by Seth Rogovoy
(NORTH ADAMS, Mass., July 13, 2003) – The incredibly zany musical hi-jinks of Polygraph Lounge kicked off the public performance aspect of the three-week residency of the Bang on a Can Summer Institute of Music at Mass MoCA – informally known as “Banglewood” – on Saturday night in the B-10 Theater.
The maniacally referential yet always virtuosic work of Polygraph Lounge was a perfect way to ease into the Bang on a Can mindset. Things may get more serious, musically speaking, in upcoming weeks, but hopefully Polygraph’s brash audacity and irreverence will infect the subsequent proceedings. As Polygraph co-founder Mark Stewart – who is also a founding member of the Bang on a Can All-Stars -- is fond of saying, there is a “dearth of mirth in music,” and if not quite at the relentless, hyperactive level of Polygraph, Bang on a Can itself typically leavens its proceedings with at least a few chuckles.
But the chuckles came at a torrential pace on Saturday night, as Stewart and bandmate Rob Schwimmer unleashed the floodgates of their musical memories in set pieces that, though grounded in specific, thematic ideas --- a mini-opera based on “Moby Dick,” a tribute to Tchaikovsky, the birth of Minimalism, adult diapers – were really just terrific excuses for their inspired, comic riffing.
The group’s eclectic, wide-ranging palette was polymusically perverse. For example, “Supercool,” built on the song “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” from “Mary Poppins,” told the story of the evolution of modern classical music, with specific references to Bang on a Can avatars Terry Riley, Philip Glass and Steve Reich, but along the way with stops for an exploration of Albert Einstein – to the tune of “If I Only Had a Brain,” with a couplet from Bob Dylan thrown in – before winding up with the audience clapping a Steve Reichian rhythmic pattern, plus a piece of the theme from “Mame” thrown in.
This was pretty much the modus operandi. A faux NPR-style news report on the history of the nose flute – with specially-embossed instruments provided to all concertgoers – incorporated snippets of the Beatles, Johann Strauss, Beethoven, and Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western theme to “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”
Within a minute or two the Moby Dick suite called on works by the Beatles, Procol Harum, the Who, Blondie, Paul McCartney and Paul Anka, whose “(You’re) Having My Baby” was transformed into “(You’re) Having My Sea Cow.” Prince’s “Kiss” paired with Three Dog Night’s “Mama Told Me Not to Come” on a piece about adult incontinence, and Tchaikovsky dueled with the Troggs on a number about a different kind of nutcracker, featuring the fabulous guest soprano Melissa Fathman.
Schwimmer and Stewart came equipped with several trunkloads of instruments in addition to their basic keyboard and guitar setup. Schwimmer made terrific use of a theremin, a proto-synthesizer with an eerie vocal quality he used to “sing” the song “Stairway to Heaven,” on which Stewart replicated a perfect, note-for-note version of the guitar crescendo. A real conch shell lent an aura of authenticity to the Moby Dick suite, and Stewart – who was a veritable human encyclopedia of guitar styles and sounds -- employed several homemade instruments, including a slide whistle organ.
Other numbers explored musical links between Led Zeppelin and “Hava Nagila,” a measure-to-measure jump from Elvis Costello to the Who to Johnny Cash, and perhaps the ultimate in music transitions for the ADD generation, a sprint through Aram Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance,” the Marlboro theme, the riff from the Doobie Brothers’ “China Grove,” Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake,” and the theme to “Goldfinger.”
[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on July 15, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]
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