Thursday, August 05, 2010

8.5.10 CAN BANGIN' 2010


A Bang on a Can ensemble featuring the svelte Todd Big Daddy Reynolds

This article originally appeared in the 8.5.10 issue of Metroland

BANG ON A CAN MARATHON

MASS MOCA

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Saturday marked what for some of us is the high cultural point of a culture-drenched season: the Bang on a Can Marathon, where a gaggle of 30-some professional musicians, students and composers conclude a three-week residency at Mass Moca with a 6-hour orgy of what some might call “new music.”

One of the many things that makes this event so fabulous is the friendliness of it all—the event features some 20 pieces, ranging from a couple minutes in length to maybe twenty minutes tops—there is no chance of getting caught in the black vortex of some interminable and ugly modern work. Everything is bite-sized and manageable for even the most untrained listener.

And each piece is played by a different ensemble, ranging from duets to ensembles with 10+ members. (A special mention has to be made of the stage and sound crew, who morphed the stage some twenty times in six hours, and who didn’t appear to break a sweat or miss a trick. Amazing.) And the whole thing is soooooo casual. The action takes place in the big Hunter Auditorium, and even with an audience of 500, finding a good seat is never a problem, and the audience is always free to wander in and out, grab a drink in the courtyard, look at a gallery, or maybe steal a glimpse of Leonard Nimoy, who was being feted out on the deck.

So there’s the vibe, what about the music? It’s always been great, but this year there seemed to be an emphasis on fun, an attribute not often associated with “new music”. Each piece was introduced by either the composer or one of the BOAC-ers intimately familiar with the piece, and all of the introductions were not only personal, but charming and often downright goofy, all of which served to greatly enhance what was to follow.

At the top of the list was Tom Johnson’s Narayana’s Cows, a narrated piece that musically solved an ancient math puzzle about how many cows you’d have after 17 years if you started with just two. Each year was a movement, each cow got a note and each generation got a pitch. The first movement lasted about a second, the seventeenth must have gone on for five minutes. With a deadpan narration (that included the drinking of some milk), and an ensemble that grew whenever a new generation arrived (finishing with two basses, a couple keyboards, three electric guitars, a bass clarinet and a cello), the frenzied, complex piece just got more hysterical with each passing year.

I wish I could write 2000 words but I can’t, so other highlights included excerpts from Ted Hearne’s Katrina Ballads, an operetta of sorts that featured a libretto taken verbatim from the news, including Hearne sputtering “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job” like a mis-firing digital sampler over a disjointed chamber accompaniment; three young virtuosos from Uzbekistan, who played traditional instruments on traditional Uzbek pieces that all fit seamlessly among the shiny adventuresome new pieces played by everyone else; David Lang’s Forced March, a strident piece featuring a repeated pattern over shifting time signatures, so that the pattern is never situated the same way twice, or as the composer observed “the worst of both worlds: endless variety, but you don’t really notice it”; and Michael Gordon’s Yo Shakespeare, an epic large conductor-less ensemble work with so much counter-rhythm that the musicians were instructed to hop and dance in order to keep the downbeat in place.

Lots of concerts make you feel good, hit your pleasure points, make you sweat. The Bang on a Can Marathon never fails to do all that, along with making me feel more aware, more alive, and more in touch with the endless possibilities of the universe. Really.

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