Without the manic intensity of me trying to liveblog every set of a 27-hour concert as it was happening, this year's Bang On A Can Marathon felt a lot more chill. Of course, it was also considerably shorter, clocking in at a mere 12 hours and change. Perhaps inevitably, it was also less diverse, with just four artists representing from outside of "new classical" circles (Karsh Kale, Owen Pallett, Marnie Stern and Dan Deacon). So yeah, evidently nobody from the jazz team made the cut this year. (The 2007 Marathon had sets by Vijay Iyer, Don Byron, and the World Sax Quartet.) However, the out-of-towners included Ireland's Crash Ensemble, Israel's Ensemble Nikel, and my peeps from the Soviet Socialst Republic of Canuckistan, Contact.
Alarm Will Sound played John Adams's Son of Chamber Symphony (3rd mvt.), Harrison Birtwistle's Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum, and (much later in the night) Matt Marks's arrangement of The Beatles' (by which we really mean John Lennon's) Revolution #9.
The Adams is actually a reincarnation of a piece originally written for Kronos Quartet, later retrofitted for the Alarmists. It's a brisk amusement-park ride and they pretty much slayed it. It has some 4-on-the-floor bass drum that works infinitely better than that infamous orchestral "techno" section in Thomas Adès's Asyla -- although to be fair, I would probably like piece that a lot more if it was ever played with Alarm-level rhythmic authority.
AWS brought the same precision and intensity to the Birtwistle, a piece that is a very good example of the kind of fractured, disjunct, big-M Modernist aesthetic I basically cannot hang with. The individual moments here are often really striking -- we occasionally get a little taste of a cool little angular bass line -- but that's all Birtwistle will ever allow us, just a taste. Then he interrupts it with a few seconds of dissonant long tones, and even that quickly splinters off, motivic shards flying off in every direction. The performance was tight and they made a great case for it, but this cocktail of two parts solemnity to one part ADD is not really my drink of choice.
Carmen Arcadiae… actually makes musique concrète's all-time biggest hit, Revolution #9, sound positively linear by comparison. Matt gave a very entertaining introduction to his arrangement, wherein he likened Alarm Will Sound's penchant for creating acoustic reinterpretations of electronic music to Harry Potter fanfic: "Basically, we're giant geeks." So yeah, it's pretty much straight-up fanservice for the small but obsessive subset of Beatles fans who were actually intrigued by the White Album's penultimate, ah, "tune." (A Venn diagram would probably show considerable overlap between that set and the set of people who show up at the Bang On A Can Marathon.) Anyway, this painstaking recreation is wholly absurd and I loved it -- Matt's chart is wildly entertaining and theatrical, with members of the band honking car horns, screaming into mutes, imitating backwards tape loops, and screaming in each other's faces. ("Hold that line! Block that kick!") Does my fanboyish enjoyment of this arrangement make me a giant hypocrite? Yeah, probably. So what else is new?
Pamela Z played and sang Chalky Crystal Liquid Cave. I love Pamela Z. This time, she did not use her customary BodySynth, but a motion-sensitive theremin-like controller she called a "Swearingen" (named after the gadget's inventor, not Al.) Pamela went second (in between the first two AWS pieces) and, in an uncomfortable echo of last year's Juana Molina fiasco, her performance was delayed by tech gremlins. I dunno if the tsuris caused her to have to abbreviate her set, but whatever the reason, it was too damn short.
Lisa Moore played Annie Goslfield's Lightning Slingers and Dead Ringers, for piano and keyboard-triggered sampler.
Gosfield explained that "Lightning Slingers" is old-school slang for "telegraph operators," and "dead ringers" refers to how the acoustic piano sounds are sampled and transformed into sounds that recall analog synths, slide guitar, and such like. I liked the moody, resonant middle section, and Lisa Moore is always impressive.
The Crash Ensemble played Donnacha Dennehy's Grá agus Bás, Terry Riley's Loops for Ancient Giant Nude Hairy Warriors Racing Down the Slopes of Battle (3rd mvt.), and later on, Arnold Dreyblatt's Resonant Relations.
Dennehy is an Irish composer, in case you couldn't tell. He is also the artistic director of the Crash Ensemble. If you are Irish, it must really suck to know that there is basically no aspect of your traditional culture that has not been commodified and kitschified for global export, to the point where now all it takes is a single pennywhistle appoggiatura or a mournful celtic fiddle slide to make people want to stab a shilelagh into their ear canal. This is to say that Dennehy has a tough row to hoe, trying to bring old-style Irish sean nós singing into a new music context, without stumbling into cliché -- and you know what, for the most part, he succeeded. While I did find the piece a wee bit meandering, the closing gesture, with Iarla Ó Lionáird's sweet voice riding atop the ensemble's furiously cascading arpeggios made for an ecstatic release.
Alarm Will Sound conductor Alan Pierson was pulling double duty last night, conducting Crash as well as his own band, but he left the Celts to their own devices for Terry Riley's Loops for Giant Nude Hairy Warriors etc. I enjoyed this drumset-driven, odd-meter aggro romp immensely.
I wanted to enjoy Arnold Dreyblatt's Resonant Relations -- it used an intriguing tuning system and contained some fun, oddball synth-harpsicord ostinatos -- but the music felt very stiff and episodic, without much apparent momentum or direction. I just wasn't feeling it.
Karsh Kale (tabla) and Raj Maddela (drum kit) played Timeline, which is basically a collection of sick beats, with occasional electronic pads underneath. Their hookup was great and the Hinustani-meets-hiphop beats were, I believe I mentioned, sick, but man cannot live by sick beats alone. I wanted to hear a proper band over top of those grooves.
Caleb Burhans sang no.
His sweet, ethereal countertenor sang out over a simple looped wash. The phrasing was irregular but flowing and organic, and Caleb's melodic instincts are unerringly sound. The performance had a spontaneous feel to it, so I asked Caleb later if it was improvised. He told me it was transcribed from an improvisation he'd recorded.
The Hartt Bass Band played Julia Wolfe's Strong Hold.
A Masada-inspired (no, not, Zorn's band... the actual fortification) epic for eight basses. I was struck by the huge range spanned -- lots of harmonics and off- the-fingerboard playing along with the low-end -- and also the almost complete absence of pizzicato playing. One bit felt almost like a concerto grosso, with frantic, piercing solo tremolos interrupted by weighty tutti arrivals. Unfortunately, though, the microphones were also picking up the click track, which was bleeding over from the players' headphones -- being able to hear that faint click throughout robbed the piece of some of its magic. (Next time, use in-ear monitors.)
Ensemble Nikel played Chaya Czernowin's Sahaf, and later, Sivan Cohen Elias's Riba and Ruben Seroussi's Nikel.
I'm afraid I wasn't really convinced by any of this music. Sahaf came closest -- it had some nice flittering gestures and I liked the spinning ratchets. But Riba, a sax guitar duet, sounded like it was composed by someone who had maybe read about improv in a couple of back issues The Wire without ever having listened to it, and thought it might be fun to try to elaborately notate what he imagined that sort of thing sounded like. Some drunk asshole actually cat-called the group during their performance of Nikel, shouting out a sarcastic "Wooo!" a few moments into the piece. I unequivocally denounce and reject this outrageous and unacceptable behavior -- just not the underlying sentiment. This piece managed to combine pointless meandering with timid bloodlessness, a combination that is guaranteed to be lethal in 100% of cases.
The Young People's Chorus of New York City sang Michael Gordon's Every Stop On The F Train
The F train is my train, and the text sung by the chorus is literally what it says in the title, from Jamaica-179th Street to Coney Island-Stillwell Avenue. The setting is inventive and charming -- it needs to be, obviously -- if perhaps not quite as memorable as the kids' selection from last year, Meredith Monk's "Three Heavens and Hells." (I still get little snippets of that one creeping into my brain at odd moments.)
The Bang on a Can All-Stars played selections from Evan Ziporyn's ShadowBang, Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen's Convex-Concave-Concord, and a bit later, Lukas Ligeti's Glamour Girl.
Ziporyn's piece gradually developed outward from a spare and hypnotic core into a joyous, swaggering, vaguely Frisellian metametric groove. Some Googling reveals that the recording apparently also involves a Balinese singer/shadow puppeteer... I should really check that out.
Very near the end of Convex-Concave-Concord -- after a spending a good long while suspended in quiet reflection amidst softly fluttertongued clarinet notes, indistinct guitar harmonics, and a spare simple woodblock pattern -- there is a sweet arrival point on what sounds like the work's first proper, you know, chord. Things begin to pick up from there. Moments later brings the appearance of what sounds an awful lot like a IV chord, and you begin to suspect something might be up. Soon, there's no escaping it -- you've been gradually drawn into a hazy, slow-mo blues progression. Okay -- that, I did not see coming. But when it hit, it felt improbably right -- I would love to hear it again so I can pay attention to what kind of hints may or may not have been dropped along the way. Regardless, I think this work can comfortably join Rzewski's Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues in that very, very short list of blues-inspired classical works that do not suck.
Lukas Ligeti -- yes, György's kid -- built Glamour Girl around a slightly skewed Afro-Pop sensibility and his drummer's-eye-view of music. I really enjoyed the conversational guitar lines, the blissed-out 3/4 groove in the middle and the abrupt drumroll ending. These three pieces were probably the closest in spirit and concept to my own compositions.
Violinist and singer/songwriter Owen Pallett played some of his songs, then the BOAC All-Stars joined him for Twelve Polearms.
There was a nice NYT feature on Owen ("The Return of the One-Man Band") not long ago, in which he expressed his abiding hatred of drummers. ("'Drummers ruin bands,' he said simply, as if the fact were common knowledge.") I think I understand where he is coming from -- his play-sample-loop-and-layer methodology is wholly unforgiving. It's true that lots of people are doing that now -- that was, after all, the hook for the article -- but Owen's approach to sampling is notably risky and complex, with no room for error. He's clearly spent a lot of work developing his own internal clock and does not want a drummer trying to tell him where he thinks the time is. But perhaps as a consequence, Owen's aesthetic does not exactly embrace the concept of "groove" with open arms. Obviously, a lot of people who are very smart about music are wholly besotten with Owen's playing and songwriting. So far, I find myself more in the "admire and respect" camp, but there's no question that he is a hell of a musician, and an excellent choice for a BOAC collaboration.
Anyway, after a short solo set, the All-Starts retook the stage and Owen gave a long, tongue-in-cheek preface to his commissioned work, Twelve Polearms, spinning an elaborate yarn about a "great interdimensional conflict" and the musical culture of an alien race of one-dimensional beings. The piece seemed to hang from an omnipresent undulating two-note figure that ran like a suspension wire through the work. It ended with the BOAC players laying out while Owen manipulated their sounds via captured loops.
Electronic artist Bora Yoon played ( ((PHONATION)) ), with live visuals by Luke DuBois.
I missed this. I needed a break, and needed to get some food in me.
SIGNAL (conducted by Brad Lubman) played Steve Reich's Daniel Variations.
SIGNAL is a new new music supergroup containing members poached from Alarm Will Sound, So Percussion, Gutbucket, and NewSpeak, and conducted by Brad Lubman (last seen by me conducting Johnny Greenwood's Popcorn Superhet Receiver at a Wordless Music hit back in January). This is the NYC debut for the group but they are meant to be a going concern. In his intro, Reich emphasized that his music needs an ensemble (i.e., a collection of players who are emotionally invested in both the group and the music they play), not an orchestra (i.e., an ensemble from which "indifferent professionalism" is pretty much the best you can hope for), and talked up SIGNAL as an American counterpoint to the great European new music powerhouses like the Ensemble Modern and the Ensemble Intercontemporain. (There are lots of small new music bands in the US, but few large ones, other than Alarm Will Sound.)
SIGNAL is dominated by younger players because, with a handful of notable exceptions, older generations of classical musicians just flat-out do not get rhythm. They do not believe it is, at minimum, a co-equal element to pitch, and consequently, they just do not spend that much time on rhythm. A singing, fluid rubato line is their comfort zone (which is great for Romantic music, not so much anything else), and they cannot make the conceptual leap to music that requires a strong, steady pulse. (Often they are disdainful of such music.) They are unable to take personal responsibility for the time. They can't distinguish between playing on top of the beat vs. rushing, or playing behind the beat vs. dragging. They don't get what a profound impact such tiny rhythmic nuances have on the music. They don't know how to lock in with other players. They do not know what a full-body groove feels like. They lack an emotional connection to rhythm.
Everyone in SIGNAL has an undeniable emotional connection to rhythm.
So Percussion played David Lang's the so called laws of nature
They did this one on the steps at the back (see pics below fold), making the already cavernous Winter Garden sound even more like an aircraft hangar -- Alan Pierson said the walnut planks sounded like crickets. For the second movement, the percussionists moved up a stage to the toms and kick drums. For the third, they moved down to tables where they played on teacups and tuned flowerpots, the sound of which was oddly mesmerizing.
Marnie Stern played guitar.
At every Bang On A Can Marathon, there is always one artist whose job it is to do everything they can to signal "What the hell am I doing here?" short of actually coming out and saying it. Last year that band was the rap-metal band Dälek. This year, it was scruffy shredhead Marnie Stern, who normally plays and sings with an actual, you know, band. Instead, for the Marathon, she came out alone, set up a wall of squall with her pedals, and only occasionally pierced the veil with some scrabbly double-tapping or a pair of klunky power chords.
Dan Deacon wrote the electronic parts for Ultimate Reality Part 3. He pressed "play," and then I think he probably left the stage and got his groove on down on the dance floor (and there was a dance floor for Dan's set), but I can't be sure. Kevin Omeara and Jeremy Hyman played the live drum parts.
Kids these days, they love the conservatory-trained Baltimore-based electronic dance guru Dan Deacon. His sound palette is bright and supersaturated with analog warmth. I don't know if he normally uses live drummers, but Omeara and Hyman were both on fire. Jimmy Roe Roche's entertaining video accompaniment mirrored and distorted many of the Governator's greatest cinematic moments. (It struck me that many in the audience were not even born when The Terminator was first released.) Deacon's rapid-fire synth arpeggios sounded a bit like a dance-pop remix of Music in 12 Parts. Good clean fun (with crowd-surfing, even), but seriously, this was way too short -- one 15-minute tune, and that's the whole set? Those kids came down to the Winter Garden at 4 AM to party -- what were they supposed to do now?
Contact played Allison Cameron's 3rds, 4ths, & 5ths and Brian Eno's Discreet Music (arr. Jerry Pergolesi).
Well, one option for the Deaconites was to stick around for the Toronto-based new music band Contact, and actually, a fair number of them decided to sit tight. (Although some of them appeared to be under the impression that Brian Eno himself would be showing up.) Anyway, Allison Cameron's piece for Contact was a pretty postminimalist ballad, after which they geared down even further into Eno's gauzy dreamscape. I really enjoyed Suzanne Bocanegra's simple but effective video, which involved a hand stacking olive-colored pieces of cardboard. The arrangement didn't quite draw me in the way the All-Stars' version of Airport Music did last year, but it did make for a pleasant bit of sunrise-music. (I think Stimmung was supposed to be the sunrise piece but the Marathon was running a bit late.)
Toby Twining Music sang Karlheinz Stockhausen's Stimmung. Sonically, it's an incredibly striking piece, constructed almost entirely from overtone singing. (If you've heard Tuvan throat singing, you've heard overtone singing.) It's built from a single, unvarying sonority -- a Bb9 chord, in just intonation (on account of the vocal overtones). It involves "magic names," words and phonemes in multiple languages, and the passing around and transformation of material. You can actually get a pretty good basic sense of the processes that fuel the piece from the work's Wikipedia entry, but if you want the long version, with score excerpts, go here.
Stimmung is a very beautiful and original and transfixing piece of music. The performance was outstanding. (One of the singers was Sylvie Jensen of the M6, a vocal group I have raved about previously, and she was a powerful and charismatic force throughout.) It is also, I feel I should point out, almost 80 minutes long. This was about 20 minutes past the expiration of my patience, at least at that point in the Marathon. Honestly, programming it immediately following the similarly quiet, tranquil, static Brian Eno piece seems a little bit perverse.
I say this only because for the first hour or so, I was completely under the spell of Stockhausen's remarkable work. I didn't want that fugue state to end, but unfortunately, I ran out of gas before the piece did. I stuck it out, of course, but mentally I was spent. I felt like the runner who collapses 400 meters shy of the finish line, and has to drag himself across on his hands and knees.
Maybe I oughta train for these things.
Pictures are below the fold.
Bruce Hodges (Monotonous Forest) also went the distance.
Lauren Cartelli (Notes From a Subway Journal) [hearts] Owen Pallett.
Alex Ross is ill, but stuck it out until half-time.
Guest of a Guest does amateur sociology.
(Pics below the fold... )
Alarm Will Sound
Raj Maddela (of Karsh Kale duo)
Young People's Chorus of New York City