In 1993, Jane Moss, Lincoln Center's Ehrenkranz Artistic Director, called up the offices of Bang on a Can with an unusual proposition: to see if they might be interested in hosting their next Bang on a Can Marathon at Alice Tully Hall. "We wondered if the person answering the phone had gotten the message right," BOAC founders Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe and David Lang said.
By then, the annual Bang on a Can Marathon was already a well-established institution of the downtown art scene, inclusive not only of the post-minimalist music of its three composer-founders, but everything from jazz, to rock, to electronic music. Still, the move uptown was seen as a bit of a risk for both parties concerned: for Lincoln Center, it could mean alienating longtime subscribers; for Bang on a Can, assimilation into the mainstream.
Fortunately, both parties emerged unscathed, and even though the Marathon itself has long since migrated back downtown (all the way downtown, to the World Financial Center Winter Garden), Bang on a Can is now an established uptown presence, regularly throwing shows at both Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, not to mention the annual People's Commissioning Fund Concert at Merkin Concert Hall, as well as mainstream concert halls all around the world.
To celebrate their first 25 years, Bang on a Can returned to the scene of the crime Saturday night, with an extended concert at Alice Tully featuring three of their best-known associated ensembles. First up was Gamelan Galak Tika, performing Evan Ziporyn's Tire Fire (1994), written for Balinese gamelan, electric guitars and keyboard. After starting out in stark contrast, the Western guitars and Eastern gamelan gradually begin to play off of each other, eventually giving way to "shared grooves," as Ziporyn put it.
Up next was Asphalt Orchestra, the 12-piece punk marching band best known for their pop-up outdoor shows on Lincoln Center Plaza and elsewhere. Bringing the show indoors, they played new arrangements of works by Frank Zappa and Japanese composer Tatsuya Yoshida (who joined on drum kit), constantly circling around the Alice Tully stage as if it were some high-school halftime show. It was one part Varèse, one part Balkan Brass Band - and all a lot of loud, wild fun.
Closing out the night were the Bang on a Can All-Stars, now in their 20th year as BOAC's global ambassadors for this music. The All-Stars could have taken the easy way out by performing a retrospective of their "hits" over the past 25 years, but as Julia, Michael and David explained in comments from the stage, they wanted to do something new for the occasion. Field Recordings (2012) commissioned nine composers to take archival audio and video and combine it with their own music, inspired by the folk music recordings collected by Bartok and Lomax, or the sampling of today's hip-hop artists.
The results were as diverse as you might expect: a kind of BOAC Marathon-in-miniuature. Julia Wolfe's Reeling combined a recording of a French-Canadian singer singing in the Sean-nós style with Wolfe's own distinct urban cacophony. Florent Ghys' An Open Cage used a recording of John Cage reading from his diaries - his sweet, innocent voice belying the subtle menace of his words. Turntablist Christian Marclay wreaked vinyl havoc with his Fade to Slide, while Mira Calix's meeting you seemed easy used clandestine recordings of an airport terminal and airplane cockpit, celebrating the transitory nature of the relationships we form while traveling.
When I saw the title of Michael Gordon's gene takes a drink, I braced myself for the sad tale of a drunk stumbling around the East Village. Imagine my surprise, then, when "Gene" turned out to be a cat, who we folllowed around the community gardens on Avenue C by means of a miniature camera strapped to his collar. (The "drink" Gene takes is from a pool of water.) Working with longtime collaborator Bill Morrison, it had the same propulsive, industrial sound as Decasia, without the starkness.
From the moment the first somber tones of unused swan dropped, I immediately knew we were in David Lang's dark, disturbed soundworld. Combining recordings of people sharpening knives with haunting effects like dropping a chain onto a brass plate, it got completely under my skin, as Lang's music usually does. Contrasting with that was Ty Braxton's Casino Trem, with it's chorus of slot machine buzzers mixing with Animal Collective-like grooves and heavy processing.
Finally, Nick Zammuto's Real Beauty Turns was a welcome throwback to the playful video montages he used to create as one half of The Books, using found video of cosmetic and haircare commericals to create a hilarious, cringe-worthy retrospective. Zammuto and the All-Stars created a swirling maelstrom of sound, pausing every eight bars to shout "Real Beauty Turns." A lighthearted and fun way to end another long night with Bang on a Can, who always give you more than you expect and never leave you wanting for more.
More pics on the photo page.