Bang on a Can All-Stars
Big Beautiful Dark and Scary
Ashley Bathgate, cello; Robert Black, bass; Vicky Chow, piano; David Cossin, drums and percussion; Mark Stewart, guitar; Evan Ziporyn, clarinets, saxophones, gongs
Bang on a Can certainly knows how to celebrate turning 25. This two-disc release of new recordings features the mainstay composers of BOAC and stellar performances all around. Big Beautiful Dark and Scary also showcases shrewd marketing and promotion. Not only was the recording made available as a free download before the physical CD release, the CDs come with Marijke van Warmerdam’s video component to Life. But, to complete the experience, you’ll also hop over to the iTunes store and pick up the live recording of Closing, an iTunes exclusive track. Yes, I’ve done all these things and I am pretty satisfied with the results.
Disc one contains music by the BOAC Quadrivium: Wolfe, Lang, Gordon, and Ziporyn and each work is an exceptional model of their musical personalities. Julia Wolfe’s title track Big Beautiful Dark and Scary is one continuous and compelling swell that lives up to every adjective in the title. Wolfe’s music is constantly pushing forward through waves of tension and tremolo until it finally releases a scant 10 seconds before the end of the piece. When I think of the music of Julia Wolfe, I think of intensely focused compositions that make even the most basic of materials into a mesmerizing kaleidoscope and this work is a perfect example of her technique, craft, and emotional shaping. Sunray’s vibrant rhythmic texture, lighter instrumentation, and somewhat emotionally detached affect make David Lang’s piece a great contrast to Wolfe’s previous composition. The music hovers around a bright textural groove with occasional heavier monophonic ensemble sections.
Michael Gordon’s For Madeline is more obsessive in its treatment of materials than the Lang. For Madeline floats around a nattering piano/vibraphone chatter while the others smear around in uncoordinated lines. After 5 minutes of almost undetectable raising tensions, the sliding lines take over as the prominent textural material. Eventually the chattering elements are wiped out, leading the rest of the ensemble into a sparse and vacant ending. Evan Ziporyn’s three movements from Shadowbang are equal parts fun and funky (Angkat), timeless and still (Ocean), and hypnotic (Meditasi, Head).
Disc two opens with pure awesomeness. Instructional Video by David Longstreth is a delightfully charming piece of postminimalism/totalism. The guitar strums instantly establish a wonky rhythmic environment and gradually other instruments join in and interlock with each other in mind-bending ways. The piece simmers as such for a short time and cadences with unison rhythms. At under 2 minutes, this track functions as the “elevator pitch” for what makes the album Big Beautiful Dark and Scary worth hearing. Longstreth’s other two compositions, Matt Damon and Breakfast at J&M are equally attractive for opposite reasons. Matt Damon is slow, lyrical, and just pretty. Breakfast at J&M has the same quirky spark as Instructional Video but focuses more on ensemble textures than cumulative processes.
The arrangements of four of Nancarrow’s player piano studies are right in the wheelhouse of the BOAC All-Stars. Ziporyn’s arrangements are sensitive and fresh sounding and the ensemble performs them with a joyful comfort and playful laziness that makes the music sound anything but mechanical.
The mood-painting in Louis Andriessen’s Life are thoroughly engaging as they are but when paired with the spartan video work of Marijke van Warmerdam the work is complete. Both the video and the music revolve around similar themes (movements are Wind, Couple, In the distance, and Light). Andriessen’s music is not a soundtrack to the video nor is Warmerdam’s video a reaction to the music. Both elements hang in similar spaces that reinforce each other while not interfering with each other. The video (exclusive to the CD release) captures environments over actions and I was especially impressed with the simplicity of Couple. An older couple is sitting on a bench while the camera gently sweeps up and over and around them. It sounds simple, yes, but it is incredibly entrancing nonetheless. The four video elements function as a cycle, too, with that couple appearing again in the final section. My biggest complaint is that the m4v file that is included on the second disc is not very high quality. At full screen resolution on my computer there was a high level of pixelation that really destroyed the elegance of van Warmerdam’s work. I would have happily paid for an HD file of this video.
Kate Moore’s Ridgeway is a panoply of polyrhythmic textures that serves as a strong finish for this 2-disc set. These textures are woven together with a direct narrative trajectory that keeps me engaged throughout its duration. The extra bonus track available via iTunes, a live rendition of Closing from Glassworks is a delightfully understated palette-cleanser. The obligatory minor-third oscillations are present, as are long melodic lines and all the harmonic progressions you have come to know and love. Unfortunately the piano’s entrance sounds overly compressed and unnatural and doesn’t mix well with the rest of the ensemble. Ignoring that detail, Closing is sonic comfort food. But in my opinion, you’d just be better off spending your $0.99 on the Expanded Edition Glassworks track.
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