Bang on a Can Summer Marathon
by Seth Rogovoy

(NORTH ADAMS, Mass., July 27, 2003) – The first third of the six-hour Bang on a Can Summer Marathon at Mass MoCA on Saturday made for a terrific sampler concert of what Bang on a Can is all about, in particular showcasing the exciting work that is coming out of the new-music collective’s Summer Institute at MoCA, informally tagged as “Banglewood.”

The highlight of the first two-hour stretch of music on Saturday was a performance by Dutch composer-in-residence Louis Andriessen’s “Workers Union,” played by an ensemble mostly comprised of institute participants under the direction of guitarist Mark Stewart and percussionist David Cossin, doubling as faculty members and members of Bang’s resident ensemble, the Bang on a Can All-Stars.

As Andriessen, who was on hand for the festivities, explained, the piece dispenses with conventional melodic notation, instead indicating only rhythms, lengths of notes and dynamics. In this way, the piece functions as a metaphor for political action – hence, the title – as the musicians work together unified in their common goal while each drawing on their individual talents and creativity to decide on their own notes.

As performed by this ensemble of 11, including two violinists, two woodwinds, two guitarists, three percussionists, a pianist and a kazoo player, the piece had an insistent pulse against which the musicians seemed to work against, pushing forward and upward, one step back for every two steps forward. Over the course of the number it built in drama and vibrancy, and exploded in a frenzy of victory.

In sharp contrast, but somewhat related, was Bang pianist Lisa Moore’s solo rendition of Westfield native and expatriate composer Frederic Rzewski’s “De Profundis,” a setting of Oscar Wilde’s letters from prison. Moore’s theatrical performance, which included recitation and wordless vocals, was stunningly focused and virtuosic, really a theater piece that gives new meaning to the term “piano recital.” Quick bursts of upper register notes were interspersed with gasps and exclamations, before Moore began her recitation of Wilde’s prose, into which she buried herself with the skill of a trained actress and the rhythmic intuition of a rapper. The text, however, at times overwhelmed the music, and one wondered if it could have been jettisoned wholesale or in part with no sacrifice to the piece’s impact and its clear and implied statements about freedom and imprisonment.

Earlier in the program, the Summer Institute Guitar Quartet, featuring three student guitarists led by Mark Stewart, played several pieces by composer Fred Frith, whose guitar quartet – of which Stewart is a member – provided the formal inspiration for this effort. The musicians drew on sounds and textures far beyond the limited bag of tricks played by conventional electric guitarists, using sustained pedal tones, arcing waves of harplike sounds, buzz tones, percussive slams, noise, distortion and industrial sounds, as well as interlocking rhythmic strategies, to create a new vocabulary and sound.

The Marathon kicked off with the Summer Institute’s Gamelan, a traditional Javanese percussion orchestra led here by Bang All-Star Evan Ziporyn. Sort of the mirror image of “Workers Union,” the gamelan was as suggestive in its suppression of the individual’s role in the greater service of the ensemble as Andriessen’s piece was in holding up the individual’s role as potentially heroic.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on July 29, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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