A new-music musical marathon
by Seth Rogovoy

(NORTH ADAMS, Mass., July 28, 2002) – Concertgoers were exposed to an enormous range and diversity of sounds and musical approaches over the course of a six-hour concert featuring 17 different pieces of music in the Bang on a Can Summer Marathon at Mass MoCA on Saturday. The event brought Bang on a Can’s first Summer Music Institute at MoCA – all but officially known as “Banglewood” -- to a rousing climax.

By all accounts the two-week residency of Bang on a Can composers, faculty and students was a rousing success, and plans are already in the works for an expanded residency at MoCA next summer. And if the sold-out Marathon was an indication of the level of work and the audience’s interest in cutting-edge, experimental composition, then the future of music may well be found not at any of the nation’s top summer music festivals, but at the nation’s largest, most innovative museum of contemporary art.

The pieces, which were played by soloists and ensembles drawn from the institute participants, students and faculty, including Bang’s resident ensemble, the Bang on a Can All-Stars, ranged from intricately composed works like David Lang’s delicate “Sweet Air” to semi-improvisational pieces like Louis Andriessen’s “Workers Union” and Terry Riley’s minimalist classic, “In C.”

Lang’s work was a hazy, gentle number with the feel of a folk dance. Played by a uniquely designed quintet of violin, flute, clarinet, piano, and cello, in which the strings plucked all their notes, the piece was built of staccato notes, with slight variations of melody by piano and clarinet played over long, repeated figures by the strings.

Evan Ziporyn was represented by two pieces and was ubiquitous throughout the marathon as a leader and performer on a variety of clarinets. His “Amok 6,” performed on gamelan by an ensemble of student composers, surrendered some control to the musicians. Although they were given written parts to play, they had the freedom to decide when to play their parts within the piece, which was given a unified breath by guest percussionist David Cossin.

Ziporyn’s “Luv Time” was more jazzy. Time was marked by the clang of a piano, while tuba, baritone saxophone and Ziporyn’s bass clarinet formed a kind of post-modern r&b horn section. The three-part piece nodded to Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” in the middle section before ending in a battle over modulations, with the horns wanting to change key but repeatedly backing down.

Julia Wolfe’s “Big, Beautiful, Dark, and Scary” was an aptly-titled work-in-progress almost certainly inspired by the events of 9/11. Cresting waves of sound, including bass, electric guitar, piano and cello, ebbed and flowed, setting up a din over which Ziporyn’s clarinet and David Cossin’s vibes flew over, like souls off to heaven.

Michael Gordon’s “acdc” combined rock ‘n’ roll dynamics with repeating patterns out of the Steve Reich playbook. The piece – perhaps the unfulfilled promise of early Electric Light Orchestra -- was built on top of a piano pattern that sounded like fractured blues, with a hint of the Beatles “Hey Jude,” and was moved forward by eloquent playing by cellist Wendy Sutter.

Reich himself was an influence and presence who hovered over the Marathon’s proceedings. One of the godfathers of the new-music scene, Reich was on hand to introduce three of his pieces, as did several of the other composers who were in residence. A quartet of drummers played his “Drumming: Part One” from 1971, an exercise of subtly shifting patterns which was given a multi-media treatment with a bird’s-eye view of the row of bongo drums projected on a video screen behind the musicians.

Cossin adapted Reich’s 1967 piece, “Piano Phase,” originally scored for two pianists, for himself as a solo piece, playing his part along to a pre-recorded loop on percussion pads that triggered piano samples. Cossin also added a video element, performing behind a translucent screen which gave the audience the optical illusion that it was watching two drummers. For what it’s worth, the composer was absolutely thrilled with the liberties the musician took with his piece.

Ziporyn similarly tackled Reich’s “New York Counterpoint” as a solo piece, playing along with prerecorded loops of himself playing the other eight parts of the work, in its intimate airiness and delight in shifting patterns a celebration of the instrument, the musician, and the essential quality of Reichness.

Other pieces on the program included some traditional Balinese gamelan music, Elena Kats-Chernin’s “ProMotion,” Earle Browne’s “Novara,” Martin Bresnick’s “The Dream of the Lost Traveller,” Todd Reynolds’s “Still Life with Microphone,” Martyn Padding’s “Fix/us,” and Louis Andriessen’s “Workers Union.” This last piece was an effort to allow musicians absolute freedom of pitch within a highly constrained rhythmic framework. The insistent patterns by which the 11 musicians had to abide, including many triplets and sixteenth notes, constrained their ability to determine the sound of the piece, perhaps a wry commentary on the limits inherent in a worker’s democracy.

Over two-dozen musicians took part in the curtain-closer, an hour-long version of Terry Riley’s ground-breaking “In C,” in which the musicians are given phrases to play in a certain order, but freedom to decide when to play them and for how long. The piece requires intense concentration, sympathy and cohesion among the musicians, which was not always fully apparent in this version -- it lacked the dramatic crests and ebbs that the best ensembles, such as the Bang on a Can All-Stars -- have achieved with it.

But in the end, six hours of challenging, provocative music went by with relative ease, and one looked forward to many more – and dare I say, longer? – summer marathons.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on July 31, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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