Bang on a Can explodes a new musical universe
by Seth Rogovoy

(NORTH ADAMS, Mass., July 14, 2002) – “The Big Bang,” the aptly-titled opening concert of Bang on a Can’s two-week residency at Mass MoCA on Saturday night, lived up to its billing, blending the dynamics of rock ‘n’ roll with hints of a newly created universe.

Not that this new universe has no relationship to the previous one, or that Bang on a Can’s music doesn’t relate to what has come before. Rather, as in cosmology, there is the notion that the Big Bang was not unique, but just the latest in a series of ongoing big bangs, each one absorbing all the matter of universe into a central core, and then re-exploding it outward, a new fusion using the same material but recombining it on both a nuclear and a galactic level.

It’s something to keep in mind when listening to Bang on a Can works like those performed by the new-music collective’s performing arm, the Bang on a Can All-Stars. While the selections made various reference to an entire history and universe of music -- from Mozart to McCartney, from Ellington to Eno, and from Bali to Brazil – the point wasn’t the references themselves, but the resulting fusions, which at their best sounded nothing like what came before and organized sounds in utterly new and beautiful ways.

The concert was set up as a sampler of Bang on a Can’s wide-ranging palette, giving voice to one piece each by Bang’s three co-founding composers and artistic directors, and to three of their like-minded contemporaries – writers for whose iconoclastic approach Bang was in large part created.

Perhaps it is telling that the first two pieces, by Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon – who are also wife and husband in real life – were both inspired to some extent by that avant-garde, universe-shattering new-music collective from the 1960s, namely, the Beatles. Wolfe’s “Believing” opened with Wendy Sutter aggressively sawing a rhythmic, two-note riff on her cello – a favorite instrument of the Fab Four -- around which percussionist David Cossin hit splashes of cymbal. Electric guitarist John Benthal and clarinetist Evan Ziporyn chimed in with chordal counterpoint, before the entire sextet joined in, including double bassist Greg August and keyboardist Lisa Moore.

The lead instruments played repetitive arpeggios out of Philip Glass, but the piece as a whole was much denser and busier than Glass’s minimalism, and individual musicians were given moments belonging to themselves. Benthal used his measures as an opportunity to fuse electric blues and raga-rock, before the entire ensemble brought the number to a close in a furious crescendo that echoed the ending of “A Day in the Life.”

Gordon’s piece, “I Buried Paul,” took as its starting point the psychedelic fadeout that occurs at the end of the Beatles’s landmark recording, “Strawberry Fields Forever.” The tight rhythms played by Cossin on snare drums and Benthal on guitar provided a unifying pulse to the seemingly random sounds played by the others. After building up a recognizable pattern, the musicians slowly and individually shifted away from it, replicating acoustically what the Beatles originally accomplished through tampering with the speed of the master tape recordings.

Mozart met Brian Eno in Bang co-founder David Lang’s piece, “little eye.” Where the first two pieces were busy and dense, Lang’s was crystalline. Sutter played a simple, evocative study on cello, occasionally peppered by bell tones from a xylophone and piano. The work was given grit and texture with the scraping of several brake drums, a nod to John Cage, who pioneered the use of the punning automotive part. The ultimate effect was that of riding an elevator in a city building with the bell ringing whenever the door opened while a cellist rehearsed down the hall and ironworkers repaired a metal grating outside.

The second half of the concert ventured further afield, beginning with “2 Impersonations,” two solo pieces by composer/clarinetist Evan Ziporyn. The first, inspired by a Van Gogh copy of a Japanese painting and bamboo flute, was all about breath and focus, replete with meditative spaces and silences that were as eloquent as the airy notes. The piece morphed into one informed by East African guitar music, and much more linear.

The group ventured into multimedia territory with Don Byron’s original score to a silent episode of the Ernie Kovacs TV show, shown on a screen behind the performers. In “Eugene,” Kovacs did nothing less than compose a surrealist, slapstick funhouse. Byron’s piece, a pastiche of styles, sound effects and mood music, underlined Kovacs’s iconoclastic wit.

The curtain came down on Hermeto Pascoal’s “Arapua,” what Ziporyn called “a big stew” of Brazilian influences, but which sounded more like a dynamic bit of what used to be called prog-rock, with guitar and piano bouncing chords back and forth, at times in an almost Gershwinesque tapestry of sound painting an urban landscape. What was particularly Brazilian about it might have been elusive, but the piece was bright, lively and elastic.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on July 16, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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