Bang on a Can explodes pop
by Seth Rogovoy

(NORTH ADAMS, Mass., July 21, 2003) – There isn’t a single Bang on a Can aesthetic. The new-music collective, which consists of composers and performers who play a repertoire that includes but is hardly limited to that of Bang’s three founding composers, casts a wide musical net in terms of style and geography. Perhaps the most unifying element running through the group’s choices is the “new” in new music – but then again, Terry Riley’s “In C,” one of the core pieces in Bang’s repertoire, is now nearly 40 years old. So even “new” is relative.

This summer’s second annual concert featuring the Bang on a Can All-Stars, the collective’s resident sextet, however, looked toward another unifying element at the core of much of Bang’s music – an ongoing conversation with popular music, particularly American popular music of the 20th century, and particularly of the rock era. And most of the pieces on the “American UnPop” program performed in the Hunter Center at Mass MoCA on Saturday night referred to or reflected in some way the influence of American pop music on the composers, musicians and listeners.

The highlight of the evening was a preview of two selections from Bang co-founder David Lang’s song-cycle, “Songs for Lou Reed,” featuring new settings of songs from the Velvet Underground’s first album. Lang’s stated intention in these works is to revisit the sensation of hearing the Velvet’s astonishingly decadent songs for the first time as an impressionable 13-year-old in 1967. Lang’s “Heroin” in particular was a revelation, capturing the essence of the original ode to shooting up in what was essentially a cello concerto.

Clarinetist Evan Ziporyn doubled as vocalist for the Reed songs, intoning the lyrics of “Heroin” over Wendy Sutter’s haunting cello lines, which slowly grew in intensity and electronic distortion as the narration built to the climactic skin-popping episode. Electric guitarist Mark Stewart and others added color and texture to the piece, which in some way always was and here is even moreso the mirror-image of Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday.”

The other Reed song, “Sunday Morning,” percolated quietly over a cello ostinato and a harmonic bed laid down by keyboardist Lisa Moore, while Stewart laced buzzing tones through the middle.

The evening kicked off with “Concerto for Six” by Chinese composer Tan Dun, who has worked with the Kronos Quartet and Yo-Yo Ma among others. The piece opened with counting in Chinese, which recurred throughout, and alternated strict, formal structures with improvised cadenzas. Ziporyn’s solo veered from bluesy jazz to zen-like breathing, and Moore plucked her piano strings for a harp-like effect. Stewart played delicate, high atmospheric notes answered by the ringing bell tones of percussionist David Cossin’s vibes.

The group played only the second American performance of Irish composer Donnacha Dennehey’s “Streetwalker,” built of nuggets of repeated phrases by three or four musicians that modulated and alternately traded the foreground. Eve Beglarian’s “The Bus Driver Didn’t Change His Mind” was allegedly inspired by a “post-9/11 feminist rage,” a lyric by Bangladeshi poet Taslima Nasrin, and a statement about Rosa Parks by Al Sharpton. The piece featured a jazzy riff by Ziporyn over a rhythmic drone by the ensemble, sort of like a walk through a noisy, city street where off in the distance a jazz saxophonist could be heard practicing bebop runs.

The concert also featured Ziporyn’s arrangements of expatriate composer Conlon Nancarrow’s studies for player piano. The four pieces variously alluded to or built upon ragtime, boogie-woogie and early jazz, performed as palimpsests with rhythms untethered from their moorings.

The concert concluded with two pieces written by and featuring Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore. “Pelvic Noise” was a gimmick with surprising beauty and heft. Moore and his wife and fellow musician Kim Gordon strapped on guitars and, facing each other, turned up their amplifiers to 11, creating a loop of feedback that they then subtly manipulated with slight, angled twists of their bodies as they slowly came together in an erotic embrace. The waves of sound that were created by the feedback were not as painfully loud as had been warned, and they boasted surprising resonance, shape and musicality. Moore’s “Stroking Piece #1” was more of a conventional, Sonic Youth-style guitar-noise piece in which the All-Stars actually did a pretty good impression of the Velvet Underground.

While these works are all statements by their composers, in performance they were as much about the musicians and it is nearly impossible to imagine them being performed by any ensemble other than the All-Stars, who in their virtuosity, versatility and group telepathy are without parallel. Even at their most difficult, cerebral and abstract, as in the Dennehey and the Beglarian, these works were invested with great humanity – blood, sweat and tears – by the ensemble of musicians who seemingly revel in the challenges posed by composers who don’t necessarily care to make it easy on musicians or listeners alike.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on July 22, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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