7.31.08 BANG US IF YOU CAN
BANG ON A CAN MARATHON
MassMOCA July 27, 2008
I’d seen Bang on a Can at MassMOCA a few years ago, a twin bill of Indonesian wayang theater and Eno’s Music for Airports. I reacted as one normally would to a group that first played second fiddle to shadow puppets and then played some pretentious fake muzak. As a result, I haven’t been moved ‘till now to go to one of their legendary marathon concerts. Legendary minimalist composer and musician Terry Riley was going to be there, and they were going to play some Zappa compositions. Well, OK, let’s go.
The 6 hour show was comprised of 14 pieces, performed by 14 different configurations of BOAC veterans and a mess o’ talented students who’d been working with BOAC over the prior three weeks. It was a casual vibe; the audience was encouraged to circulate in and out of the Hunter Theater; there was a cook-out in the court yard, and food and drink were welcomed back in the theater. I learned that, contrary to popular belief, beer and ice cream do go together, if the conditions are right.
The program was already in full swing when we arrive; after a few quiet-to-the-point-of-being-ponderous selections, we were assaulted, in a good way, by a killer piece N’Shima by Iannis Xenakis, performed by two female vocalists, two muted trombones and two muted French Horns. It was tribal without the tribes, it was the sound of nature unhinged, with the horns sputtering and quacking while the vocalists blasted deep gutteral noise-syllables in perfect synchronization. It was shocking, it was in-your-face, and it was beautiful.
Next up was Terry Riley’s 1964 piece Olson III, in which a 13-piece ensemble played mesmerizing, shifting and contrasting quarter-note patterns in 3/4 time, demonstrating, almost comically, Riley’s overarching influence on Philip Glass, and again featuring the female vocalists, now numbering three, who sang aggressively and remarkably in one voice, even when they were harmonizing, like a post-modern version of The Lennon Sisters.
A little later came what was easily the highlight of the marathon: a performance of Shelter, a 7 movement piece written by BOAC principles Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe, and David Long, performed by a large ensemble, including three percussionists and a not-shy electric guitarist, with surreal and impressionistic film projected on the big-screen backdrop. The whole thing was just stunning. The first movement, especially, was riveting, with the women singers, who at this point were my heroes, now singing with flat voices in close dissonant harmonies, in the style of the Bulgarian State Radio & Television Female Vocal Choir.
Then came the two performances that drew me to the show, which were both disappointing. Terry Riley’s improvisation piece clocked in at a short seven minutes, and consisted of Riley noodling at the piano while throat singing, with four BOAC members, trying, and failing, to figure how they were supposed in improvise with that. Then the Zappa pieces were attempted by a large ensemble of the BOAC students, who simply weren’t up to the task of playing Zappa’s complex, demanding music. It was just a big mess.
No matter. If the program had consisted of the performance of Shelter, followed by 5 hours of ducks farting into a funnel, it would have been worth it. Can’t wait ‘till next year.