2012 being the 25th anniversary of the Bang on a Can avant garde music marathon, it makes sense that this year’s marathon yesterday at the World Financial Center would be a more oldschool one than in years past, with more emphasis on familiar faces and American composers than the wide-ranging internationalist vibe of recent years. Judging from the first forty percent of the show, not to mention the tantalizing bill that loomed ahead for the evening, this year’s was one of the best in recent memory. Unlike the last few years, where BOAC would cleverly seem to work the occasional obvious bathroom break or even a dinner break into the programming, from noon to about half past five there wasn’t a single tune-out: not everything on the bill was transcendent, but a lot was.
Lois V Vierk was one of the composers on the program along with Pauline Oliveros, Steve Reich and Martin Bresnick at the first marathon in 1988; this time out she was represented by her galloping, hypnotically enveloping, Reich-esque Go Guitars, performed by the Dither guitar quartet – Taylor Levine, James Linaburg, Josh Lopes and James Moore. Cellist Ashley Bathgate followed, solo, with Daniel Wohl’s insistently minimalist, echoing, rhythmic Saint Arc, a good segue with its bracing atmospherics. The crowd’s focus shifted to the rear of the atrium for trombone quartet Guidonian Hand playing Jeremy Howard Beck’s Awakening, a pro gay marriage polemic inspired by the chants of protestors as well as Jewish shofar calls. Vividly evocative of uneasy crowd noise, a sense of reason developed, and then a triumphantly sostenuto fanfare with wry echoes of Also Sprach Zarathustra.
BOAC All-Star Vicky Chow played Evan Ziporyn’s In Bounds. Inspired by essay about basketball, Ziporyn explained that he had mixed feelings about asking Chow to tackle such a demanding task as essentially becoming a one-woman piano gamelan with this work – but she was up for it. It’s classic Ziporyn, catchy blues allusions within a rapidfire, characteristically Javanese-influenced framework. Moving from attractive concentric ripples to some tongue-in-cheek Tubular Bells quotes to a welcome spaciousness as the piece wound down, Chow’s perfectly precise, rapidfire music-box attack raised the bar for pretty much everyone who followed.
The NYU Contemporary Music Ensemble conducted by Jonathan Haas negotiated their way through Ruben Naeff’s Bash, its point being an attempt at making a party out of group tensions. Its interlocking intricacies were a workout especially for vibraphonist Matthew Lau, but he didn’t waver, alongside Patti Kilroy on violin, Maya Bennardo on viola, Luis Mercado on cello, Florent Ghys on bass, Charles Furlong on clarinet, Anne Dearth on flute and Jeff Lankov on piano. Steadily and tensely, they illustrated an uneasily bustling party scene that eventually reached for a slightly more lush, relaxed ambience without losing its incessant rhythmic intensity.
Bass clarinetist Michael Lowenstern was then joined by extrovert violin virtuoso Todd Reynolds for an unexpectedly catchy new wave pop melody and then Footprints (not the Wayne Shorter composition), a genially bluesy, upbeat number where the BOAC All-Stars’ Dave Cossin joined them on drums. They’d busked with this one during a European tour and made enough for dinner from it one night in Vienna about twenty years ago. Then Guidonian Hand took the stage for Eve Beglarian’s In and Out of the Game, inspired by her epic Mississippi River trip a couple of years ago: an anthemic, upbeat piece, it was delivered rather uptightly, perhaps since the ensemble was constrained by having to play along with a tape.
Julia Wolfe’s My Lips From Speaking isn’t one of her white-knuckle intense, haunting numbers: it’s a fun extrapolation of the opening riff from Aretha Franklin’s Think (played by Aretha herself on the record). Piano sextet Grand Band – Chow, David Friend, Paul Kerekes, Lisa Moore, Blair McMillen and Isabelle O’Connell had a ball with it, each wearing an ear monitor so as to catch the innumerable, suspenseful series of cues as the gospel licks grew from spacious and minimalist to a joyously hammering choir. Ruby Fulton’s The End, sung by Mellissa Hughes with Dither’s Taylor Levine on uke and M Shanghai String Band’s Philippa Thompson on spoons, made a good segue. Inspired by the Beatles’ The End – as Fulton explained, one of the few places on record where Ringo ever took a bonafide drum solo – its hypnotic, insistent rhythm and Hughes’ otherworldly harmonies in tandem with the drones and then overtones rising from Levine’s repetitive chords built an increasingly complex sense of implied melody, as captivating as it was clever.
The first piece delivered by the BOAC All-Stars – Chow, Bathgate and Cossin on vibraphone and percussion this time plus Robert Black on bass, Mark Stewart on guitars and Ziporyn on clarinets – was Nibiru, by Marcin Stanczyk, one of the composers who’s come up through BOAC’s MassMoCa mentoring program. An apprehensive blend of anxious, intense percussion and ominous outer-space motifs, it pondered the existence of the phantom planet from harmonic-laden drones to surfy staccato guitar to where Bathgate finally took it to the rafters, her cello’s high harmonics keening eerily over Ziporyn’s bass clarinet wash.
The biggest audience hit of the afternoon – big surprise – was Thurston Moore’s Stroking Piece #1. It took a long time to for the All-Stars to build from faux Glenn Branca to critical mass but when they finally got the chance, a minor chord abruptly and rather chillingly making an appearance, Cossin slamming out a four-on-the-floor beat, the band had a great time with it even if it wasn’t particularly challenging. As it wound out, Stewart artfully led them from a crazed noise jam back into quiet, mantra-like atmospherics.
That may have been the peoples’ choice, but the next piece, Gregg August’s A Humble Tribute to Guaguanco, performed by his bass quartet Heavy Hands with Greg Chudzik, Lisa Dowling and Brian Ellingsen, was the most memorable of the afternoon. “Taking advantage of the percussion and the vocal quality that we can get from the bass,” as the bandleader (and four-string guy from sax powerhouse JD Allen’s amazing trio) explained, they made it unexpectedly somber and terse, alternately bowing, picking and tapping out an interlocking beat, eventually adding both microtones and polyrhythms. A dancing pulse gave way to sharp, bowed chromatic riffs, part flamenco, part Julia Wolfe horror tonalities. The second they finished, a little sparrow landed in front of the stage as if to signal its approval.
The following work, Besnick’s Prayers Remain Forever was performed by by TwoSense (Bathgate and Moore). Introducing the composer, Julia Wolfe reminded that he taught all three of the BOAC founders, and that his Yale School of Music ensemble Sheep’s Clothing was the prototype for BOAC. “At a certain point in life existential questions become extremely important,” he explained – the title of the work is from the last line of the Yehuda Amichai poem Gods Come and Go. A plaintively elegaic, part mininalist, part neoromantic work, as it expanded from a simple chromatic motif, a sense of longing became anguish and then descended to a brooding, defeated atmosphere, the cello and piano switching roles back and forth from murky hypnotics to bitterly rising phrases, with a particularly haunting solo passage from Bathgate. Yet what was even more impressive about her playing is how closely she communicates with her bandmates, Moore especially: the duo played as a singleminded voice.
Then things got loud and memorably ugly with “punk classical” ensemble Newspeak, whose late-2010 album Sweet Light Crude is a gem. They played that tune, a savagely sarcastic love song to an addiction that will eventually prove lethal, Hughes’ deadpan, lushly Romantic vocals soaring over cinematics that built from anxiously sweeping to metal grand guignol fueled by Brian Snow’s cello, Levine’s guitar and bandleader/composer David T. Little’s coldly stomping drums. They also rampaged through Oscar Bettison’s B & E (with Aggravated Assault), emphasizing its jagged math-rock rhythms and a pummeling series of chase scenes.
Michael Gordon, one of the original BOAC trio with Wolfe and David Lang, led his band – the BOAC All-Stars’ Stewart, Cossin and Zioporyn plus Reynolds on violin and Caleb Burhans on viola – through his own Thou Shalt/Thou Shalt Not from behind a keyboard. This was a disappointment and didn’t measure up to Gordon’s usual high standard. Juicy textures – creepy funeral organ, staccato twin microtonal violins, foghorn bass clarinet – overshadowed simplistic percussive riffage, which carried on far too long without much focus: if he could cut this down to 3:05, he’d have a hit. Next on the bill was soprano saxophonist Jonas Braasch, who performed his alternately rapt and amusingly echoey Quasi Infinity through a digital effect he’d created to approximate an amazing 45-second natural reverb that Oliveros had reveled in while recording in a Washington State cistern in 1988. That boded well for Oliveros and her Deep Listening Band, who played digeridoo-heavy, warmly enveloping works immediately afterward. And while it’s hubris to walk out on an artist as perennially fresh and compelling as she is, there’s a point where concerts of this length and the demands of having a life don’t coincide. Apologies to Oliveros and her crew for not sticking around for their entire set.
One final issue that ought to be addressed, and not just by BOAC and the World Financial Center landlords, is that there needs to be a no-under-fours rule here. And for that matter, at every serious music event in New York, maybe everywhere in this country. This didn’t used to be an issue, but with the helicopter parenting fad, children having become yuppie bling, national restaurant chains and thousands of other businesses are retaliating. A reasonably bright four-year-old can be taught to sit quietly or at least move around quietly while a concert is in progress; a two-year old can’t. Too bad that there’s no way to ban the yuppies along with their annoying, sniveling, whiny spawn, which would solve the whole problem.
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