in: News & Features

July 8, 2009

Musical Insurrection to Institution: Bang on a Can

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Bang on a Can has long since passed from musical insurrection to institution. Its trademark marathon concerts (grown out of the practices of a new music group at Yale, where the group’s founders studied) have become a staple of ensembles nationwide. NEC’s annual Summer Institute for Contemporary Piano Performance, for one, culminates with a marathon show.

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It is a notable seachange in performance practice. Whether it came out of youthful rebellion, an attempt to cultivate a party atmosphere, or as a mirror of the pace of music after minimalism is unclear (all of the above?). Regardless, presenting downtown music like this feels natural. A similar presentation of the Bach-to-Brahms rep would come off somewhere between odd and blasphemous, depending on whom you asked.

A few years ago, BoaC set roots at MASS MoCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, Mass.) for an annual summer festival. It has a mix of student instruction and concerts like any other, but maintains an aesthetic center of its own: Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Meredith Monk have appeared in the past as artists-in-residence.

Reich is this year’s guest. A concert of his work on July 25th will feature Music for 18 Musicians, along with Eight Lines and Video Phase (a multimedia arrangement of Piano Phase). That concert will be presented in conjunction with the museum’s Sol LeWitt retrospective. It is a half-day affair; a pre-concert lecture by the composer begins at 3 pm, followed by the concert at 4:30. Music for 18 Musicians is scheduled to start at 8 pm.

The festival closes with a marathon concert on August 1st, from 4 to 10 pm. Its centerpiece is George Anthiel’s Ballet Mechanique. The Ballet is scored for a wide range of percussion instruments, from player pianos to sirens. It is in the cacophonous spirit of other music from the modernist ’20s and was the cause of a  small riot at its premiere.

Naturally, the music of the BoaC trifecta (David Lang, Julia Wolfe, and Michael Gordon) will make an appearance. Contrary to what one might assume, these three composers write very different music. Lang often writes in answer to what-if questions (what if one’s music were unflattering instead of self-glorifying, what if the music was on laughing gas). He writes precisely and titles his pieces to lead you to the concepts behind them. Wolfe is the most vivid orchestrator of the three, choosing strong textures and unexpected instrumental combinations. Her music favors pulse over beat. While other post-minimalists take that as a stylistic anchor, she uses it as more of a touching point.

Gordon usually comes off as the oddball of the group. He is drawn to complex polyrhythms that fall in a no-man’s-land between classical and popular musics. His music requires performers who can play those rhythms without flinching, who make them clear without making them the main event.

Other composers featured will be John Adams, Meredith Monk, and Frederick Rzewski. Those attending the marathon have an extra treat — they may roam the gallery and come and go as they please.

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Adam Baratz is a composer and pianist. He lives in Cambridge.

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