The Bang on a Can All-Stars perform at Mass MoCA on Saturday night

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., July 15, 2004) -- As unlikely as it may seem, the world’s most renowned new-music collective has found what seems like a permanent summer home in North Adams. The marriage between the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and the New York City-based Bang on a Can is looking like a match made in heaven. For the third year in a row, the boundary-breaking avatars of the classical avant-garde are in residence this month at the museum, running the Summer Music Institute and offering an eclectic variety of programming, including concerts, open gallery rehearsals, and a summer offshoot of Bang’s patented Marathon concert.

“The people at MoCA are unbelievably great and amazing,” said Bang co-founder Michael Gordon in a recent phone interview. “We get there and on the first day [director of performing arts] Jonathan Secor talks to all the students, takes them around to all the spaces, and says, ‘Make music here, practice in the gallery. Take drums and set up under the trees. Go do it -- make music anywhere at any time.’ I can’t imagine having a better partner.”

Although you won’t see the term used anywhere officially, the shorthand moniker for Bang’s summer residency at MoCA is Banglewood, as the festival is patterned along the lines of Tanglewood down the road in Lenox, with public programming built around a core educational component: a summer school for aspiring musicians, composers and conductors – in this case, with a commitment to the cutting-edge.

The institute, which annually attracts students from five continents, includes performance coaching, composition seminars, Balinese music, improvisation workshops, master classes, and seminars on the music business and technology. “Wherever they come from, they’re weirdoes,” said Gordon of the students, many of whom are enrolled during the year at conventional conservatories that don’t teach new-music methods or composition. “All of a sudden they’re all together and they go out of their minds. There’s so much energy and enthusiasm. It really boosts me in a tremendous way. And there’s so much talent. It’s amazing.”

The institute faculty includes Gordon and fellow Bang on a Can co-founder/composers Julia Wolfe and David Lang; members of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, the collective’s resident ensemble, including percussionist David Cossin, pianist Lisa Moore, cellist Wendy Sutter and clarinetist Evan Ziporyn; and violinist Todd Reynolds of the avant-garde string quartet Ethel.

This year’s featured guest composer is the legendary “father of minimalism,” Terry Riley. “We’ve been inviting one of our heroes up every summer,” explained Gordon, noting previous residencies by new-music icons Louis Andriessen and Steve Reich. “Terry basically kicked off minimalism in 1964 with his piece ‘In C.’ It was a completely different approach to music-making, a completely different sensibility of how to listen to music -- the speed at which sound and melodies change.”

A young Steve Reich was in Riley’s ensemble for that 1964 performance -- as were bassist Phil Lesh and keyboardist Tom Constanten, who were later to resurface as members of a band called the Grateful Dead. “That piece in San Francisco spawned minimalism, ambient music, and new-age music,” said Gordon, who brings his own techno-rock band to Club Helsinki in Great Barrington tonight at 8:30 [see story elsewhere in this issue]. “Terry’s influence has been immeasurable.” Among Riley’s plans over the next week are to teach students to sing Indian ragas and to work with an improvisational ensemble. Riley’s music will also be featured at the six-hour marathon, in which students and faculty perform together, on July 24, from 4 to 10.

As in past years, the three-week institute will include a concert by the All-Stars, this year featuring guest artist Kyaw Kyaw Naing. In one of his first collaborations with Western musicians, Naing, a Burmese drummer, will sit completely surrounded by a pat waing, a circle of 21 finely-tuned drums that he plays with lightning speed. He has specially arranged and adapted his music for accompaniment by the All-Stars. “The music he writes is really delightful, tuneful, and very rhythmic,” said Gordon. “It’s uplifting and incredibly virtuosic, with everyone playing very fast.” The All-Stars concert, which takes place this Saturday at 8, will also include a new arrangement of Philip Glass’s early piece, “Music in Fifths,” and new work by Gordon.

Los Mocosos: Latin fusion

Imagine a cross between the Beastie Boys and Santana, or Bob Marley and War. As heard on their CD, “American Us” (Six Degrees), the members of the San Francisco barrio-rock group have, and in doing so they’ve come up with a delirious fusion of Latin, funk, Cuban, reggae, Mexican, rock and horn-heavy hip-hop. The resulting hybrid stirs up an infectious, conscious party, eclectic enough to maintain interest and surprise over the course of an hour-long album or presumably an evening’s nightclub show and dance party, such as the one on Saturday night at 9 at Club Helsinki (413-528-3394) in Great Barrington.

Critic’s picks

The only Southern rock group to sport a flute player -- the Marshall Tucker Band (“Heard It in a Love Song,” “Can’t You See”) – returns to Pittsfield, where they were last seen at The Studio, tonight at 7:30 at the Crowne Plaza (413-499-1100). On Friday night, women’s music pioneer Holly Near kicks off the Guthrie Center’s (413-528-1955) weekend of folk music in Great Barrington, which continues on Saturday night with folk revivalist Donal Leace. Also on Friday, Club Helsinki continues to present the top stars in zydeco with a show by Nathan and the Zydeco Cha-Chas, while Peggy Stern tickles the ivories, accompanied by her trio, at the Castle Street Café (413-528-5244), both in Great Barrington.

Saturday night is saxophone night at Castle Street with the Adam Kolker Quartet, followed by pianist Lee Shaw and her trio on Sunday, while country group Matty Charles and the Valentines hold forth at Helsinki. Further afield, classic folk-soul singer-songwriter Carole King makes a rare live appearance at SPAC on Sunday, while Patti Labelle shakes the rafters at Albany’s Palace Theatre.

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on July 15, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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