This is one spectator's observations of the much-hyped Bang On A Can Marathon,
which happened June 2, 1996 at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, NYC. I
am not a musician, nor do I pretend to be an expert--I'm just a fan...
For those of you who don't know, the Bang On A Can Marathon was started in 1987 by a bunch of students who had just finished at Yale. They came to New York with big ideas in mind: basically to turn the New Music scene on its ear--a merging of the long divided Uptown and Downtown scenes. Founder David Lang had participated in a New Music consort at Yale that gave adventuresome all-night concerts. When he arrived in New York he wanted to replicate that heady all-nite concert feeling (historical precedents: Terry Riley, Robert Wilson, John Cage, etc.). However, New York in the late 80s was not New York in the 70s; people wanted to be in bed at a reasonable hour, hence a daytime marathon tradition began. From its humble beginnings at Exit Art, the venue moved to Millennium on E. 4th St., to The Kitchen, finally finding a permanent(?) home uptown at Lincoln Center.
They claim that they are interested in presenting music we've never heard before; they want us to leave the auditorium unsure of what exactly music is (or to quote the slogan of the late, great Downtown performance space Roulette "Yes, but is it music?"). Over the years, they've done a formidable job in digging up some really obscure stuff. The three judges blindly listen to over 200 entries and make the final decision based not on resumé or accomplishment, but on the actual music itself. Eccentricity is appreciated, as is obscurity.
However, what's as interesting as the music presented at this annual event is the curatorial slant of David Lang, Michael Gordon, and Julia Wolfe. Atonality, 12-tones, Cageian aesthetics, and Darmstadt influence were completely absent in the most recent installment of the Bang On A Can Marathon. Rather, the emphasis was on fierce attack, strong rhythm, and minimalism. The volume was extremely loud through out the entire 8 hour show; it was rarely adjusted regardless of the nature of the piece (the exception being the Curran piece: see below). We caught the first 2 hours of the show then split for a walk in Central Park; we then returned for the final 3 hours. Here's a brief rundown of the pieces we saw:
George Antheil "Ballet Mechanique," performed by Red Fish Blue Fish. This ensemble, a group of students from UCSD, was led by Steve Shick, percussionist of The Bang On A Can All Stars. They did a formidable job with this old chestnut. In typical BOAC style, they punched up the sound: strong attacks, high volume and an up-to-date tape of a screeching jet-engine instead of the old-fashioned propeller used in my early 1950's Carlos Surinach recording. A real bonus was the simultaneous showing of a Fernand Leger film--evidently meant to be shown with the original piece. IMHO, BOAC wanted to show the roots of their agenda and make a historical connection--hence, the inclusion of this piece. Every piece that I witnessed during the rest of the day had a "Ballet Mechanique" feel to it.
Eve Beglarian "Machut in the Machine Age IV: Ay mi!" Performed by Twisted Tutu: Eve Beglarian & Kathy Supove. Two chicks dressed in black bras wearing transparent plastic shirts made me suspicious from the start. This piece was based on a miced up child's organ. One woman banged on the organ (which was fed into tape delay/loop system) and the other played Reichian "4 Organ" chords on the keyboard. Twisted Tutu tried for outrageousness in their attire, but thankfully the more entertaining outlandishness was to be found in the music: strange muffled knockings meeting canned psychedelic suburban 60's Wurlitzer sounds straight from Grandma's basement.
Zack Browning "Breakpoint Screamer" Performed by Ensemble Screamer. This could have been the sleeper of the day--it certainly ranked amongst my faves. 5 trumpets and electronics belting out very tight horn charts. As the electronics got faster, the players responded (or maybe it was the other way around) until things got so sonically overworked that they were about to explode. Very BOAC fare, that succeeds in just the way that BOAC aspires to: rhythm, volume, intensity and rock and roll. This one left our heads spinning and our ears dazzled.
Pamela Z "The Muni Section" & "In Tymes of Olde" Performed by Pamela Z. A commissioned piece based on the sounds of San Francisco. Pamela Z. is a wonderful performer. She was wired up like a suicide bomber. I couldn't quite make out which wires led to where but every time she moved a part of her body she triggered a sound bite. The samples were of people asking directions, conductors on subway cars, tourists, etc. She did a Joan La Barbaraesque vocal treatment over the top of her strange acoustic dance. Her voice is beautiful and her range is broad but the material was lacking as it moved into sentimentality. This had the effect of softening the edge an otherwise feisty performance.
Alvin Curran "VSTO" Performed by the Cassatt Quartet. Dedicated to Giacinto Scelsi, this piece was gorgeous although the context was completely wrong. After the hi-jinx rock 'n' roll of the first few works (particularly the Antheil & Browning), this low volume Scelsi-esque acoustic composition hit dead air. The delicate overtones and strange microtones were unfortunately lost on me due to my still-ringing ears. 2 1/2 hours into the show, it was time for a break. Here's what we saw when we returned:
Michael Gordon "Lilies" Performed by Michael Gordon Philharmonic. I like Michael Gordon's music. I like his CD with works from the 80's "Big Noise from Nicaragua." I like his Stravinskyian maximalism. I like his Reichian Minimalism. So, I liked this work too. (2 blaring amped violins, an electric guitar, a baritone sax, and a Casio keyboard repeated in square dance-like configurations between the various players, each pushing the others to be louder and more mechanical.) It was just like all his other work. And perhaps that's the problem--I don't get any urgent sense of progression or growth in Gordon's work. There was no date on the work in the program notes and despite the rush of pleasure this piece gave me, it all left me wondering: where is he headed? Where does he go from here?
Toby Twining "Shaman" & "Richi Richi Rubel" Performed by Toby Twining Music. Some music is better seen than heard. To watch this a capella quartet was amazing; they did some very beautiful and difficult things with their voices. There was Tuvan and overtone singing; there were wonderful harmonies. It was a strange mixing of American Indian chanters meeting Bobby McFerrin meeting Jimmy Rodgers on a Saturday afternoon in Washington Square Park; the whole world was there.
David Lang "Cheating, Lying, Stealing" Performed by the Bang On A Can All Stars. This piece leads off the new BOAC compilation CD. And it's a bad choice. Each time I put the CD on, I find myself fast forwarding to the 2nd piece (Annie Gosfield's wonderful piano-work "The Manufacture of Tangled Ivory," which was performed today but we missed it). Today's show confirmed my feelings: there's a disappointing lethargy to this Lang work (I've enjoyed his work previously). He faces the same problem that Michael Gordon seems to face: they've both stylistically painted themselves into a corner--they've reached the end of something and need something fresh to happen. The normally sparking All Stars dimmed here and one felt their lack of inspiration pervading the concert hall.
Charles Amirkhanian "Dumbek Bookache IV" "Church Car I" "Dutiful Ducks" Performed by Charles Amirkhanian. This was a real treat. Evidently Amirkhanian no longer performs these 70's classics but he "came out of retirement" for this performance. There is an odd purity to these sound-texts: bits of words rubbing against each other free-forming meaning to a hypnotic beat; Amirkhanian spoke before the performance and said that he'd been reading Clark Coolidge & Gertrude Stein around the time he wrote these. He performed solo with accompanying taped voices. Each piece was brief--like a pop song. The audience received him warmly. If only most pop were this challenging...
Phil Kline "Whole Lotta" Performed by Phil Kline. The undisputed hit of the show. Kline got up in front of an audience and created a process artwork before our eyes using 12 boomboxes and tape loops. He approached the first box, turned on the mic and screamed a high pitched Residents-inspired version of Robert Plant's "Woman you need loovvvveeee" from Zep's "Whole Lotta Love." From there he went down the line of boxes repeating the phrase with gradual intensity. When all the tape loops were rolling(creating an almost perfect feedback echo Plant imitation) he went back to the first one and started all over again, erasing the work he had just created. In its place, a new and abstract drone born. Kline pulled off something really hard to do: successfully mixing rock and New Music in a way that neither kitsch or overly intellectual.
Frederic Rzewski "Piano Piece #4" Performed by Lisa Moore. Lisa Moore is one of the great assets of the BOAC All Stars. I've seen her tackle some of the most challenging pieces with the greatest of ease. Rzewski's piece was no exception. Moore, with seemingly no effort, glided through the treacherous passages presented here. A simple pulse at the top end of the piano grew in intensity and proceeded down the keyboard to the lowest range. Settling somewhere in the middle, it nestled itself in a bed of subtle pulses and vibrations to finish out this brief but astonishing work.
Steve Reich "Drumming" Performed by Red Fish Blue Fish. Led by Steve Shick. You've got to give these kids an A for effort. This is an impossibly difficult piece to get right. Subtle voices and percussion weave in and out of one another creating an almost static field. It must take years of practice to get it right. There were problems here: bad feedback in the middle of the quietest parts, unsure vocals... But there were also moments of great beauty that is inherent in this gorgeous work: heady middle-range marimba playing, fierce attack bongo play... It's always a pleasure to get a chance to hear this work; and one can always find dazzling passages regardless of the quality of the performance.
In summation (and here comes my armchair musicology) here's what I think: Bang On A Can is attempting to create a historical lineage for themselves; it's one that ignores the major musical thrust of the 20th Century--the 12 tone row-- and instead begins with Futurism, proceeds through Stravinsky, Cage & Harrison's percussion/gamelan periods, and rockets straight through to Minimalism, often touching down into Pop along its merry way. We end up with Stravinsky's "Le Sacre du Printemps" taken to the umpteenth degree, tempered with Minimalism, and juiced up with electric guitars. It's a sexy approach and it's certainly has caught my attention. Now that they've got it, the real question is: where do they go from here?
Kenneth Goldsmith is the host of WFMU's "Unpopular Music with Kenny G." (91.1 FM, East Orange)