Bang on a Can All-Stars
by Seth Rogovoy

(NORTH ADAMS, Mass., July 18, 2004) – A diverse program by the Bang on a Can All-Stars at Mass MoCA on Saturday night, loosely tied together by the theme of east meets west, showcased the technical and spiritual brilliance of the ensemble. In residence at MoCA this month as part of the Bang on a Can Summer Institute of Music -- or Banglewood, as it is informally but more commonly known – the All-Stars played a particularly tight, precise set of music, full of sharp angles and pointy edges.

The concert kicked off with composer Zack Browning’s “Back Speed Double Circuit,” which according to the program notes is a mathematics-based piece that has something to do with magic squares and the planet Mars. Indeed, at times it sounded like an extraterrestrial “Rhapsody in Blue,” its proportions bent or altered as if by a powerful gravitational or magnetic force. The musicians played in response to computer-generated sounds that at times evoked a harpsichord, and mostly in stop-start fashion. With a clear, rhythmic pulse emerging, the overall piece began to take shape and an overriding architecture emerged wherein the seemingly jagged, unrelated bursts of clarinet, drums, bass, piano and guitar revealed a greater, almost harmonious relationship.

Coming on the heels of his own group’s rendition of the title track of Bang composer/co-founder Michael Gordon’s new CD, “Light Is Calling,” performed last week at Club Helsinki in Great Barrington, it was fascinating to hear – and to see – the piece performed by the All-Stars. As presented here, the atmospheric work was partnered with a film by Bill Morrison, Gordon’s frequent collaborator. Morrison’s film, made from vintage, decayed celluloid headed for the trash bin, which he salvages and then optically reprints and edits to Gordon’s music, could be seen as the visual equivalent of Gordon’s work, which was given a particularly haunting, mournful treatment by the All-Stars, especially in the cello part by Wendy Sutter. Guitarist Bryce Dessner punched out time in a tick-tock rhythm while Evan Ziporyn’s clarinet softly, slowly rose to meet Sutter’s plaintive melody in what was a more stately, symphonic version of the piece than Gordon’s own.

The curtain closed on the program’s first half with “Music in Fifths,” an early (1969) work of minimalism by the genre’s avatar, Philip Glass. Inspired by the counting system of Indian ragas as taught to Glass by sitarist Ravi Shankar, the number was a feat of manual and intellectual dexterity, challenging pianist Lisa Moore, percussionist David Cossin on vibes, and Ziporyn, playing keyboards, with its relentless, repetitive patterns made distinct only through shifts of accent in the pedal points by Sutter and bassist Gregg August.

The second half of the show featured expatriate Burmese percussion virtuoso Kyaw Kyaw Naing on a series of compositions for the pat waing, a circle of 21, separately- tuned, hung drums similar to Indian tablas. Played by hand mostly sequentially, the effect was similar to marimba or even piano. Kyaw Kyaw (pronounced Cho-Cho) arranged most of the music, based on traditional Burmese melodies, for the All-Stars’ orchestration, with the addition of the group’s unofficial violinist, Todd Reynolds, currently on loan from the string quartet Ethel and Steve Reich and Musicians.

Kyaw Kyaw’s arrangements ranged from jazzy – one piece, originally composed by his father, featured long, vibrant lines, like Burmese bebop – to orchestral, with the ensemble really melding into one large whole being manipulated by Kyaw Kyaw. Seated behind a metal case, Kyaw Kyaw was hidden for most of the concert, until the overhead “Kyaw Kyaw cam,” as Ziporyn dubbed it, allowed the audience to eavesdrop on his stunning, two-handed virtuosity from above.

The All-Stars will undoubtedly be much in evidence again next Saturday when the annual Bang on a Can Summer Marathon concert takes place from 4 to 10 in the Hunter Center at MoCA.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on July 20, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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