Calder Quartet Play Norman, Adès and Ravel at the Brooklyn Library
Shara Worden and ACO present Sins and Songs

Ecstatic Music Festival: Bang on a Can People's Commissioning Fund Concert

Ecstatic Music Festival, Bang on a Can All-StarsMost of the works on last Thursday's Bang on a Can People's Commissioning Fund concert at Merkin Concert Hall were riffs on some found sound, or other pre-existing music. Which, in itself isn't bad - music has a long tradition of variation writing - but it does leave one wondering if today's composers have lost the ability to write music purely of their own invention. 

The concert, hosted by WNYC's John Schaefer and performed by the Bang on a Can All-Stars, was part of the ongoing Ecstatic Music Festival, now in its 5th year of presenting adventurous collaborations between the new music, experimental, and indie pop worlds. The BOAC All-Stars, now in their 2nd generation, feature Vicky Chow (piano), Ashley Bathgate (cello), Ken Thomson (clarinet/saxophone), David Cossin (drums), Robert Black (bass), and Derek Johnson (electric guitar).

For the new works on the program - all commissioned by $100 donations from more than 300 patrons - this is understandable, given that none of the commissionees are full-time composers. Glenn Kotche's loud, banging Time Spirals incorporated field recordings he's made from his tours around the globe as the drummer for Wilco. Jace Clayton (a.k.a. DJ/rupture) based his Lethe's Children, named after the mythical river of forgetfulness, on songs the All-Stars sang as children. And Ben Frost, best known as a producer of apocalyptic electronic music, used recordings of U.S. drone planes to create Negative Ghostrider II: a furious swirl of guttural noise that sounded like the roar of a jet engine just before takeoff. 

Jace Clayton and John SchaeferThe established composers on the program were more subtle in their use of external sources. Michael Gordon's For Madeline (2009) was written as a remembrance for his mother, with distant sirens and klezmer-style clarinet riffs that depict her life as a Holocaust survivor. Istanbul-based composer Erdem Helvacioglu was inspired by recent political protests in Turkey to write Tales of Oppression and Resistance, combining field recordings and electroacoustic elements with solos by each of the BOAC players. (We heard parts 6 and 10.) Similarly, Donnacha Dennehy's Streetwalker was inspired by the 2003 protests prior to the Iraq War. 

But, the most inventive and forward-looking music of the night was Annie Gosfield's Overvoltage Rumble (2006), mixing crazy-sounding samples from vintage synthesizers (played on the keyboard by Chow) with challenging, multiphonic parts for each of the six BOAC musicians. Over 13 minutes, the music swooped and soared, sounding to me like the interplay between the ondes Martenot and orchestra in Messiaen's Turangalîla-Symphonie. Pretty thrilling.

Annie Gosfield and John SchaeferTickets and information about upcoming Ecstatic Music Festival events - including Annie Gosfield's collaboration with Medeski Martin & Wood's Billy Martin - are available on the EMF website. More pics on the photo page