by Robert Leeper
Downtown moved uptown last Monday as the Bang on a Can All-Stars Presented the 2017 Bang on a Can People's Commissioning Fund concert. The evening kicked off BoaC’s 30th anniversary season as well the Ecstatic Music Festival to a packed house at the Kaufman Music Center.
Since it's founding in 1992 the All-Stars have grown into one of America’s premier modern music ensembles. The second generation of the group, Vicky Chow (piano), Ashley Bathgate (cello), Ken Thomson (clarinet/saxophone), David Cossin (drums), Robert Black (bass), and Derek Johnson (electric guitar) are each accomplished soloists in his or her own right, but have together to form this community dedicated to innovative music. On Monday they added works by Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Mexican-Dutch composer Juan Felipe Waller, and American composer Nico Muhly, to the growing multimedia project Field Recordings—which instructs composers to go into the field of recorded sound and respond with their own music.
In true Bang on a Can style, the event was event was eclectic and informal: a presentation of new music as well as an opportunity for the night’s emcee, WNYC’s John Schaefer, to chat with the composers about their work. The performances and talks are to be used on Mr. Schaefer’s New Sounds program.
David Lang’s Sunray got the evening off to a bright start with a series of tonal clusters turning into uptempo jazz, with electric guitar player Derek Johnson and percussionist David Cosslin, on drum kit, banging out sharp, infectious rhythms. The piece ends with all six instruments playing different parts, a cacophonous noise requiring expert discipline and precision.
Ms. Thorvaldsdottir took the prompt of the evening, “Field Recordings,” quite literally with her work Fields. The most introspective of the works, it’s impressionistic texture, reflected a sense of imaginative listening to landscapes and nature. This texture was juxtaposed with Juan Felipe Waller’s exuberant and virtuosic Hybrid Ambiguities which featured a recording of the echoing sounds of a microtonal harp (96 intervals to an octave), originally invented by Julian Carrillo in the 1940s.
The first half closed with Nico Muhly’s Comfortable Cruising Altitude, combining two pieces of found audio: an overnight transatlantic flight giving the uncomfortable relaxedness that come with flight and another of crying babies. The ensemble acts as a sleeping traveler, existing in an ambient space but with the nervous shimmers that accompany air travel. The squawks of the crying child were uncomfortable to sit through, so much so that the initial cry was enough to elicit a nervous laugh from the audience.
The second half of the program was devoted to the works of the Bang on a Can Founders. Michael Gordon introduced “St Remy” the last movement of his six part theater work Van Gogh, set to a text taken from Van Gogh’s letters during a self imposed stay at a mental institution. Built entirely upon two oscillating chords, it was sung with a liturgical intensity by the Soprano Eliza Bagg and Charles Yang with contributions by the whole group.
Julia Wolfe, the third of the co-founders, was also on hand to introduce her frenetic Believing. Repetitions are set to a nervous near-ferocious tempo, slowing and evolving into new sonorities, and building back to a wild, frantic ending.
The concert ended with Philip Glass’s "Bed" is one of the most unforgettable scenes in Philip Glass’s “Einstein on the Beach,” Eliza Bagg sang a wordless aria to the relentless trilling of an electric organ played by Vicky Chow. The performance was transfixing.