June 06, 2006

Retroactively liveblogging the Bang on a Can marathon

I made it through the entire indoor portion of Sunday's Bang on a Can marathon at the World Financial Center (as did my intrepid music-loving friend Rob), and came away with five CDs (would have been six, but one was sold out). Let's pretend I own a laptop and brought it with me for the show. And let's be forgiving if I don't manage to stay in the appropriate verb tense to pretend I'm blogging this as it happens, because I won't.

2:00 PM

First up is Gamelan Galak Tika. I know one of the guys in this ensemble (Dan Schmidt) from his rock band, Honest Bob and the Factory-to-Dealer Incentives. Never seen him perform with this group, but I'm looking forward to it. I'm a sucker for gamelan.

Good stuff. Rose and I found Dan after the set to say hello. He seemed either nonplussed to see us (it's been a few years since either of us has seen him) or perhaps just uncomfortable about socializing while still wearing a burgundy robe.

Next is pianist Lisa Moore, performing Julia Wolfe's "My Lips From Speaking". This was originally written for Piano Circus, a six-piano ensemble. Here it was performed with most of the piano parts on tape, with Lisa Moore playing along live. Some sections were interesting, with a bluesy feel, but most of it sounded like a chaotic mess to me, helped not at all by the echoey acoustics of the Winter Garden. I might have liked it better if it had been easier to hear the interplay between parts, but it's hard to say.

Okay, one good act and one meh one. Let's see if Gutbucket can swing this marathon into the plus column. Okay, they seem to be a rock-style ensemble, with drums, guitar, bass, and saxophone. Oh, they're like a jazz band, but louder. And without the thing that jazz usually has, where there's a melody and then the song spins off from there. Instead it's just all the noodly bits, but loud. Not my thing at all. I took this opportunity to go get a sandwich. Gah! Why is Cosi closed? Don't they know there's a music marathon on? I found a sandwich elsewhere.

The next group, Tactus, had joined Gamelan Galak Tika for their second piece in their set, a composition which featured an interesting counterpoint between the Western and Balinese orchestras. (It also had great sound design, with the wind instruments not standing on stage, but instead on the balconies to the left and right of the audience, providing an interesting surround-sound feel.) Their own piece is pleasant but not something I'm likely to need to hear again. I think it was about this point that Rose headed out for Church of Craft, to return later.

CDs purchased: two by Gamelan Galak Tika (self-titled and Dangerous Things).

4:00 PM

Hey, we're running about 10 minutes early! Maybe we'll be out of here before 10:00! First up is clarientist Eileen Mack, performing "Rapture" by Anna Clyne. This is a dreamy, droney piece with taped electronic accompaniment. Haunting and completely enthralling. (This was a piece that was helped rather than hindered by the acoustics of the space.) I wanted to buy it on CD, but there was no such animal.

After a surprisingly quick setup time, considering all the crap they brought with them, it was Matmos & So Percussion, performing...well, exactly what you'd expect. Percussion and electronics. Which is not to say I didn't like it -- it was energetic and intricate and clanky, and those are all things I like. But it didn't fully grab me. I did enjoy watching the non-traditional percussion, which included a propane tank, and actual aluminum cans being banged on.

Next up is the Bang on a Can All-Stars, a small ensemble with the slightly odd lineup of clarinet, electric guitar, cello, double bass, piano, and percussion. The first piece is Paul Lansky's "A is for..." This is the first piece of the marathon that I actively hate. The music is pleasant, but it's accompanied by a LOUD recorded voice spelling words that begin with A. I thought, okay, I get it: you know how to spell. Please shut up and play some music now.

That was followed by Annie Gosfield's "Overvoltage Rumble" (with the same ensemble). After the last piece, it was a relief to have one I liked -- this was a dense piece with sampled analog synthesizers rubbing dissonantly against rock instrumentation, and a funky rhythmic drive. It's not commercially available, but you can listen to a stream of it here (it starts at about 40 minutes in).

Yat Kha, famous as the "Tuvan throat-singing punk band", then performed as an acoustic duo. Their quieter incarnation was rather haunting. They played four songs, wrapping up with a cover of Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart". I guess Tuvan throat singing is the gothiest folk music in the world, so that's fairly appropriate.

The last performer in this block was Dominic Frasca, who blew my mind with his crazily polyphonic acoustic guitar mayhem. I am such a patsy for this kind of dense melodic interplay.

CDs purchased: Dominic Frasca's Deviations.

6:00 PM

The first piece in the next section is William Parker's "Tears for the Children of Rwanda", which is exactly as "up" a piece as it sounds. I didn't love it -- it felt didactic and good-for-me. Unfortunately, this was the piece that Lorinne arrived during. Not a great intro.

Next is Sentieri Selvaggi, an Italian ensemble playing three pieces: Carlo Boccadoro's "Bad Blood", Filippo Del Corno 's "L'uomo armato", and Paolo Coggiola's "Hume". I liked the first two quite a bit, and disliked the third one (it seemed a little art-music-by-the-numbers: dissonant, no melody, please try not to enjoy it). I slightly regret not buying their CD, since the pieces I liked were on it, and the piece I didn't wasn't. I may still end up ordering it.

At this point, I was getting hungry (and slightly envious of Rob and Lorinne's coffees), so I made a Starbucks run at the end of the set. I ordered a vanilla creme with a shot of toffee nut syrup, and a piece of iced lemon pound cake. This was apparently very confusing to the baristas. "You want toffee nut instead of vanilla?" "No, a vanilla creme with toffee nut syrup." "But do you still want the vanilla syrup?" "Yes, I would like a vanilla creme, with all the things that a vanilla creme comes with, but also with toffee nut syrup. And," I repeated, in case it had gotten lost in the explanatory shuffle, "a piece of iced lemon pound cake." The first barista goes off to deal with my drink while the second guy (who had been standing in front of me during my entire ordering exchange) rings up my drink and asks, "Will there be anything else?" "Um...yes. Iced lemon pound cake." I pay, he hands me a bag, I wander down the counter to get my drink, look idly in the bag, and...hm. "Excuse me," I say, "but this is a Rice Krispie square. I wanted a lemon pound cake." Those poor Starbuckeroos must have been pretty punchy by then, what with the Starbucks being the only goddamn place in the World Financial Center that was still open and selling anything even vaguely foodlike.

On my way back to my perch, I passed Annie Gosfield and remarked that I'd enjoyed her piece. She thanked me and asked, "Do I know you?" I wasn't sure how to take that...do composers not get a lot of compliments except from people they know, who are obliged to compliment them? I explained that, no, I was just an audience member, but she still seemed suspicious of me, like maybe I was trying to pick her up. I mean, she was cute, but seriously, I'm pretty booked up right now.

I was looking forward to the next act -- Glenn Kotche and David Cossin performing two Steve Reich-related works. First up was Kotche's "Clapping Music Variations", which took the basic rhythms from Clapping Music and added melody and harmony (but not more cowbell, alas). Rob and I agreed that we preferred the simplicity of the original, but that this was a good response to it. They also performed David Cossin's arrangement of Music for Pieces of Wood, rescored for two drum kits. This was a Steve Reich performance that would have fit in perfectly at a Rush concert. It fucking rocked. I saw a small child give the performers the devil horns at the end of the piece. Right on.

Last up was Michael Harrison, performing a piece for harmonically tuned solo piano. I kind of enjoy pieces in just intonation (like Terry Riley's The Harp of New Albion), but this just seemed repetitive...and I like minimalism. One audience member didn't care for the piece either (or cared for it a little too much), and expressed his opinion by walking through the audience and slowly waving his arms and pecking his head in an interpretive dance-y fashion. He eventually washed up against the foot of the staircase we were sitting on, acquiring two fellow dancers (although he was by far the most convincing of the three, with his stony-faced conviction). At some point, security guards approached him and gave him a talking-to. We thought they were actually going to throw him out, but they didn't.

Rose returned from dinner sometime during this piece, and saved me from starvation with a cup full of leftover shrimp risotto. Yum. I didn't get to eat it until the piece ended and I had time to run back to the Starbucks for a spoon, though. On my way back to the stairs, I saw the end of the interpretive dancer's interaction with the security guards. One guard was walking away, and the dancer called after him, "Do you not like me?"

CDs bought: none

8:00 PM

Lorinne headed back to Brooklyn, and the rest of us settled in for the home stretch. Only two and a half hours to go! Probably! First up was some fine postminimalist action, with the Weather Ensemble performing Michael Gordon's "Weather One". It was intricate in that way that pushes my buttons, and I might not have bought the CD (in an effort to rein in my natural impulse to buy EVERY CD EVER), but Rose liked it too, so I went ahead and bought it anyway.

I also bought the EP by the next act, listed in the program as Amiina, but on the CD as Amina, and on their website as both. Which is it already??? Anyway, Amiina was four women from Iceland roaming around the stage to play all manner of odd instruments (including water glasses and a musical saw). They had an incredibly gorgeous and lush sound, which, I remarked to Rose, reminded me of Sigur Ros. Turned out this wasn't a surprising observation; Amina has frequently collaborated and performed with Sigur Ros.

At some point around here, Rose asked about the pieces she had missed, and Rob and I were trying to explain about Clapping Music Variations. Rob pointed out one impressive part, in which Glenn Kotche played both parts of Clapping Music by himself, his left hand playing one rhythm and his right playing the other. Rose, never having heard the Steve Reich piece in question, didn't quite follow what we meant, and I thought the easiest way to explain it would be to just perform Clapping Music. (It's an easy piece to do an impromptu performance of; it starts out with two people clapping out a rhythm of three beats, two beats, one beat, and two beats repeatedly. One clapper maintains that rhythm steadily while the other clapper regularly moves the rhythm ahead one beat after a certain number of measures, causing the two rhythms to interact in different ways. You can listen to it here.) Fortunately, Rob was game to take the harder of the two parts -- the moving one -- because there was no way I could keep track of that part without rehearsals and sheet music. Rose later told me we had quite a few nearby audience members watching. Fun!

Next was the first of three pieces accompanied by video, "Outerborough". The video was an archival film of a train going over the Brooklyn Bridge, filmed with one camera at the front of the train and one at the back, playing simultaneously. The film was looped and manipulated, and accompanied by yet another multitracked accompaniment with live instrumentation, this time violin by Todd Reynolds. We all enjoyed this one a lot, and it was definitely the most successful marriage of music and video of the night, we thought.

The Bang on a Can All-Stars then came back on with Don Byron to play selections from their latest collaborative CD. Didn't do much for me. The first piece was another piece in that atonal, you-can-tell-it's-art-music-because-you-have-to-think-about-it-to-like-it vein that I can't stand; the others were less abrasive, but didn't do much for me. The All-Stars didn't have a very good hit-to-miss ratio at this point; Rob thought this might be because the ensemble had such random, non-cohesive instrumentation, and I could see his point. Most of the pieces they had played had sounded more like six people playing their instruments in the same room at the same time, and less like one big music-making organism.

But the All-Stars redeemed themselves in my eyes with the next piece, which was the world premiere of a Michael Nyman score to a famous silent film, Manhatta, which sets images of New York against excerpts from a Walt Whitman poem. My reaction to this piece was sort of contradictory -- I loved the music, and I thought the arrangement (by Andy Keenan) took great advantage of the All-Stars' instrumentation. But as a film soundtrack, I thought the music was terrible! It never interacted with the screen imagery at all; it just chugged along steadily throughout, without much concern for whether we were looking at boats or buildings or what. Which, as Mike (a former Cargo coworker I ran into on the subway ride home) said, was odd -- isn't it Michael Nyman's job to sync up music and imagery? And the music seemed a bit literal, mostly hammering on that "bustling" rhythm that implies "city", and that struck me as hacky. I would have liked the piece much more without the movie.

That was followed by another film-accompanied piece, David Lang's "World to Come", performed by cellist Maya Beiser. This piece took forever to set up, and considering that it was already 10:15 by the time the previous act ended and the show was scheduled to end at 10:30, I was getting concerned about the timing. This was still yet again another piece with taped accompanient (cello and wordless vocalizing), by the way. Rob didn't care for the film, and I agreed that the movie could not have stood on its own without the music, but I certainly didn't mind it (and thought it fit the mood quite well). The main attraction was the music, though -- another example of the droning, delicate, sparse sort of composition that came off well in the reverb-heavy space. Rose absolutely loved it, and I liked it too, although I found it hard to relax into it since the piece was LONG and it was getting on to 10:45 and my legs were getting achy from sitting on the stairs for so many hours. I tried later to buy the Maya Beiser CD featuring this piece, but it was sold out. I'll order it at some point, even though it has a terrible, over-Photoshopped cover.

Finally! The last group! It's Alarm Will Sound, performing one John Adams synthesizer piece ("Coast") and two Aphex Twin songs, all on acoustic instruments. I enjoyed the John Adams, although Rob, who knows the original piece way better than I do (I haven't heard it since college), said that there were a lot of sonic details lost in the WALL OF ECHO. Unfortunate. Anyway, then came the Aphex Twin. Now, there are two kinds of Aphex Twin songs: the ambient ones and the crushingly loud and distorted ones. I pretty much only like the ambient ones. And I loved the first Aphex piece ("Four"); I felt it made the case very well for Richard James as contemporary composer. Then they wrapped up with "Cock/Ver 10", which successfully talked me out of buying the CD. So loud. So crashy. Oog.

CDs purchased: Michael Gordon, Weather; Amina, Animamina.

All in all, definitely worth the time (ending around 11:15, arrrrgh so tired), even if the show did end up tempting me to spend more than I wanted to spend on CDs.

Posted by Francis at 02:03 AM

Small world. I had Evan Ziporyn as a theory teacher in college, and Dan Schmidt was a rehearsal accompanist for MITG&SP.

Posted by: Rhu/nmHz at June 6, 2006 09:42 AM

Thanks for the new moniker! :)

Posted by: The Intrepid Music-Loving Friend Rob at June 6, 2006 06:35 PM

Small indeed. EZ and I have been close chums since college. Glad you liked Galak Tika, Francis -- I recommend This is Not a Clarinet.

Posted by: Trazom at June 6, 2006 07:57 PM


Just to clear up the name thing, Amiina is the name of the group from Iceland that reminds you of Sigur Rós. :)
They were called Amína, but due to some confusion between them and a Tunisian singer, they had to change their name.
This only happened recently, which might explain the continuing existence of both names here and there.

Glad to hear you enjoyed the set! :)

Posted by: Greg at June 15, 2006 03:59 AM
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