“Bang on a what?” you ask. Yes: they bang on cans, drums, pianos, traditions, our heads and musical hangups. Bang on A Can, at 30 a revered New York new music institution, back in 2001 found in North Adams’ at the arms-wide, sprawling Mass MOCA, found its summer hangout, concert hall, redoubt, coffee shop, refuge, bierstube, rehearsal space, picnic spot, restaurant, sandbox, what-have-you (our preview here). Two weekends of earing and eyeing its 15th Summer Festival get jammed here into one overstuffed portmanteau review. Need a label? ‘Post-minimalism’ might do.
Vancouver-based pianist Vicky Chow masterfully played compositions by BoC founders Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolfe and a world premiere by Christopher Cerrone. The svelte Canadian played a Yamaha grand in MOCA’s Tall Gallery, a soaring space measuring 40’ high, 25’ wide, and 120’ long, amid Tom Friedman works (a sandbox wall, a roving flashlight beam, and blue plastic space-station totem.) The curious visuals did not distract from Chow’s relaxed yet intense command of virtuosic, often difficult, material that flowed quickly, revealing few edges. Cerrone’s The Arching Path leapt into fast ostinati of damped vs. undamped diminishing intervals (sevenths, fourths, seconds), like the curving boughs of an arbor, branches to twigs, slowing, then speeding up. Tinges of Rachmaninoff and Debussy (Cathedrale Engloutie coda) lit reference LEDs for the bewildered analyst. Two of Lang’s Memory Pieces honored John Cage (rumbling ostinati under a randomly entering leading voice and (Amy?) Beach, where falling melodic fragments, sweetly sing-song, shift speed, and quietly mesmerize. Wolfe’s brief, pungent Compassion (honoring Ruth Crawford Seeger by recalling her Biblical namesake’s preeminent virtue) alternated humming tremolos with solar-plexus hammering ffff smashes: tough joy! Gordon’s Sonatra, rolling out oceans of fast, lacy arpeggios unrelentingly for 20+ minutes, seemed damn near unplayable, but Chow accomplished the breathless feat with nary a slip! We all needed a drink after that merciless onslaught; Bright Ideas Brewery, just across the gilded walkway, supplied IPA (instant polyrhythm antidote).
The redoubtable group of young professional BoC All-Stars brought Brian Eno’s pioneering (and quietly influential) ambient work Music For Airports (1977) to life yet again, in an expanded performance that has over time—15 years at MOMA and 30 in Manhattan—been buoyed by Eno’s sporadic peek-ins and produced a 1998 live CD. MOCA’s Hunter Center Auditorium, the only typical concert stage in its enormous premises, had its 900 seats near filled for this and the closing Marathon.
Musical hors-d’oeuvres before the Eno were short (7-8 minute) comparatively animated pieces from the All-Stars’ Field Recordings Project for jazz-like sextet, by Roomful of Teeth collective, interwoven around archival recordings, an ethnomusicological pursuit pioneered by Bartok and Kodaly circa 1906-14. Chow, back on piano plus keyboards and laptop, was joined by Ashley Bathgate (cello), Gregg August (bass), Mark Stewart (guitar), David Cossin (drum kit), and Ken Thomson (clarinets, conducting when needed).
Caroline Shaw, Really Craft When You: Homespun Carolina seamsters spin looping yarns and tips on their quilting as the band shores them up, lifts, nods, lifts.
Gabriella Smith, Panitao: Cello hoots owlishly, guitar chirps like jungle birds—and the birds call back, as keys and cymbals lay a Les Baxter-ish shimmering reverb.
Jóhann Jóhannsson, Hz: the band slides over the deep thrummings of Icelandic electric plant dynamos in a heavy-metal paean to our bygone Industrial Era.
René Lussier, Nocturnal: Lussier lightheartedly recorded his partner’s gentle snoring and wrote amusing, jazzy, stop-time bagatelles around her subaqueous dolphin heavings.
For the Eno, the sextet expanded to small orchestra with 17 strings and winds, plus a dozen women’s voices. The 40-minute suite spins out quietly, with stately strophes, and waves of repeated, morphing passages, all ostensibly attuned to chilling the anxieties of travel transients fretting over missed flights, sluggish delays, security baffles, and the impersonal ambiences of air terminals. Four movements:
1/1 unfolds like slo-mo gamelan, La Guardia imagined by Lou Harrison—spacy, breathy, molto sostenuto. I was hypnotized watching Cossin steadily spinning out repeated but evolving patterns between vibes, gongs, and cymbals. You could imagine the Nine Muses dancing in reverential Hellenic strophes, except for some sloppy (under-rehearsed?) entrances. 1/2 let in 12 ethereal, if listless, women’s voices, wordless over smoky swirls of metal and strings. I thought of Satie’s measured Socrate, for punkers. 2/1 introduced some delicate string pizzicato, with few Bathgate playing some tremolo, glissandi, and decay and Stewart nailing some twangy arpeggios. 2/2 sat the singers, moved Chow to electric keyboard, added strings (cellos, bowed vibraphone and August’s pizzicato bass), and let Thomson’s clarinet pipe welcome airy licks over guitar and marimba. Maybe it just took them all a while to loosen up and get comfortable in the VIP lounge?
Half of yesterday’s Eno ensemble reassembled loosely to perform John Cage‘s serene, ‘monumentally ethereal’ Atlas Elipticalis (1961-2). Cage parsed celestial star charts (not his wonted I Ching tosses) to determine pitches. Leonard Bernstein famously prefaced its 1964 premiere with the NY Philharmonic with one of his witty, complex podium lectures: aleatoric music is serious, not just tricky dada, but challenges the players in myriad ways, and charges them prime responsbility in executing the creative act.
Todd Reynolds’ pared down version (for a non-concert space) fielded 20 young players scattered through MOCA’s most enormous warehouse, The Large Gallery, adorned with Richard Nonas’ installation of weathered railroad ties in a fan layout. The room is maybe 300’ long x 25’ high x 75’ wide, wood floors and ceiling, white brick walls, with windows along the concreted canal in front of famed Porches Hotel. Ambient noise included susurrant HVAC breathing and the occasional rumble of a passing Harley-Davidson brigade.
Each player had her music stand, open score, and cell-phone synched to timed entrances (occasional) and tacets (numerous). Reynolds clapped 4 times and the piece slowly unfolded in its random, peaceable way, with apparently few dynamic markings above mezzoforte. Players positioned above in the end galleries projected better: at the near end I heard a lot of Cole Bartels’ trombone, Tyler Taylor’s French horn and Kate Dreyfuss, one of four violinists. The piece unfolded softly, gently, appropriately pointillist, with few nexuses of crescendo.
Audience responses were clearly varied and somewhat obvious (as silent participants we were encouraged to alter our positions), the more physically active being: walking about, viewing the players and scores (not too closely), adopting sundry yoga positions, meditative lotus, molasses-slow tai chi moves. (Un)naturally, many millennials consulted cell-phones and likely Pokemon-Go locators. One gleeful patron in a wheelchair scooted about snapping the rapt musicians.
As they played mostly shy, spacy fragments – brief gestures, a few notes — I shut my eyes in a wondrous, indelible vision of being in a planetarium as the night sky majestically rotated above, dazzling and disorienting on the rim of the galaxy. Later I retrieved my terrestrial orientation as I strolled slowly through the vast space, aware of the music’s ebb and flow, aural distractions and visual ephemera notwithstanding. Cage might’ve liked this cosmically colloidal performance, accruing his thousand points of light.
Muralist extraordinaire Sol LeWitt’s stark primary colors and basic geometry are filling three huge floors of MOCA for 25 years! After wandering contemporary art spaces between concerts, I needed some visual antidote (or balance) beyond that found at Mt Greylock’s green isosceles expanse and Natural Bridge State Park’s white marble cleavage. Just the thing!—a visit to neighboring Williamstown’s The Clark Museum, prompted by Boston Globe critic Sebastian Smee’s enthusiastic review of the “Nudes from Spain’s Prado Museum.” The unique exhibit (thru October 10th) focused on ‘Old Master’ canvases of quiveringly fleshly femmes, both sacred (O.T. favorites Susanna and her Elders, Joseph and Potiphar’s wife) and secular (Fortuna, Venus, nymphs ‘n’ satyrs), with occasional male hunks woven in (arrow-riddled St. Sebastians, Hercules in his travails). These 28 largely ‘yuge’ canvases (24 never-before-seen-in-America) were curated from the collections of avid Spanish royalty—Philip II (velvety, grainy violet Titians and sepia Tintorettos) and his grandson Philip V (Rubens, deClerck, Jan Breughel pere, Giordano) – while in the interim daddy Philip III disapproved and abstained from riding that moral knife-edge of art’s visual indulgences versus upholding The Inquisition’s notoriously rigid and orthodox moral code. In-house antidotes to these seething dilemmas and gorgeous fleshpots came in two forms: 1) a blast of air-conditioned rooms in the original museum featuring stark seascapes of Winslow Homer, horsey roundups of Frederick Remington, and pastel bucolica of George Inness; and 2) a sunny interlude sprawled in Adirodack chairs by the reflecting pool.
Ashley Bathgate, like Chow a BoC All-Stars member, proved a phenomenally gifted cellist. She performed ASH, a virtuosic half-dozen pieces from the explosive Bach Unwound that she commissioned from Sleeping Giant collective. Timo Andres’ Small Wonder blended snippets of quickstep gigues (from Bach’s French and cello suites) with acid smears and wiry glisses into an expansive, debonair piece. Even its title tributes the performer’s ‘impish ferocity.’ Cerrone’s On Being Wrong drew from Elaine Scarry’s depiction of ‘the shock of perceiving the familiar in new eyes’ to re-examine echoing loops of Bach, alternating in slow and fast sections from different angles, gradually uncovering a harsh, dramatic palimpsest. Andrew Norman’s For Ashley repeated and varied patterns from the Fourth Suite prelude in a lively scherzo, speeding up and slowing to a halt, that showcased Bathgate’s bee-like inquisitiveness and ceaseless energy. Ted Hearne created drones from a vintage YouTube ad that required challenging arco passages. Referencing British geographical history, Jacob Cooper drew ostinato ‘ley’ lines on a landscape lit with chugging multi-stops of train-like force and surprising sforzandi. (Both pieces required tuning down the cello and synching with electronica.)
Robert Honstein’s Orison haunting chorale of reverb and decaying echoes brought us to unknowable edges of the cosmos, and as Bathgate wielded two bows to achieve yawning abyss effects, our eyes also finally connected to Friedman’s art. Memorable!
Dinner at Gramercy Tavern, a handsome, low-key restaurant within MOCA’s sprawling post-industrial precincts, was a 12” pan of Paella and a gratin of scallops, washed down with Inama Soave, followed by Leslie Bleau’s plum tart topped with maple walnut ice-cream. On the walls hung a discreet show of Herman Klein’s earth-tone paintings of rocky creeks.
Thirty-five all-stars gathered again in The Large Gallery to perform Ten Thousand Birds, by John Luther Adams, composer in residence. The genial Adams, a Lincoln-lanky figure strolled about the space greeting musicians warmly; conferring briefly with MD Vicki Chow to whom he’d issued a ‘performance kit’ (a la Henry Cowell or Lou Harrison) of notated sounds but unfixed event sequence. Once the piece began, with gentle breezes blown by the winds, he became reflective, strolled, sat, perhaps lost in thought like Thoreau, rapt in his fascinatingly animated recreation of the avian community.
An environmentalist evolved into compose, Adams eventually wrote music to be performed not in a concert hall but outdoors, evoking different modes of awareness. His ‘ecological listening’ experience was to him at once ‘humbling and provocative.’ Adams described hearing a percussion piece that “sounded powerful and ominous in concert hall, but outdoors much of it just blew away in the wind.” (Adams’ Inuxuit evokes Varese’s Ionisation + Max Roach’s M’boom + percussion group Nexus, and yes, many can-bangers!)
As in the Cage, the audience was encouraged to stroll about during the hour-long piece—but so did most of the players! Oboist Theodossia Roussos cavorted like the pied piper, whether blowing air reedlessly, imitating bird-song, or occasionally singing. Three violinists chased through the hall, twittering like chickadees. The piece unfolded like a day on a sylvan pond. Towards ‘dusk’ a roar of kettle-drums announced a raucous caucus of frogs: Cody Takacs’ rosiny humming bass, Tyler Taylor’s indignant muted French horn, Cole Bartels’ braying trombone, Garrett Brown’s throaty bassoon. Hilarious, yet remarkably evocative. Sopranos Lisa Perry and Justine Aronson evoked birdsong, as Ducther Snedeker’s celeste limned thrush patterns (Veery, Wood Thrush). By nightfall, more breezes blew (through reedless clarinets of Andy Hudson and Hila Zamir), and the owls tuned up: Soo Yeon Lyuh’s haegeum (Korean erhu) exquisitely mimicked the eight-hoot call of a Barred Owl.
As LeWitt’s full-frontal wall patterns, Sharon Ellis’, day-glo canvases, Julianne Schwartz’ shimmery abaca paper sculptures, The Brothers Oakes’ perspective-stretching concave easel etchings and upside down birch trees in MOCA’s courtyard all gradually created the weary eye’s need for traditional order and beauty that brought about the restorative trip to The Clark’s room-filling Rubens Venus and Fortuna, so the weary ear demanded respite from BoC’s barrage of strange new sounds. Thus your devoted critic declared a moratorium, and hied himself to Pittsfield, where the redoubtable Barrington Theater Company merrily boarded and utterly ransacked Gilbert & Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance to the delight of a Q-Tip packed matinee (through August 13). The Tony-studded, Broadway-savvy cast played fast and loose re-spoofing dated Victorian morality in the revived (1981)—nay, revenant—Joseph Papp production for New York Shakespeare Company and left waifs and octogenarians agog and a-giggle with robust singing, lightning turns-of-phrase, dueling derring-do, and quick-change plot-turns and emotions. Not only were the principals up to snuff—Jane Carr’s Ruth, Will Swenson’s Pirate King, K.D. Massey’s Frederic, Scarlet Strallen’s Mabel, David Garrison’s Major General—but the awesomely oscillating octets of parasol-twirling Daughters and epee or billyclub wielding Crew/Constables were party to too many brilliant details to list here. Hear, hear! Mission accomplished.
Percussion Music of John Luther Adams brought together BoC players to The Large Gallery, which allowed maximal resonation to three 15’ pieces. Their natural orientation and pristine simplicity reflect how Adams, the quiet, once-reclusive rural Alaska-dwelling, Eco-Revolutionary, gently describes his goal as composer: “To have people listen more carefully to this miraculous world we inhabit.” Always Very Soft (1973/2007) is a trio we missed attending Penzance. …and bells remembered… (1972/2005) found six players stroking bells and gongs and the 110 in attendance reveling in their reverberations.
Qiyluan (1998) proved an exhilarating workout for four drummers and the audience. Abby Fisher, Evan Saddler, David Cossin and Jeff Stern poised themselves within eye-shot of each other over 30-inch marching bass drums, laid prone. These they struck with small mallets, rolling in varying waves of dynamics and speed, rippling sonic waves — hear: helicopter fleet, Sioux pow-wow, Death Metal drum jam—for 17 cilia-bristling, suspenseful minutes. I think Adams had an arctic tundra windstorm in mind. Opening score markings: “Rock steady”; quarter note = 80; 4/4 maybe throughout.
After-hours jams unfolded at The Chalet, a brick and mortar work of art Montreal artist Dean Baldwin installed in 2012. Spontaneous music with the fellows in MOCA’s summer beer garden careened from bluegrass to quasi-jazz to salsa to karaoke avant-ballads. Available bevs included execrable jug wine (Woodbridge), good bottled beers (Berkshire Brewing Co., Anchor Steam) and debut kegs from new on-campus brewery, Bright Ideas. Picnic tables outside for schmoozing, and within a small brightly lit dance/performance floor. Anna Meadors, alto saxist with vibes and percussion, took one set.
Saturday’s all-night MARATHON, the annual finale, featured music by Adams (The Light Within), and BoC Founders (Wolfe’s raucous Tell Me Everything, Lang’s antediluvian ark luggage). Early classics earned hallowed status: there were special renditions of early (1970) classics: Steve Reich’s Music For Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ, and George Crumb’s exquisitely evocative Lorca settings for soprano in Ancient Voices of Children. Opener Boil was a world premiere by BoC All-Star and fest-fave, Ken Thomson. MOCA’s Hunter Center was jammed four to mindnight [sic] with comings and goings, hushed appreciation during and enthusiastic hubbub between pieces. Festival completists were relieved to find that, despite the diversity and distance between venues, American Legion Hall and Windsor Lake among them, there were no scheduled simultaneous performances.