Who’s Who Downtown

Venerable new-music unit gets ambitious, multimedia-style

If the one certain thing you can say about new music is that it’s new, then Bang on a Can, the exemplary new-music collective, are a paradox; 16 years after the three New York composers united to build a diverse brand out of rock-informed minimalism, they’re best known for lively and expansive re-recordings of Brian Eno and Terry Riley landmarks. Their most ambitious show yet, The New Yorkers, debuted October 22, and as a mid-career retrospective, it argued for BOAC’s importance by surrounding their music with august fellow Fellows. The multimedia machers collaborating with them—among others, William (Whitney Museum) Wegman; Doug (Centre Pompidou) Aitken; Bill (MOMA) Morrison; Ben (MacArthur Foundation) Katchor with picture stories, narrated by Bill (Guggenheim Foundation) Irwin and John (Do the Right Thing) Turturro—were a dazzling downtown Who’s Who, even by BAM standards.

Its mallet percussion triggering stop-start cycles and announcing a debt to Steve Reich, David Lang’s “Cheating, Lying, Stealing,” played by a six-piece band, pulsed with suspense. Julia Wolfe’s “Early that summer,” presented by the string quartet Ethel, seems like a parlor trick, with an Olympian 12 minutes of fast-bowing. But with unpredictable bursts of acridity, it threw off ghostly harmonies, and turned the quartet into a semicircle Marshall amp.

Lang’s recasting of Lou Reed’s “Heroin” as a slo-mo duet for elastic voice and cello might highlight some Salzburg Festival of the Serious, just the kind of misuse rockers fear from the avant-garde. In three premiere pieces that closed the show, Michael Gordon came closer to a genuine New York new music, creating exotic whirlwinds out of episodic riffs, acoustic-versus-electric syncopation, and guitar distortion. But the, frankly, tenuous conceit of the show’s title was most vividly realized in Katchor’s interstitial metropolis fantasias, which prompted actual eruptions of highbrow laughter—especially on the subject of real estate. —Rob Tannenbaum

Boîte Who’s Who

Singers galore page through the Great American Songbook

The annual Cabaret Convention caravanned through Town Hall last week. Once again, impresario Donald Smith showcased his notion of boîte-hot entertainers by marching approximately 70 singers to microphones for two numbers apiece over five evenings and two afternoons. The event is, of course, a boon—not to mention a bone thrown to fans unable to pay individual club covers and minimums.

But besides offering an opportunity to assess who’s who in the shoebox venues, the convention can be viewed as a series of skirmishes in the battle to keep vital the early and middle chapters of the Great American Songbook. Perpetuating so-called standards has traditionally been one of cabaret’s mandates, and during this convention week a number of advocates fought a particularly good fight. The single most exciting turn may have been Kane Alexander’s freshening of “These Foolish Things.” In the many choruses, the Australian lad—calling himself “The Other Boy From Oz”—located resentment over failed love that no one else had previously exploited. Another flashy foray was showman Mark Nadler crooning Irving Berlin’s atypically autobiographical “Me and My Piano,” which had never been sung publicly before Nadler obtained it from the late tunesmith’s daughter, Mary Ellin Barrett.

On the night saluting Judy Garland, Klea Blackhurst lustily called attention to a performing staple, the Signature Song, by belting the George Gershwin-Irving Caesar “Swanee,” which was associated with Al Jolson for four decades before Garland appropriated it. Michelle LeBlanc, in contrast, championed an Almost Forgotten Song: Billie Holiday’s “Preacher Boy.” And, with Stan Daniels’s hilarious “Butler’s Song” about shtupping Hollywood stars, George S. Irving defended the Totally Forgotten Song.

At the Saturday matinee, to which Smith invited high school students gratis, Andrea Marcovicci gave a hearty pitch for the so-called Popular Song—introducing, among younger singers, 25-year-old Sherman Day, who made suave work of Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo.” On a different program, herky-jerky Tom Andersen put in an implied endorsement for the Special-Material Song by introducing a new Willy Welch ditty about the woes of a non-athletic baseball-playing kid regularly condemned to right field.

The times these songs belonged to may have ended, but the Cabaret Convention crusaders saw that the melodies linger on. —David Finkle