Zolinsky, who recorded the piece on the Cantaloupe CD this was written by hand—will judge all of the submissions and the winner they select will be flown from wherever in the world he or she resides to New York City to perform wed, as well as to premiere (alongside Andrew Zolinsky) a brand new Lang piano 4-hand piece at Le Poisson Rouge on May 6, 2012. (The winner will also be put up for two nights in a hotel and receive a small honorarium.) With only a week left to enter the competition, we thought we’d check in with David Lang to find out how things are going.—FJO/MS]

The competition has been going very well so far. We have had a few hundred pianists from around the world download the music, and we expect that many of them will post videos of them playing it. I have been really grateful that most of the people I have heard from have been amused by it. It is hard to tell in advance sometimes if something new will turn out to be a good idea or a bad one, which might be a good reason to do it by itself.

One little change happened in the middle that I thought was interesting. Since I will bring the winner to New York, I had originally opened the competition only to people in countries from which you could get a visa to come to the United States. After some blog postings and some emails from disappointed Iranian musicians, I decided to open it up to everyone in the world, and we will deal with the visa things when we have to. It was great to be reminded that even simple things we do here may have deeper political meanings, and that music’s goal should be to connect people and not divide them. And it was particularly amazing to discover—duh!—that the internet works, and messages like this one get read and felt all around the world.

The really exciting thing about this competition to me is thinking that I am going to find out about and meet a bunch of new and interesting musicians. I like musicians. I have a lot of friends who are musicians, and I know and like a lot of musicians already. But I have room to know and like many more!

When I started working on the CD [this was written by hand] I was thinking about how piano music is different from other music. I love big, lush orchestral pieces, but I don’t have an orchestra in my apartment. I do have a piano, though, and I know I am not alone. And I have to say, I really like the CD and I think Andrew plays beautifully, in a very plainspoken manner. I thought the competition might help people find this CD and like it.

You can look and listen to all of the submissions that have been posted so far at
this page. Here is one of them…