Tag: marathon

Imagining Community at Bang on a Can’s First Marathon

Bang on a Can poster
What is a community in new music? A panel of musicologists attempted to answer this question at the second annual New Music Gathering last January. Community might be manifested in an experimental commune, in the practices of minimalist music, in the radical identity politics of an opera, or in the labor of administrators and institutions. Rather than provide a singular answer to what a new music community might be, our panel provided many. Over the coming weeks, you can read our examinations of new music and community from a variety of historical and ethnographic perspectives. We are very grateful to NewMusicBox for hosting this weekly series, to the organizers of New Music Gathering for sponsoring a thought-provoking conference, and to our home institutions for supporting our research.—Will Robin

“Your ideology cannot write the music for you,” declared composer David Lang in a 1988 Letter to the Editor, published in the New York Times. Lang was responding to a profile of composer Charles Wuorinen, in which the elder serialist railed against the dangers of populism, minimalism, and multiculturalism. In a strong rebuke, Lang chastised Wuorinen for his doctrinaire attitude and the stranglehold that serialism had maintained on American composition. He wrote:

We must recognize that a composer’s world is divided into two major activities: writing the music and associating with those who think and write similarly. Such associations may consider themselves schools of musical thought, and members may be proud of their membership, and they may actually believe that their way of composing is the only legitimate way. It is easy to see that if such a school gets in power it might try to remake the musical world in its own image.[1]

Lang signed his letter “Artistic director, Bang on a Can Festival, New York, N.Y.” A month before it was published, Lang and his colleagues Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe had curated the second annual Bang on a Can marathon on the Lower East Side. And in the twenty-eight years since that letter, Bang on a Can has grown into a multi-faceted umbrella organization that sponsors marathon concerts, an All-Stars ensemble, and the Cantaloupe record label, not to mention a summer festival, marching band, commissioning fund, and State Department partnership. The expansion of Bang on a Can—from its first scrappy marathon in SoHo in 1987 to its presence at Brookfield Place near One World Trade Center today—is remarkable in an age of arts austerity. And the Pulitzer Prizes awarded to Lang in 2008 and Julia Wolfe in 2015 might confirm that it is a movement, if not a school, currently in power; one could similarly argue that Bang on a Can has remade the musical world in its own image.

What might that image be? From the beginnings of Bang on a Can, the collective emphasized community. If for Wuorinen, serialism represented the only legitimate way of composing, then for Lang and his colleagues, community might have represented the only legitimate way of being a composer. The “About” section of the organization’s website declares “Bang on a Can has been creating an international community dedicated to innovative music, wherever it is found.” Or, as Wolfe told an interviewer in 1995:

When David Lang, Michael Gordon, and I found ourselves in New York in 1986, we didn’t see an exciting outlet for our music. Things were very polarized—academic music uptown, with audiences filled with new music specialists, a very critical atmosphere, and everyone in tuxes, and downtown, another uniform, black t-shirts and another serious pretension. Neither side was really fun, and there was a whole new generation of composers who didn’t fit in anywhere.

We wanted to provide a place for new music in society. It wasn’t like other art. People knew who the new painters were, the writers, the filmmakers. But music was perceived as this really elitist thing—academic, clever, scientific, inaccessible. Nobody cared if people came to the concerts. And the music reflected that. It got so removed from life. It was important to us to find a new audience.

So we decided to make a happening. As a joke, we called it the First Annual Bang on a Can Festival. We didn’t think there’d be another one. We put pieces together that were really strong and belonged to different ideologies or not to any ideology, defying category, falling between the cracks.[2]

It is worth examining, then, how exactly that communal ethos came about. If you’ve kept up with our NewMusicBox series, you have already read about several ways in which community is enacted in new music: in the activities of experimental collectives, in the privileging of listening practices, in the aesthetics of avant-garde operas, and in the labor of administrators. Equally essential to the construction of community is the creation of a shared history: a rhetoric and a narrative about who the community is, and what its values are. And in order to create a new kind of community, Bang on a Can had to overplay its hand. Community had to be performed; it was not enough to bring people or musical styles together, they had to be continually emphasized, made a part of the story and eventually the history of the institution.

Bang on a Can’s first marathon, at the Exit Art gallery in SoHo in May 1987, represents an origin point for the kind of community that the founding composers sought to build. So for this essay on new music and community, I’d like to briefly meditate on one particular time slot in that marathon, which has played a perhaps oversized role in the history of Bang on a Can. At 11 p.m., Milton Babbitt’s Vision and Prayer is followed by Steve Reich’s Four Organs–total serialism juxtaposed with early minimalism, uptown next to downtown.

Bang on a Can program

The music of the first Bang on a Can marathon was, as a whole, fairly eclectic: John Cage’s Ryoanji and George Crumb’s Black Angels, Igor Stravinsky’s Agon and Pauline Oliveros’s Tuning Meditation, Lee Hyla’s In Double Light and Lois V Vierk’s Manhattan Cascade. But Reich next to Babbitt wasn’t just a natural result of this mixing of musical styles; it represented a strategic move, one that constructed a specific mission for the nascent organization. In a New York Times review of the 1987 marathon, critic Bernard Holland observed that “the program was arranged with contrast in mind. Thus, as the organizers note with satisfaction, Milton Babbitt’s Vision and Prayer rubbed shoulders with Steve Reich’s Four Organs.”[3] [Emphasis mine.] Bang on a Can not only placed these pieces into juxtaposition, they performed that juxtaposition, making it unmistakable to their audiences. Babbitt himself was certainly aware of his odd-duck status at the concert, as archival audio of his introduction to the Vision and Prayer performance reveals. Following healthy applause, Babbitt slyly remarks:

I’m delighted to hear that my reputation hasn’t penetrated this far downtown, even though I went to school right around the corner. The quiet little piece of mine which you’re about to hear, Vision and Prayer for soprano and synthesized tape, is almost certainly the oldest piece on the program – I say almost certainly because we have no chronologies on the program, but I’m almost certain because it’s almost certainly written before many of the composers on the program were born.[4]

And for the Bang on a Can directors, the Reich/Babbitt juxtaposition also had aesthetic implications. As Wolfe put it in 1995, she and her cohort sought out music that fell between the cracks. But they also attempted to program music that they felt represented strongly disparate idioms. In her 2012 dissertation, Wolfe describes the Reich/Babbitt encounter—or non-encounter—of 1987:

Reich entered as Babbitt left, or possibly Babbitt left as Reich entered. There was clearly no interest in meeting on either side. At that point, to our knowledge, no one had programmed the music of Milton Babbitt and Steve Reich on the same event. Babbitt and Reich represented two very different points of view, American Modernism and American Minimalism, or what was called Uptown and Downtown. When Babbitt introduced his piece he joked, “sorry I got here late, but I got lost––Iʼve never been this far downtown before.” At that first marathon concert we embraced this clash of disparate philosophies. We wanted contrasting musics––powerful in their own right regardless of style or aesthetic.[5]

Wolfe titled her dissertation “Embracing the Clash,” and that early “clash” became an all-encompassing metaphor for Bang on a Can, extending out into its programming of non-Western music, rock, and free improvisation. Indeed, the word “eclectic” has clung to the institution more closely than perhaps any other descriptor (the first marathon was billed as an “eclectic supermix,” a phrase that has endured in the organization’s marketing). It is also striking that Wolfe recalls Babbitt as having said that he had never been that far downtown, given that—as Babbitt actually remarked in his introduction—he went to school right around the corner. But the downtown of the 1930s, when Babbitt attended NYU, was quite different from that of the 1980s; it is unsurprising that, in associating Babbitt with the uptown world for which he was later known, Wolfe assumed the composer’s geographical purview did not include SoHo.

The Reich/Babbitt juxtaposition, though, wasn’t only about clashing. It was about resolution: imagining a new kind of new music community, one that would bring together two disparate scenes. As Lang told Kyle Gann in 1993:

When we started BoaC, we looked around and the concerts we saw weren’t exciting. If you went to hear Speculum Musicae, there was invariably one composer doing great stuff in an ugly language, and the others were bad composers working in the same ugly language. Same thing Downtown: there’d be a free, sonic piece by a really good composer and a bad sonic piece right behind it. Pieces were being grouped by ideology, not quality. We thought, “What would happen if you had the best academic piece, the best static piece, the best minimalist piece, the best improv piece, whatever, all next to each other?” At the first festival we played Milton Babbitt’s Vision and Prayer next to Steve Reich’s Four Organs. Musicians knew that if they liked one they weren’t supposed to like the other, but the audience didn’t know that.[6]

Stepping past ideologies, placing oneself not only not within an uptown or downtown camp, but also beyond any squabbles between them, became a core mythos of Bang on a Can. It’s notable that neither the Reich nor the Babbitt was released on the early Bang on a Can albums on the CRI label, which drew from live recordings of the marathons; thirty-five minutes of music within a twelve-hour concert became essential to the history of the institution, not as a tangible sonic document but as a story. Programming Reich alongside Babbitt imagined a musical world in which uptown and downtown were irrelevant, a community that Bang on a Can went on to create in its image.

Bang on a Can poster

Many factors contributed to a sense of community at the early Bang on a Can marathons: a cohort of Yale graduates, beer for sale in the back, composers informally introducing their pieces, the motto “Come and go as you like, or stay all day.” But symbolic gestures create communities as well. And this is, in a way, an ideology, if not the pernicious kind that Lang suggests about Wuorinen. Ideology is part of what constructs communities, sustains them, and keeps them together. The ideology of Wuorinen foregrounded a narrow conception of art music as privileged above other styles and genres, what Lang called in his Letter to the Editor “rooting out dissent with the ardor of holy warriors on a serial jihad”; the ideology of Bang on a Can is that of, as its website declares, “building a world in which powerful new musical ideas flow freely across all genres and borders.”[7]

will robin

Will Robin

William Robin is a Ph.D. candidate in musicology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Two days ago, he defended his dissertation “A Scene Without A Name: Indie Classical and American New Music in the Twenty-First Century,” and in the fall he will begin an appointment as assistant professor of musicology at the University of Maryland. In spring 2015, the Journal of Musicology published his article “Traveling with Ancient Music: Intellectual and Transatlantic Currents in American Psalmody Reform,” which reassesses the Europeanization of American sacred music at the turn of the 19th century by examining the impact of transatlantic travel. Robin is a regular contributor to the New York Times, and received an ASCAP Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Award in 2014 for the NewMusicBox article “Shape Notes, Billings, and American Modernisms.”

1. David Lang, “Body Count,” New York Times, 26 June 1988.

2. Julia Wolfe, quoted in program brochure for Great Performers at Lincoln Center Bang on a Can All-Stars, 15 March 1995.

3. Bernard Holland, “Music: The Bang on a Can Festival,” New York Times, 14 May 1987. Emphasis mine.

4. Milton Babbitt, spoken introduction at Bang on a Can Festival, 11 May 1987. Author’s transcription of archival audio materials from WNYC archives, printed with permission of WNYC.

5. Wolfe, “Embracing the Clash” (PhD diss., Princeton University, 2012),

6. Lang, quoted in Kyle Gann, “After Ugly Music,” Village Voice, 1 June 1993.

7. Lang, “Body Count”; Bang on a Can, “About Us,” http://bangonacan.org/about_us.

Follow the Bang on a Can Marathon and Make Music NY on NewMusicBox

We’re tweeting from both the 2015 Bang on a Can Marathon and various Make Music NY concerts all day today. Tune in to this page to watch the Bang on a Can live stream and follow our coverage. You can also join the conversation on Twitter by tweeting at us (@NewMusicBox) with #BangMarathon2015 and #MakeMusicNY.

Watch the Bang on a Can Marathon below:

Bang on a Can Marathon, FREE for the public at the Winter Garden at Brookfield Place (230 Vesey Street), co-presented by Arts Brookfield and Lower Manhattan Cultural Council as part of the River To River Festival. This annual incomparable super-mix of boundary-busting music from around the corner and around the world features ten hours of rare performances by some of the most innovative musicians of our time side-by-side with some of today’s most pioneering young artists.

Lead support for the 2015 Bang on a Can Marathon is provided by the Howard Gilman Foundation and by ASCAPprotecting, supporting, and fostering the work of composers worldwide.

Austin: Fast Fo(u)rward

I’ve complained on more than one occasion about the changing of Austin into a theme park, and I feel comfortable saying that if you’ve only been here during SXSW or the Austin City Limits Festival, than you haven’t really seen the town. It’s not the gentrification alone but the rate of change which makes for a real baby-with-the-bathwater situation in a town that got weird off the radar and for so many years stayed that way. The cache of interesting events and people that really make this town unique is being lost at a breakneck pace, replaced by stylized food trucks and Formula One Racing [1]. I like funky tacos and fast cars as much as the next guy, but at some point the value that is being traded on will be gone, and any number of other towns will be just as attractive assuming that they have buildings that will take a coat of paint.

So how is a festival that exemplifies Austin’s classic quirks so perfectly being run from LA, New York, and Hong Kong [2]? Shouldn’t I boycott these interlopers and demand that they get off my lawn? No, because Fast Forward Austin is run by three Austin ex-pats who know what the town is all about and who keep that in mind when putting this annual circus together.

Loadbang - Photo by Steve Sachse

Loadbang – Photo by Steve Sachse

This fourth installment of the all-day festival returned to The North Door with another fantastic line-up of local and national performers. Loadbang cranked up the show with offerings from Christopher Cerrone and Andy Akiho, the latter’s three movements from six haikus hinting at the percussion deluge to come with each player eventually trading their trumpets and clarinets for pot-top syncopation. The Skyros Quartet paired with the composers of West Fourth New Music Collective to present a number of quartets and trios written by the group. They opened with Matt Frey’s Procession which featured a repeating chord progression played largely in unison that eventually broke apart, each player moving mechanically away from the original material. Ruben Naeff’s Jackass, which was initially written for the JACK Quartet, closed their set. Quick, quirky, and rambunctious, the piece popped right off the stage.

Tatsuya Nakatani - Photo by Steve Sachse

Tatsuya Nakatani – Photo by Steve Sachse

To say that the music and performances of Tatsuya Nakatani are idiosyncratic and mercurial is an understatement. Perhaps FFA co-director Steve Snowden put it best during his introduction when he said, “I can’t really put into words what this guy does.”

I will now attempt this.
Nakatani began by working a large hanging tam-tam with a large bow [3], one that had a particularly arched stick and looked a bit like an archers bow. Intermittent hits with a large beater colored the sound and after several hits he grabbed a second bow and began to work another tam-tam along with the first. This was all well and good, and I figured we were in for a nice set of screeches and overtones.

He eventually moved to a little trap kit with a kick, a handful of toms, and a grab-bag of goodies. Shortly after arriving at the kit, everything went nuts. Singing bowls danced on the head of a tom as he stacked half a dozen cymbals on one another, slamming them on and around the bowls until most were on the concrete floor. One cymbal with a hand-sized hole in the center was bent, and scraped rapidly across the head of the tom, producing a sound like a bowed saw run through a distortion pedal. Nakatani clearly had a few go-to sounds (such as the tam-tam bowing) that he used and manipulated convincingly, but it was when he seemed to be winging it that the real magic happened. The afore-mentioned cymbals and prayer bowls came and went frequently, and while Nakatani was able to keep the energy going (at full speed, even during the relatively quiet opening and closing portions of the set) it occasionally threatened to fall off the rails. Once or twice a cymbal fell too early or a stacking of instruments just didn’t quite gel and these moments were wonderfully visceral and real. This is what, IMHO, live improvised music is about: at least one part communication with the audience and one part danger. Totally fantastic.

Austin Soundwaves - Photo by Steve Sachse

Austin Soundwaves – Photo by Steve Sachse

Austin Soundwaves returned this year and sounded better than ever. I’ve heard the El Sistema-inspired group play multiple times over the past several years now and not only was this performance much stronger in terms of fundamental pitch and rhythm, they’ve also come a long way in terms of their musicality. Their rendition of Cielito Lindo was particularly strong and their works from the canon were very well presented.


Just back from a three-week European tour, line upon line percussion opened with Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood, presented as a sort of historical preview of (spoiler) Mantra Percussion’s Timber performance. Watching LUL reminds me of my rock band days when we’d get home from a tour flush with road chops, except that these guys play like this all the time. They are all superb players, and while watching Matthew Teodori in particular you get the impression that every single note is the most important thing in the world. It makes you think that whatever endeavor you’re involved in, you probably need to up your game.

Fast Forward Orchestra - Photo by Steve Sachse

Fast Forward Orchestra – Photo by Steve Sachse

FFA has usually had a featured piece or act, something that gets all the nerds [4] hot and bothered. This year had a two-fer in Donnacha Dennehy’s That the Night Come and Michael Gordon’s Timber. The former was played by the Fast Forward Orchestra and conducted by Austin Symphony Orchestra’s Peter Bay. Featuring an emotionally powerful performance by mezzo-soprano Kathryn Findlen, the orchestra was a perfect example of what Austin has to offer in terms of new music. During the course of the day, sound from outside would make its way inside The North Door, but I swear Austin shut up for the whole piece. Mantra’s performance was no less thrilling, taking the audience on Gordon’s hour-long marathon of pulsing, surround-sound endurance. Finally, The Grant Wallace Band wrapped up the festivities with a set of folk and jazz influenced originals that would have been at home in any number of bars in town as well as they were at the festival.

Mantra Percussion - Photo by Steve Sachse

Mantra Percussion – Photo by Steve Sachse

Places change and grow, and the only constant is the complaint about how things used to be. Checking out eight hours of banging new music is one way of getting your mind off that fact.

1. The 24-gate regional airport that serves Austin has a direct flight to/from London now, so those from overseas can see F1 without connecting flights. This has been a dream of Willie Nelson’s for some time now.

2. Last year it was Sweden, Portugal, and New York. It’s my understanding that the next one is going to be run from the moon.

3. Actually, he began by asking the venue to turn off the AC. When it was revealed that the sound he was hearing was the refrigerator which was keeping all the beer cold, he smiled, shrugged, and started the set.

4. If you’re reading this, you’re the nerd.

The Mush Race of Boston: The SICPP 2013 Iditarod

How do you prepare for a concert presentation of over eight nearly continuous hours of new music? As a listener, it helps to read about the music, nap in advance, plan to get some fresh air, and pack a few good snacks. If you’re a performer, and the event is the Iditarod at the Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice, it involves nine intensive days of practice, rehearsal, workshopping, and bonding with other musicians. SICPP (pronounced “sick puppy”) takes place every summer at the New England Conservatory. As you may already know, the Iditarod, from which SICPP’s closing event borrows its name, is an annual sled dog race held over several weeks and many different types of terrain in Alaska. It is, I am sure, a test of commitment, knowledge, stamina, and concentration. It also involves teamwork and adjustment to shifting conditions, which makes it a more apt name than the more usual “marathon” for what we experienced last Saturday.

The closing piece of the whole event was an incredibly beautiful performance of Berio's Folk Songs, featuring soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon

The closing piece of the whole event was a performance of Berio’s Folk Songs, featuring soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon.

But SICPP includes a lot more than just the culminating Iditarod. This year’s institute began on June 14th and ran through the 22nd, dipping half an hour into the 23rd. There were concerts every evening from the 16th onward, primarily featuring faculty and guests until the Iditarod, which was student-centered but frequently involved faculty in the chamber groups. Concurrent with the Iditarod was a set of installation pieces, which I unfortunately missed due to a planning error. There were also lunchtime concerts at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s Calderwood Hall, a co-presentation with Boston GuitarFest on Thursday afternoon, and an Electronic Workshop Concert on Friday afternoon. I attended the Friday and Saturday events. The Friday events, especially the evening concert, had an atmosphere more like a summer camp or a sporting event than—I think it’s safe to say—any other new music event I’ve experienced. There was a great deal of enthusiasm about the music and the performances, and it was evident that many new friendships among the players had formed over the preceding week. But the atmosphere on Saturday, though still friendly, was far from casual. All of the students were playing or having their works played that evening, and while there was still plenty of enthusiasm, it was tempered by a palpable sense of concentration.

Three performances during the Iditarod were remarkable in the artistry that the musicians brought to the pieces. At no moment did these feel like student performances. They were impeccably prepared, and transcended the requisite technical demands. Greg Jukes, percussion, Ryan McCullough, piano, and Jing Li, cello, played Rand Steiger’s Trio in Memoriam with a level of confidence and surety that allowed its emotional scope to come through with stunning clarity. McCullough was also part of the ensemble for Ives’s Piano Trio, along with Gabby Diaz, violin, and Stephen Marotto, cello. It was a full-on performance, richly conveying the wildness of the second movement and the unholy explosion of vibrant noise in the third. The closing piece of the whole event was an incredibly beautiful performance of Berio’s Folk Songs, featuring soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon, who switched seemingly effortlessly into an entirely different vocal delivery for the closing “Azerbaijan Love Song.”

Not all of the pieces called for or allowed such a no-holds-barred approach. Many of them required one very specific type of intensity. The driving pulses of Steve Reich’s Tehillim were a test of stamina that was very successfully met across the ensemble for over half an hour. In Feldman’s 2 pieces for 3 pianos, the holds were effectively, and appropriately, barred. Beth Karp, Valerie Ross, and Kyle Johnson brought great coolness, discipline, and rigor to the work.

That was also true of the two Feldman performances at the Friday lunchtime concert at the Gardner Museum: Voice, Violin and Piano by soprano Nina Guo, violinist Gabby Diaz, and pianist Angelique Po, and of Why Patterns? by flutist Jessi Rosinski, pianist Amy O’Dell, and Caleb Herron on glockenspiel. Xenakis’s Dikhthas, played with real vigor and commitment by pianist Mari Kawamura and violinist Micah Ringham, was an unrelenting volcanic eruption. Later at the Friday evening concert, Alan Sentman’s Patchwork provoked quite a lot of laughter, particularly in the third section, as Stuart Gerber very cleverly made use of the improvisational freedoms provided by the composer. Immediately after this piece he dove into the visceral discipline and tremendous energy demanded by Xenakis’s Rebonds. Adam Roberts’s Anakhtara was poised in a strange and beautiful stillness and distance, elegantly conveyed by its dedicatee, cellist Benjamin Schwartz. Schwartz followed with Ulrich Kreppein’s mysterious, oblique, and understated Abendlich auf schattenbegleiteten wegen. Xenakis’s Okho was a great closer, with its tight ensemble playing in the exploration of traditional and non-traditional djembe techniques. Mathias Spahlinger’s musica impura was the one piece to be performed both by faculty on Friday evening (Jen Ashe, soprano, Maarten Stragier, guitar, Nick Tolle, percussion) and then again during the Iditarod by student participants (Dino Georgeton, percussion, Katrina Leshan, guitar, Susanna Su, soprano). This piece presented ironically disjunct sections of material, which were both technically and aesthetically demanding. It’s to be expected that the faculty performance would be more assured. What I didn’t anticipate was that I would feel a greater interest in the piece following the student performance. It was a less performative, less extroverted performance, but the honest engagement with the problems presented by the work was invigorating.
In the Electronic Workshop Concert on Friday, Susanna Su, soprano, with Ian Headley, electronics, gave a deeply felt and richly evocative performance of Kaija Saariaho’s Lohn. Headley’s composition, Two Rules, for percussionist John Andress and live electronics by the composer, had a strikingly visceral, three-dimensional quality. David Stenson’s untitled alternated effectively between static and liquid states, while Ariane Miyasaki’s Hindsight used the electronics to sonically put the audience inside of Beth McDonald’s tuba. Asha Tamirisa’s Clark continued in this line of using electronics to reveal, rather than obscure, the physical impacts of John Andress’s performance. The concert closed with a collaboration by the participants in the Electronic Workshop and Susanna Su on Benjamin Bacon’s d’chromeo, described by Bacon as a framework for improvisation, in which dynamic shapes are given but other parameters are free.

Returning to the Iditarod performances, Scott Deal’s Goldstream Variations opened the event, with a maximal, inclusive style that provided a great set of playing opportunities for the whole ensemble. Roger Miller’s Vines for Music was an immediate stylistic contrast, and the musicians proved themselves totally ready for this pared down aesthetic. While Miller nods to Cage in the program notes because of the use of prepared piano, there is a more implicit resonance with Lucier and a piece like Still Lives in the use of shapes found around the house (in Miller’s case, vines attached to the garage door) as pitch contour. The transparent quality of the slow string glissandi and careful inside-the-piano work demanded a special kind of concentration from the players, which was beautifully met. In Rand Steiger’s 13 LOOPS, the strength of the ensemble playing continued, revealing itself as a very welcome theme of the evening. Originally dedicated to Dorothy Stone, the original flutist of the California E.A.R. Unit, in this performance the piece was a great vehicle for flutist Sarah Pyle, who really shone in this role. Taylor Long and Robin Hirshberg, percussion, and Angelique Po and Raquel Gorgojo (amplified pianos) carried the individual characters of each of the pieces of George Crumb’s Makrokosmos III. This performance was not about the many extended techniques involved, but about the states they evoked. These techniques were understood as resources, not as showcases in themselves.

Among the works by student composers (who are mostly, if not all, working at the graduate level), 27 also showed a real sensitivity in its use of extended techniques, both from the composer, Julio Zúñiga, and from Eve Boltax, viola, and Nicolas Loh, piano. It was an understated performance, deriving real intensity from the smallest actions. Later in that set, Ethan Braun’s Mud Doll displayed a far more overt intensity. In what Braun calls the “emotional centerpiece” of his chamber opera, soprano Amy Foote and saxophonist Phillipp Staeudlin invaded the stratosphere in one wonderfully terrible, indelible moment. Earlier in the evening, Clifton Ingram’s Thought Memory juxtaposed memory, represented by a tabletop guitar, with thought, articulated on a second, more conventionally held instrument. Both guitars were played by Katrina Leshan, who gave this piece a highly nuanced performance in all its dimensions. The diversity of these student works stretched in other directions, from the barely voiced and sometimes unvoiced ckifi/kn by Justin Murphy-Mancini, to the vibrant points of stasis and pulsations within a narrow band of Katherine Young’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own, to the active pitch, rhythmic, and timbral cycles of Alex Huddleston’s Parallax, projected with masterly assurance by flutist Jessi Rosinski. In the next set, Onur Yildirim’s Mûş-ı Zamân II, influenced by the study of the physics of time, was rich with instrumental color and ornamental activity. José Manuel Serrano’s Breve was a work of a very different nature, made up of a series of inconclusive, yet very rich musical gestures. Aaron Jay Myers found an effective advocate for Leg and Skull in percussionist Taylor Long, who set the air ringing throughout the hall in these musical evocations of decay. The final student work of the evening was Emily Koh’s cycrotations for percussion quartet, which I remember for its haunting, ghostly, spacious quality.

Taken together, these ten works are a useful snapshot of the aesthetic diversity of composition occurring these days at the student level. In combination with Rand Steiger’s residency and the numerous other programmed works, participants and audience members, including myself, got a great view of the overwhelming breadth of this field. Most of all, it’s truly invigorating to see such capable musicians taking on the many demands of contemporary music with commitment.

One question was stirred for me in the wake of this event, however. With very few exceptions, the pieces performed by the students at SICPP were either by composers who were present or who are well established in the canon. Feldman, Berio, Xenakis, etc., are not names that a musician with an active interest in new music can (or should) miss. But there are any number of composers who might be of significant interest to performers who are neither canonized nor part of their academic institutions or local scenes. This is not so much a criticism of SICPP—I couldn’t imagine that one more piece could have been fit into those nine days—but more a question to performers such as the participants in SICPP, whose involvement in the program is proof of an active interest in new music. How do you go about finding the contemporary music that is not handed to you, either by peers, by faculty, or as recognized important literature? The argument could be made that there has never been such a promising time as the present to make your own musical maps, as you discover the work for which you can advocate the most effectively, and which brings you the most joy. So much of that joy came through during the two days of performance that I witnessed, and there is no good reason that it can’t continue to spin itself out with new musical discoveries, through the summer and into the years ahead.

“Let’s see what this is!”—Garden of Memory 2013

The longest day of the year is observed by the San Francisco Bay Area new music community with the annual Garden of Memory event at the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland. With Sarah Cahill at the helm, an inimitable assortment of sound makers takes over this architecturally extraordinary columbarium/mausoleum for four hours, and invites audiences of all ages to wander among over three dozen simultaneous performances positioned throughout the complex.

I took some photos at last year’s event, but still images don’t convey the peculiar delight of a community of people happening upon the unimaginable and the improbable, room after room. This video is, of course, only a small sampling of the variety of musicians at this year’s Garden of Memory; the full list of performers can be found on the event’s website.

Here are links to the performers shown, in order of appearance: Keith Cary (on the bike at the entrance to the event) and Jaroba (with the plunger in the air)—Edward Schocker (playing a sho)—Laura Inserra (playing a Hang)—Sarah Cahill (performing Annea Lockwood’s RCSC)—The Living Earth Show (Andrew Meyerson, percussion, and Travis Andrews, guitar)—Brent Miller and Adam Fong who run the new Center for New Music in San Francisco) and John KennedyJason Victor Serinus (whistling “Casta Diva” from Bellini’s Norma)—Theresa Wong (cello) and Luciano Chessa (musical saw)—Maggi Payne (“Theremin Morph: Step inside and play a suped up Theremin!”)—Lucky Dragons (Luke Fischbeck and Sarah Rara)—Amy X Neuburg (who tag teams with Paul Dresher in this space each year)—Larnie Fox and the Crank Ensemble (whose hand-cranked instruments are a mechanical version of a loop)—Beth Custer (Stephen Kent’s didgeridus are in the background)—Dylan Mattingly (cello) and Eli Wirtschafter (violin)—Cornelius Cardew Choir (performing Pauline Oliveros’s Heart Chant)—Orchestra Nostalgico (playing Ennio Morricone on the outdoor plaza).

Venue Reflections

This past weekend I live-blogged my third Bang on a Can Marathon concert experience. I’m lucky enough to have a New York State School Music Association young composer call-for-scores judging session the two days following the marathon every year, so I’ve made it a point to come in early and let folks who aren’t in Lower Manhattan know what’s going on during the massive concert. This year in particular was interesting because of the change in locations, as this presented the opportunity to compare and contrast the same event in two very different performance spaces.

This was the fourth marathon I’ve attended in a row, with the first three having been presented at the Winter Garden Atrium in the World Financial Center. A cavernous space illuminated by thousands of windows facing the Hudson River, the Winter Garden has a high-end shopping mall-like quality that exemplifies the concept of an “alternative venue.” It is big enough to give one the freedom to get up and walk around the edge of the audience, go get a bite to eat in the adjoining food court, or traverse the balconies during the concerts. Acoustically, the venue is a mixed bag—the cathedral-like room is challenging when a detail-oriented piece is being performed, but loud volumes aren’t distracting and the amplified nature of the music being presented allows for audience members to talk freely during the performances.

Due to renovations at the Winter Garden, Sunday’s marathon was forced to move to a substitute location in the Schimmel Center for the Arts at Pace University, a 700-seat traditional theater, and the shift in tone both in terms of the concert itself and the audience watching it was, from my perspective, quite stark.

For much of the event, the sound quality of the performances was much clearer than in the Winter Garden, and nuances and subtleties that would have been lost were quite strong here. The extensive use of amplification made for a slightly uneven experience at times, especially with such a wide variety of ensembles and instruments—many groups were balanced perfectly, but a few of the larger ensembles had uneven mixes and at least one group was painfully loud for the space. In general, performances in which detail was important were enhanced while performances that relied on broader gestures did not have as much impact as they might have in the larger space.

The array of audience seating allowed those in attendance to be much closer to the artists on stage as well, providing a more intimate experience. That being said, the change in feel from the audience’s perspective throughout the marathon was visceral; the audience seemed to be more subdued and less mobile, resulting in a much more “traditional” concert experience. Lighting design, not really an option in the sunlit atrium, was also used to a great degree and was quite effective.

Overall, the marathon was a successful and enjoyable experience, especially for those of us who stuck around through the entire event. (I stopped blogging before the penultimate performance but stayed till the end.) It was also an education for those of us interested in how venues affect the concert experience as well as how various musical styles “play” in different spaces.

Bang on a Can Marathon 2013 Live Blog

ng on a Can Tubas
[Ed. Note: New posts will be added to the bottom of the page with a time stamp. Please refresh to see new posts.]

Ready for nine hours of new music? For those who can’t be in the crowd for the 2013 Bang on a Can Marathon in New York City on Sunday, June 16 (Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts @ Pace University), we’ve embedded intrepid NMBx columnist Rob Deemer to keep you apprised of the goings on. So get ready, get set…
12:59. One minute to go and the audience is still filing into the hall here. Christina Jensen explained that, while normally the Marathon would be held at the World Financial Center, that venue is currently under contruction. The Schimmel Center at Pace University is an excellent venue – I saw David T. Little’s performance of his Soldier’s Songs earlier this year and it works great for both acoustic & amplified genres. I’ll be curious how the traditional setting affects the feel of the Marathon throughout the day – if you have questions or comments, please leave them below! 
1:19. The Marathon kicks off with Alarm Will Sound performing “El Dude”, the first movement from Derek Bermel’s Canzonas Americanas. This is my first time hearing AWS live, so check one more item off that particular bucket list! The ensemble is tight as they maneuver through Bermel’s serpentine counterpoint and backbeats; while it doesn’t swing per se, it comes mighty close at points. The luscious harmonies are well-orchestrated throughout the ensemble and overall the performers seemed to enjoy chewing into this piece. Acoustics have always been tricky with these concerts in the past – this performance was balanced well on stage, from my bearing, but some of the strings and other instruments are being amplified while others aren’t, which makes for a slightly off-kilter experience from the audience.


Alarm Will Sound
(Photo by Thomas Deneuville and used with permission)

1:28. Alarm Will Sound continues with a work by Minnesota-based composer Jeffrey Brooks entitled After The Treewatcher. I’m not sure if it’s the particular way this piece is textured (it’s much thicker overall than Bermel’s with synths and electric guitar prevalent throughout), but the balance issue seems to be fixed. Brooks’ work is big and brash – very tasty piece!

1:38. In a complete contrast to AWS’s two big pieces, trumpeter Peter Evans comes out to perform a solo work of his own. Performing into a microphone, the virtuosic skitterings slowly morphed into a distorted sound mass…I’m not sure what kind of electronics are being used from the back of the hall (if there’s no electronics on this, then color me gobsmacked), but the performance as whole is very effective. Whispering in jazz-tinged lines that don’t ever seem to settle in one direction or another, Evans builds into something that could only be described as an Arban etude from hell. Scary chops and supremely musical performance.
1:51. Both Bang on a Can and Alarm Will Sound have been active in cultivating emerging composer talents – BOAC with their Summer Festival at MASS MOCA and AWS at the Mizzou New Music Festival at the University of Missouri – and the next piece has connections to them both. British composer Charlie Piper has attended both festivals and wrote Zoetrope for Alarm Will Sound last year. With its emphasis on cross-rhythms, insistent pulse, and fanciful colors, this piece is definitely within the BOAC oeuvre, but Piper’s use of light textures and transparent textures makes it stand out.
1:53. Christina Jennings just handed me a URL that you’ll want to check out: www.ustream.tv/channel/littledogtv – this will be in tandem with an upcoming piece by Lukas Ligeti!
2:07. Conductor and Artistic Director Alan Pierson announced from the stage that Caleb Burhans, one of the ensemble’s core members and composer of the next piece, got into a pretty serious accident last night after AWS performed an all-Burhans concert at Le Poisson Rouge last night. With hopes that he recovers fully, they lay into Caleb’s o ye of little faith…(do you know where your children are?) with conviction. o ye… relies less on constant pulse (though it is never missing) and more on slowly-evolving chordal gestures that build to a rumbling crescendo.
2:08. UPDATE: The link above will be a livestream of the Ligeti piece in a few moments…there will be a handful of performances that will be livestreamed today. Stay tuned!
2:16. As I mentioned before, the feel of this Marathon is pretty different – not bad, just different – than the previous ones in the Financial Center. The pace seems to be much quicker between pieces and you see less of the relaxed atmosphere than in the mall-like venue across town…again, no criticism, just an observation. I’ve wondered how well these concert Marathons would connect in a more traditional, enclosed space – time will tell.
2:36. Lukas Ligeti has been exploring the music of African and incorporating its concepts into his music for quite some time now and his new work for two drumsets, Iakoni in kazonnde, is a very impressive example of this integration. Inspired by Ghanian agogo bell traditions, Ligeti pits one drumset against another with intricate cross-rhythms overlaying on top of one another. It’s not as flashy as one might expect a double drumset piece to be, but infinitely more interesting.
2:48. Proof that the rock band/chamber music combination is not just an American concept, Cabaret Contemporain seems to have picked up the idea and ran with it in their homeland of France. They’ll be starting in just a few minutes…


Cabaret Contemporain
(Photo by Thomas Deneuville and used with permission)

3:05. Wow – wasn’t expecting that. Not sure what I was expecting, but I’m liking it nonetheless. I’ve seen BOAC have DJ’s perform during past Marathons and this performance reminded of that – except it’s a live group with keyboards, electric guitar, drumset and two upright basses (though one had to leave the stage due to technical difficulties beyond his control only to emerge minute later to the delight of the audience). Not very subtle – it wasn’t meant to be – but quite satisfying in a visceral way. Their attention to timbre, balance, and texture is pretty impressive – it’s not often you see a bass player playing beneath the bridge and a pianist playing inside the piano while a guitarist and drumset lays down a complex techno beat. If you haven’t heard of this group – now’s the time.
3:32. After the first of several pauses, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus performs two new works, the first one, Before the Words, is an a cappella work by Shara Worden (she of My Brightest Diamond). Joyous in nature, Shara’s first foray into choral repertoire is deceptively challenging for the choir, but the young singers do a wonderful job of executing the interlocking textures – kudos to the two solo singers who came out front! All of these singers seem about 12-15 in age…really glad to see composers working with younger performers in such a high-profile context.
3:40. The 45-member choir is now being joined by a string quartet and piano to perform Nico Muhly’s Respect of a Storm. This piece pushed the envelope in different directions than Worden’s and didn’t fare as well…the textures seemed blurred at times and while the string quartet didn’t get in the way, it didn’t seem necessary either. The Chorus’ performance was solid, however, and one hopes that more choirs take this group as a model for working with new literature and living composers.


NYUSTEEL w/ NYU Contemporary Music Ensemble
(Photo by Thomas Deneuville and used with permission)

4:10. From Michael Gordon’s comments, Kendall Williams’ Conception is the first instance of a steel band – in this case NYUSTEEL along with the NYU Contemporary Music Ensemble) – that they’ve had at a BOAC Marathon. The work combines a six-piece steel pan ensemble with a 10-piece mixed chamber ensemble and the result is quite good – I’d be curious to hear what it sounded without the amplification (which made sections almost unbearably loud from my perch in the balcony). Williams mentioned that he’s played steel pan for over 20 years and is a graduate of NYU, so he knew the group well and wrote a damn fine piece for them.
4:19. You’ll probably notice that I mention the use of pulse, repetition, ostinati, etc. a lot today…I’m gonna stay away from labels, but safe to say we are at the Bang on a Can Marathon, so there are several threads that tend to run through much of the repertoire  during the day that I’ll try to explore as we go along.
4:33. One of the  characteristics of the BOAC Marathons are their penchant for sudden stylistic “left turns”, and we’ve just took one. Yungchen Lhamo and Anton Batagov (voice & piano respectively) are performing two works (entitled White Palace and Medicine Buddha) that are much more relaxed and tranquil than anything else we’ve heard so far. Batagov’s effective accompaniment serves as an undulating foundation upon which Lhamo meanders utilizing the vocal techniques she learned in her native Tibet. It is mysterious at times, listless at others, and ethereal throughout.


Brooklyn Youth Chorus and TILT Brass
(photo by Thomas Deneuville and used with permission)

4:58. The Brooklyn Youth Chorus returns to the stage along with members of the NYC-based TILT brass ensemble for Astral Epitaphs, a work John King composed for the final performances of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company at the Park Avenue Armory two years ago. From what I can tell, the work is completely aleatoric, with each instrument and the choir being picked up by microphones that are being fed into a computer and relayed back through spatial speakers throughout the room with various elctro-acoustic transformations. With an array of 45 singers in a half-circle around the stage and three trumpets and three trombones lined up in front, the work is as visually stunning as it is aurally. I can imagine this piece was scheduled before the move to the Pace Center was necessary – the effect in the Financial Center’s Winter Garden would not be quite so harsh at points and more expansive in others…but overall the impact of the piece was very strong, especially as the choir began to sing in (relative) unison at the conclusion.
5:20. In-yo-face duo Talk Normal is about half-way through their set of three pieces…I’ll talk more about the music in a sec, but I’d like to point out that we’re sitting in a 700-seat theatre and not a stadium…I have the utmost respect for viscerality in performances, but I also like my eardrums. Taking the risk of sounding like an old man – it’s a little too loud. Just a touch. UPDATE: Ok, rant over. Talk Normal was actually quite inventive in their concept – they obviously wanted to make an impact with the audience and they most certainly achieved that.


Asphalt Orchestra
(photo by Thomas Deneuville and used with permission)

5:30.  It wouldn’t be a BOAC Marathon without the Asphalt Orchestra bringing their front line attitude bear. As the only new music marching band, they really do have a vast latitude with which to push & pull their repertoire. Today they’re  playing arrangements of several Pixies tunes arranged by the members of the ensemble as a sneak peek of their concert next week at Lincoln Center. Ken Thomson in particular is on fire during this set and Ken Bentley stands out in a great way on sousaphone.
5:54. Going on five hours planted in one spot…luckily I’m being easily distracted by the beautiful solo violin performance of Monica Germino. More soon…
6:07. I’ve seen a fair helping of works for solo instrument and electronics, but Julia Wolfe’s With a blue dress on may be my new favorite…a major work for solo violin (expecting the violinist to sing) along with looping and other digital effects based off of the folk tune “Pretty Little Girl with the Blue Dress On”. Germino was awe-inspiring in her performance of the work and the sound design by Frank van der Weii was just right…definitely one of the highlights of the concert so far.
The next work is Schnee by Hans Abrahamsen performed by the Talea Ensemble…Michael Gordon just warned us that it was an hour long and suggested those of us who have been here for a while might want to use the opportunity to grab a bite. I shall do just that…


Talea Ensemble
(Photo by Thomas Deneuville and used with permission)

7:38. Alright – just was able to grab some dinner with Alexandra Gardner, so we’re both much more with it (6 hours in one place is a long time). I’d like to take this opportunity to give special props to Thomas Deneuville, the force of nature behind the online new music magazine I Care If You Listen. This is the second year that Thomas and I have sat next to each other as we live-blogged our way through the Marathon and while I was able to offer my power strip for his equipment, he’s been nice enough to share his photos of the concert (which are much better than anything I can get with my iPhone). When you get a chance, check out ICIYL!
7:45. A newcomer on the NYC new music scene, Hotel Elefant makes their debut performance on the BOAC Marathon by performing Angélica Negrôn’s trio for flute, viola/mandolin, and harp,  Drawings for Meyoko. Audacious, since the work was composed for another not-ancient ensemble – the Janus Trio – but also because the ensemble is so much bigger than this trio. Made up of 20 performers from NYC, Hotel Elefant is one of many new groups combining strong performers with an entrepreneurial mindset. It was a pleasure for me to hear the work, since I was already familiar with it from the Janus Trio’s recording and it’s so rare that we get to hear new works performed by more than one ensemble. The three performers, Domenica Fossati (alto flute), Andie Tanning Springer (viola and mandolin), and Kathryn Andrews (harp), were equally audacious and unafraid in the face of technical difficulties when they abruptly and calmly stopped the performance because they had lost their click track. A few minutes later and the second try came across quite strongly…Negrôn’s delicate electronics and intricate writing is top-notch and the trio performed beautifully in the face of adversity.
8:12. BOAC was nice enough to bring back the French quintet Cabaret Contemporain for a second set and while I think this set is even stronger than the first one (which was pretty amazing), it’s still a little disjunct to hear a group playing music that seems to scream to be danced to in front of 600+ audience members sitting there politely. Not a criticism, but an interesting observation…not sure what to make of it.


Bang on a Can All-Stars with Shara Worden
(Photo by Thomas Deneuville and used with permission)

8:56. Almost eight hours in and the Bang on a Can All-Stars with their newest member, Ken Thomson, on clarinet and guest vocalist Shara Worden, have taken the stage. Introducing the next work is the composer, David Lang, as he describes his process of scanning through all of Schubert’s vocal works to find instances of Death being portrayed as a sentient being speaking about the afterlife, organizing them into a sensible order and setting them for the All-Stars. As with many of Lang’s other works, each section within the work seems to have one primary mood and texture with subtle changes shifting constantly. Worden’s voice is hauntingly beautiful in this context and the timbre of her voice soon becomes necessary – even a requirement – to make the full impact of the work come through – it’s hard to imagine anyone else supplying so much character while hewing to a narrowly limited melodic range. The ensemble as a whole gels effortlessly with no one sticking out or fading into the woodwork.


Maya Beiser with the Provenance Project Band
(Photo by Thomas Deneuville and used with permission)

9:46. After taking a quick break to wish my dad “Happy Father’s Day” (hi, Dad!), I got back in time to hear cellist Maya Beiser perform Tamar Muskal’s Mar de Leche with the Provenance Project Band. Beiser sang magnificently through Muskal’s Arab-infused melodies while her compatriots on oud and hand drums all demonstrated their mastery on their instruments throughout the work. Beiser, more than almost anyone performing today, demonstrates a persona and an energy onstage that is difficult to define but definitely becomes an important part of not only her playing but of the work itself.
10:16. Blown away by the All-Stars’ performance of Annea Lockwood’s Vortex – great to hear the new version of the group with Ken going freakin’ nuts on bass clarinet. It’s been 10 hours since I got here and as much as I want to suck the marrow out of this bone to the very end, I am cashed out. I hope you’ve enjoyed my musings throughout the day and hope you get to come experience the Marathon at some point soon yourself.

Fast Forward Austin 2013

Fast Forward Austin
The first two installments of Fast Forward Austin set the bar quite high. Its goals were to provide a forum for local and national performers of new music, to explore new performance spaces, and to enhance educational opportunities for underserved communities. From its modest beginnings in a small venue in East Austin, the festival moved last year to a multi-level club just east of I-35, and found itself in the even larger Scottish Rite Theater for this year’s show. Located closer to downtown Austin, SRT served as an exclusively Masonic facility (with a few exceptions) until 2004 when it began the Scottish Rite Children’s Theatre program, and not long afterward it became a venue for avant-jazz and other offerings. To enter the theater is to find oneself surrounded by rich, dark woods on all sides. Leather furniture that was carefully placed in its present position during the Eisenhower administration is still wet behind the ears relative to a building that was built in the late 19th century. A certain amount of cognitive dissonance occurs when you leave the hipster/food truck/cosmopolitan what-have-you of downtown Austin and enter the SRT time capsule. Once you’ve turned the corner and passed by the portraits of Davy Crockett, Sam Houston, and Jim Bowie in the “Hall of Texas Masonic Heroes,” you can’t help but wonder if perhaps you’ve had a The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe moment. And then upon entering the beautiful main theater, you know that you have.

With a pentient for variety and an eye on the visual, this year’s show built on past accomplishments and added a half dozen commissions to boot. Kicking off the eight hour marathon with Chris Cerrone’s Double Happiness was the Living Earth Show [1]. Hailing from the Bay area, the guitar and percussion duo had premiered the piece just one week prior. High and spacey electronics laid the foundation for unison lines shared between the electric guitar and vibraphone. The gentle plunk of muted chimes played by Andrew Meyerson could be heard over a passacaglia of sorts as guitarist Travis Andrews negotiated his parts. Another highlight of the set was Max Stoffregen’s Quasi-Mason. Derived from his friend Mason Lindhal’s tune, the piece played on bowed vibes riffs and looped layers in the guitar, and had a really nice touch with added pick scratches on the recap. In my notes about Austin’s Weird Weeds I wrote “earworms.” Looking every bit the regular rock band, WW was anything but. Gone was the typical alternating verse/chorus form with a bridge thrown in for good measure, and in its place were monolithic, insistent chord progressions and grooves which stayed around just long enough to make you comfortable before taking an unexpected turn on a dime. Primarily an A/B affair, (that is to say, most of the songs had one big “A” and one big “B”) the tunes were familiar on the surface but so formally polar that the whole affair sounded like the soundtrack to an odd neighborhood. Austin Soundwaves returned this year with a full orchestra to perform Hermes Camacho’s The Bear Prince, with the composer conducting. The charming piece for orchestra and two narrators was performed by a group comprised primarily of students with only a year or two of lessons under their belts. Simple melodies and evocative motives in the vein of Peter and the Wolf populated the work, and the performance was quite polished and communicative, drawing the first standing ovation of the festival. Convergence Vocal Ensemble presented a “mix tape” of pop and rock tunes reimagined by around a half dozen composers, as well as a few straight up covers for good measure. (Full disclosure, I was one of those composers.) Mezzo-sopranos Beth Beauchamp, Tynan Davis, Laura Mercado-Wright, and bass Cameron Beauchamp were joined by guitarists Brent Baldwin and Thann Scoggin as well as percussionists Tom Burritt and Adam Groh for a set that was a study in contrasts. Brent Baldwin’s charming ukulele-accompanied version of The Magnetic Field’s Absolutely Cuckoo was contrasted by the thorny deconstruction of Steely Dan’s Fire in the Hole by Avery Fisher. Caroline Shaw’s work on The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face started as a beautiful straight-up a cappella rendering for the mezzos and blossomed into a wonderfully rich take on the work without masking its simple beauty. Joshua Shank arranged the Walt Whitman inspired Sheryl Crow song Riverwide. Preceded by a short prelude of Whitman’s Among the Multitude, the piece featured Cameron Beauchamp’s beautiful solo over a bed of Ebow’d guitar. Rounding out the set was La Llorona arranged by Graham Reynolds featuring Mercado-Wright belting out the jams.

At the halfway point of the festival, flautist Francois Minaux and visual artist Ryan Cronk set up outside of the main hall under the piercing eyes in the Hall of Heroes for an improvised set of painting, digitally fractured flute, and audience participation. A live mic was left on a stand as an invitation for those passing by to join the performance. As people sang and spoke into the microphone, their input was processed along with the signal of the flute, and these sounds informed Cronk’s painting as his strokes influenced Minaux’s playing.

The Meehan/Perkins Duo returned this year with Parallels, a huge new commission by Tristan Perich. Apropos to the title, both players had identical setups consisting of five differently sized triangles and hi-hat and each was flanked by sets of hanging, enclosure-less speakers. Tight hocketed figures were fleshed out and built a larger narrative as the mics picked up the attacks of the triangles and triggered electronics through the speakers. As the piece slowly evolved the hi-hats played a larger role, sounding a bit like snare drums to ears that had spent several minutes living in the high Hz world of the triangles.

An epic work, Parallels provided a great start to the second half of the day and its driving repetitive character was a bit of a prelude to the ending of the festival. Following Meehan/Perkins was Jon Russell and Jeff Anderle’s bass clarinet duo Sqwonk. They continued the evening’s tight hocketing with a performance of Knee Gas (ON) by Russell and Anderle’s Switchboard Music Festival cohort Ryan Brown. Starting off in all its sqwonking glory, the piece eventually backed off on the heavy intensity while maintaining its rhythmic vitality as multiple, overlapping lines developed. Perhaps it was the cyclical riff-like nature of the material or the visual impact of the players, [2] but the character of the piece and its performance begs for a transcription for two electric guitars. Along those lines, Ian Dicke’s Profiteering brought something of a syncopated rock sensibility to the proceedings. Symmetrical phrases and rounded formal cues were overtaken by a sweeping, lyrical middle section which was then followed in short order by polyrhythms which fell over one another before returning to the opening material. Funny, engaging, and highly polished, Sqwonk was absolutely a highlight of the festival. The evening’s finale was a performance (the Austin premier, no less) of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. A number of beanbags, pillows, and other cushions had been available at the foot of the stage for the duration of the festival, but as the performers took the stage a not-too-insignificant percentage of the audience took advantage of this particular seating opportunity. Featuring the University of Texas Percussion Group along with other musicians from UT and the Austin area, the wonderfully played hour plus marathon was a fitting ending to a big day of premiers, education, and community.

Fast Forward Austin has over the past few years branched out from its initial one-day festival concept. It has twice curated the Austin incarnation of Phil Kline’s Unsilent Night, co-presented concerts with the Nonclassical label during SXSW, and brought its brand of Austin sensibilities to New York. With its founders developing new projects throughout the country (as well as in Sweden and Portugal) FFA is certainly on track to continue its pattern of growth in the years to come.


1. Best Kickstarter ever.

2. I’m telling you, they got a least few moves from these guys. Right round 2:45-3:00.

19 Pianists, 21.5 Hours, 840 Repetitions: Erik Satie’s Vexations


The ubiquitous John Cage centenary tributes continued in the Bay Area this month with a performance of Erik Satie’s Vexations, 49 years after the first performance famously organized by Cage. A free event presented by the Berkeley Arts Festival, it began on the evening of September 8, and was one of two West Coast performances that weekend. (The other was in Santa Monica, presented by Jacaranda Music.)

Ideas are one thing and what happens is another. – John Cage

As many NewMusicBox readers will know, Vexations poses some unusual logistical challenges. The score (presumably intended to be played on piano) consists of a short 18-note melody with two harmonizations, a tempo marking of “Very slow,” and a note that indirectly suggests that the work be played 840 times. In reality this results in a 20-hour performance, give or take, depending on how “Very slow” is interpreted. The performance, organized by Cage on September 9–10, 1963, featured a rotating cast of pianists playing for 20 minutes each. This month’s Berkeley performance had 19 pianists, each playing for an hour, plus some shorter reprise sets in the early morning and at the end to fill the remaining slots.

Hadley McCarroll performing between 7 and 8 p.m.

Hadley McCarroll performing between 7 and 8 p.m.

A couple dozen of us were present when the marathon endeavor got underway, promptly at 6 p.m. The performance took place in a modest, empty commercial space in downtown Berkeley which had been outfitted with a piano and plastic folding chairs. The Berkeley Arts Festival is more of an ongoing concert series than a time-specific festival, and utilizes unoccupied storefronts for their performances. (Their current space is billed, for example, as being “right next to Ace Hardware.”) The large windows looking out on University Avenue allowed for the music to be heard on the street, and for street sounds to enter the performance space in return.

Given the paucity of performance instructions in Satie’s score—there are no dynamic, articulation, or phrasing markings—the interpretive possibilities are limitless, and the first three performers (Jerry Kuderna, Hadley McCarroll, and Joe Lasqo) availed themselves of the broad range of techniques they had at their disposal to differentiate each iteration. Kuderna’s were alternately languorous and insistent, with extreme volume changes and varied use of the sustain pedal. McCarroll worked with variations in articulation and speed; at one point towards the end of her hour, after the sun had set, she played an exaggeratedly elongated version and a very swimmy version where the sustain pedal was engaged throughout. Lasqo took liberties with even the rhythmic values of the written notes, allowing rubato in each phrase and inflecting his performance with a jazz sensibility.

Kelsey Walsh, with the iPad keeping track of how many times the piece had been played

Kelsey Walsh, with the iPad keeping track of how many times the piece had been played.

By the time Kelsey Walsh slid onto the bench at 9 p.m, her straightforward, unvarying approach seemed a surprising and radical choice by comparison. It also allowed for a completely different relationship to the piece from the audience’s perspective. The three performers before her explored as many facets of this tiny gem as they could and, in so doing, explored aspects of their own musical and emotional selves to uncover what they could bring to such a small amount of material. But by not doing any of this excavation, Walsh instead handed the audience a steady point to meditate on, putting the exploratory work into each listener’s hands and showing that the least varied could in some ways be the most rewarding.

The omnipresent timepiece that controlled the hourly changing of the guard

The omnipresent timepiece that controlled the hourly changing of the guard

I confess that I had to head home sometime after 10 p.m., to attend to such mundane concerns as flossing and feeding the cats. The space was well populated when I left, with some audience members already making use of the blankets and camping mats that had been set out for those who were in it for the long haul. When I returned around 6:30 a.m., there were about ten bleary-eyed diehards there, several of whom were performers.

It’s useless to play lullabies for those who cannot sleep. – John Cage

Just after daybreak, Joseph Colombo presented a forte version with the sustain pedal engaged that rang out like a carillon. As a morning coffee soundtrack, Vexations is curiously unsettling. A companion who joined me for about 3 hours of the event, on and off, said that at one point he felt himself becoming angry at the performers for continuing to play. And indeed, the tritone-laden Vexations is vexing: on my way to Berkeley that morning, I was disturbed to discover that I wasn’t able to accurately hum the theme despite having listened to several hours of it the night before.

8 a.m. performer Regina Schaffer at the piano, with 1 p.m performer Sarah Cahill holding Schaffer’s newborn

8 a.m. performer Regina Schaffer at the piano, with 1 p.m performer Sarah Cahill holding Schaffer’s newborn.

Pianists continued coming forth throughout the morning and into the early afternoon with their individual offerings: After Colombo’s energized wake-up call, Anton Vishio brought the pulse rate back down and I became aware of the breathing of the other people in the room. Regina Schaffer’s consistent and clear presentation, gently bringing out the theme throughout, made the harmonizations above ring like distant bells. Dominique Leone
seemed to speak without artifice, playing simply while neither layering compositional ideas on top of the piece nor reining himself in.

Roger Rohrbach touching the iPad to register the completion of another iteration

Roger Rohrbach touching the iPad to register the completion of another iteration.

By the time the final scheduled performer, Sarah Cahill, started her set, it was clear that the 20-hour concert length had been underestimated. The iPad, which was keeping track of the repetition, gradually took on a role of heightened prominence in the room as people started checking the time and doing the math. When Sarah finished at 2 p.m., the iPad counter app (written specially by the 11ers for the performance) hadn’t even reached 800, so the performers who were still around began taking turns playing short sets to keep the counter ticking.

At some point it became clear that our presence was no longer about the performance or the music itself. There wasn’t going to be a grand finale, and whatever theoretical points might be embedded in the work had already been made. Yet around 20 of us stayed until 3:35 p.m. to hear the final, 840th statement played by Patti Deuter, the organizer behind the performance. The piece ended without any flourish and we all applauded the performers’ efforts and determination. But underneath it all was the knowledge that we really had gathered there for this curious 21 1/2-hour ritual in order to pay homage to the inimitable spirit of John Cage.

If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all. –John Cage

Performers not mentioned above: Luciano Chessa, Jacqueline Chew, Jim Jowdy, Ric Louchard, Kanoko Nishi, Melissa Smith, Julie Steinberg, Kelly Walker

12th Anniversary of Annual “Happy Birthday Mr. Cage!”

Happy Birthday Mr. Cage at the MACC

Photo by Matt Bradshaw

Happy Birthday Mr. Cage, indeed! The wash of Cage performances, celebrations, remembrances, and retrospectives that started earlier this year culminated in centennial concerts across the country this past weekend, and Austin was no exception. However, this year’s celebration, while special in its own right, was actually the 12th anniversary of Michelle Schumann’s annual “Happy Birthday Mr. Cage!” event. Inaugurated in 2000, the celebration soon became a “Rite of Fall” of sorts for Austinites in and around the new music scene who came to see Schumann and other Cage aficionados perform his works. This year’s observance was marked by a marathon concert at the Mexican American Cultural Center featuring 92 performers of all stripes. The show was co-curated by Michelle Schumann and the Austin Chamber Music Center, along with Travis Weller of the Austin New Music Coop, Brent Baldwin of Texas Choral Consort, and Matt Teodori of line upon line percussion. The show was a product of nearly a year of planning, and the members of each of the curating groups brought their own unique perspective in an attempt to capture a broad look at the composer’s life and work.

Michelle Schumann

Michelle Schumann
Photo by Matt Bradshaw

The five-hour show was divided into five equal sections separated by brief intermissions. Though most of these sets were presented conventionally with one piece following another, the overlapping of works was a feature of two of them. For instance, the 5 p.m. set (see below) featured Variations IV throughout while Composed Improvisation, Solo, One4, Two, and Aria were played, and the 6 p.m. set featured 45 Minutes for Speaker which went on throughout while Four5, Variations III, Suite for Toy Piano, and Amores were performed one after the other.

cage @ 100 program

Works like Variations IV and 45 Minutes for Speaker lend themselves to this layering process, and in the case of the former speak directly to its instructions. While other works could have been put in place of the shorter works which were played simultaneously with Variations IV and 45 Minutes for Speaker, the “superimposed” works that were chosen here provided a compelling counterpoint to the “pedal function” of the longer works without overshadowing them. In short, they play(ed) well together.

Brent Baldwin of Texas Choral Consort

Brent Baldwin of Texas Choral Consort
Photo by Matt Bradshaw

A marathon concert covering the life and times of any composer is a lot to pack into an article, (especially when the event is one of many similar events occurring across the country and world) but some highlights of the marathon included Texas Choral Consort’s performance of Hymns and Variations, New Music Co-op’s presentation of Four6 for violin, contrabass, and percussion/electronics, and Schumann’s interpretations of Cage’s piano works (some for toy piano, others for prepared piano). Percussionists from the University of Texas as well as dancers and other instrumentalists from the Austin community rounded out the list of performers.

Brandt Barnard and Tristan Boyd

Brandt Barnard and Tristan Boyd
Photo by Matt Bradshaw

Despite the scope of the concert, the variety of the music, and the novelty of the presentation, nods to conventional performance (such as holding on to 4’33” until the final set) did give a sense of order and direction to the show which, of course, featured a great deal of indeterminate music. Schumann and the other curators truly shot for the moon this year in honoring Cage’s life and legacy with this special marathon. But make no mistake, next year will see yet another marking of his birthday by those whose lives have been so significantly impacted by his music.