Bang On A Can Marathon: Philip Glass, Sun Ra Arkestra, Glenn Branca, Asphalt Orchestra, Talea Ensemble, BOAC All-Stars, JACK Quartet (and many more)
Winter Garden, World Financial Center
Sunday, June 19
Better than: Any 13-hour stretch of the Northside Festival.
It’s not uncommon for a composer to introduce some colleague or another as one of history’s greats. And so it was on Sunday night at the finale of 2011’s 13-hour-long Bang On A Can Marathon, an annual festival celebrating music that “falls between the cracks” (as one is often told) of classical, rock, world, jazz and other genre definitions.
Just before 11 p.m., festival co-founder Michael Gordon testified to the crowd at the World Financial Center’s indoor Winter Garden how Glenn Branca—the pioneering guitar symphonist who taught Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore how to de-tune and rock out in his bands dating from the late ’70s—was one of his “favorite composers of all time.” A few people whistled in agreement. But it was also late for many marathoners; even the most die-hard fans of “new music” get tired after half a day of sitting still and concentrating on sound while situated in the middle of a spacious, echoing mall expanse.
Branca decided the room needed a hype man.
“I think Michael Gordon is one of the greatest composers of all time,” the composer bellowed, once he got a microphone that worked. And, in a nod to the pro forma nature of the mutual admiration society, he added: “We’re gonna scratch each other’s backs, here, but it’s the fuckin’ truth.”
His word choice woke a few people up. (Bang On A Can’s mission statement is aggressive in myriad ways, but casual use of profanity isn’t one of its pillars.) And Branca wasn’t even finished with his “fucks” yet.
“We are the Bang On A Can Marathon,” he continued, pulling out a scrap of paper. “Described by The New York Times as … ’13 consecutive hours of experimental and avant-garde noodling,'” Branca said, letting the last word drip with all its “my five-year-old could do that” condescension. The crowd howled, newly awake. In a suit of smudgy black that matched the granular texture of salt-and-pepper hair brushing his jaw, Branca turned toward his four guitarists, bassist and drummer, and added, “I mean: What The Fuck?”
Thrusting his right arm skyward and his hips in the direction of Elvis, while also setting his left knee to bouncing in the caffeinated rhythm of early Jerry Lee Lewis, Branca signaled his sextet to kick into the furious opening gear of “The Tone Row That Ruled the World.” There was nothing noodle-esque about it.
This pummeling, three-minute introduction to “Ascension: The Sequel”—a 2010 Branca composition after his original “Ascension,” from 1981—prefigures the basic tonal elements of the hour to follow: a narrow range of pitches, which are passed back in forth in tempo relationships that crash into one another like carnival bumper cars possessed of their own rationale. This stretching and contracting and eventual collision—as in all Branca pieces—is exquisitely mapped out, however, so as to create mysterious overtones and choir-like capabilities that make the whole thing more than a mere exercise in din-maintenance. (Such complex careening, however, mostly excludes the drummer, who is required to keep steady beats motoring throughout each of the six movements.)
While the beginning of the fourth section (titled, confusingly, “Lesson No. 3 (Tribute to Steve Reich)”) begins with a guitar part seemingly out of the early No Wave playbook, you can hear how it gets around to an approximation of Reich’s early style. The at-first easy-to-distinguish angularity of each guitar line is gradually phased and futzed with to the point where the whole thing becomes a gloriously complex wash. Branca’s fist-pumping, bicep-clenched conducting pointed it, on Sunday, to a percussion-less penultimate section that finally resolved into a recapitulation of the opening chord—though this time, in unison, among the guitars. And they even let the drummer get some, too.
Here’s some cell phone video of that last bit, taken by an audience member. (Also: this is how more people should conduct their music.)
The only time I have ever heard cries of “encore” at the end of a Bang On A Can Marathon came at the close of Branca’s work on Sunday night. After a half-day of works that tried to break new ground, Branca’s piece discovered the road to vitality that exists on the other side of utter exhaustion.
It was also just one hour out of 13.
The Bang On A Can Marathon is always too much music to take in. The way it resists summary or bullet-pointing feels very much by design, though there were naturally other highlights.
For the second year in a row, a long piece by the recently deceased (and mostly unknown) Italian composer Fausto Romitelli proved a big smash at the marathon. In 2010, the psych-damaged “Professor Bad Trip” won over the crowd. This year, it was “An Index of Metals”: a longer, less manic piece—originally conceived as a “video opera,” though no images were used on Sunday—that still incorporates swooping, helicoptering subwoofer frequencies that shook the stage bunting, as well as expert use of a chamber orchestra.
On Sunday it was the excellent Talea Ensemble that kept track of Romitelli’s quiet, sustained dissonances and fat-wallop fortissimo chords (particularly, in the latter case, among the growling brass). But even they were outshone by guest soprano Tony Arnold, who achieved a proper dramatic intensity even when reciting abstract texts that required her to dip down to the bottom of her range. Like the piece itself, Arnold’s singing never felt angry so much as anguished, though you could see how an interpretation not closely minded might tip over into goth-ish overstatement.
Also possessing a light touch was Philip Glass, who padded out a running-ahead-of-schedule program at one point with a unplanned rendition of his own “Metamorphosis #4” on piano. There are as many jokes about the Glass style as there are pieces by Glass, but his unassuming, lullaby pacing made an impressively casual case for the composer’s every tic; a sense of urgency was always apparent, even when changes in motivic momentum were few and far between. (This was even truer of “Music in Similar Motion,” which Glass played to mesmeric affect alongside the Bang On A Can All-Stars. Bliss.) The crowd in the Winter Garden was probably at its most impressive during this 30-minute set, with observers seated all the way on the rear steps of the staircase opposite the stage.
Though even at 11 a.m., a different amalgamation of crowd was on hand to hear the Asphalt Orchestra—the Bang On A Can in-house marching band that arranges Frank Zappa as readily as it commissions new works from David Byrne and St. Vincent—enter the World Financial Center after doing its processional thing out on the concrete plaza bordering the Hudson.
“Opus 81” by Yoko Ono, last heard as Asphalt’s contribution to last year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival, surely drew a few curious listeners indoors to hear, in turn, “Secret Codes,” by Mexican composer Gabriela Ortiz. As played by Alejandro Escuer, Ortiz’s consistently surprising work for flute and trunk-rattlin’ electronics rated as one of the festival’s genuine discoveries. Approached afterward, Ortiz admitted that the Mexican label that distributes her music sometimes runs out of physical copies—though she stressed that several of her albums are available in mp3 format. Sold. (Though we’ll have to wait for a future recording of “Codes,” which has yet to receive a studio date.)
Also on the “hope it’s recorded soon” side of the things was Richard Ayres’s “Three Small Pieces for String Quartet,” the lilting, old-school European counterpoint of which is humorously rubbed in the dirt via scraped timbres at regular intervals. The JACK Quartet played it all with evident precision and interpretive brio. The group brought that same pair of attributes to bear in the string quartet portion of Michael Gordon’s “Exalted”—a piece dedicated to Gordon’s recently deceased father, and which married a keening angst to the next-generation-goes-on energy of the Young People’s Chorus of NYC. (Branca wasn’t wrong about Gordon being one of his generation’s signature voices, turns out.)
Not everything was a smash, nor is it ever when so many offerings are put forward. Impressive performances, at times, failed to make much of a case for the underlying compositions—a mixed-bag status most evident during several mini-sets by the Italian ensemble Sentiere Selvaggi. (Michael Nyman and Michael Daugherty were two of the composers chosen by the group; I have a hard time ever getting excited about either one.)
Also underperforming was Bryce Dessner’s piece for the Bang On A Can All-Stars, entitled “O Shut Your Eyes Against the Wind,” which played something like a song by The National—dutifully trudging through a mope-y opening context, while holding back most of its expressive excitement for the coda.
More reliably ecstatic, thankfully, was the current version of the Sun Ra Arkestra, still fronted by alto saxophonist Marshall Allen. Though plagued by a protracted tech set-change that still somehow left him without a functioning vocal microphone for the opening piece, “The World Is Not My Home,” Allen proved adept at several kinds of improvisation. He signaled for an early maelstrom after it was clear his vocals weren’t going to come across well, and proceeded to blow his own leads on alto, as well as on a stylized, vocoder-like device that sounded as though crossed with Stockhausen’s ring modulator. Other members of the 16-strong Arkestra took up the song’s titular chant, backed by a two-note riff in the baritone sax: “This world, is not my home/ My home is somewhere better/ Many light years in space… I know I’m a member of the Angel Race.”
Ra’s take on Afro-Futurism—here reflected by this legacy ensemble’s de rigueur donning of homemade gear for surfing the spaceways—was one of the 20th century’s most inspired responses to a brutally compelled outsider status. Near the climax of this marathon, Ra’s chant stood as a useful reminder of what an alternative culture properly ought to be concerned with: an unembarrassed, irony-free feeling of community. In light of that example, it was easy to let go of griping over perceived snubs from the paper of record, and instead merely enjoy a world made a bit more habitable—something like an authentically felt home—thanks to all manner of cultural practices that get dissed out in the mainstream.
Critical bias: As an adolescent, I cherished CD copies of both “Other Planes of There” as well as Branca’s “Symphony No. 6 (Devil Choirs at the Gates of Heaven).” (Sorry, parents!)
Overheard: “He used to play all up and down Hudson Street, at all these wonderful clubs!” -Elderly woman who snuck into an empty press seat during the Glass set
Random notebook dump: If you would like to placate a whiny, noisy toddler who wants out of the stroller, you might try the seventh movement (“drowningirl III”) of “An Index of Metals.” Worked for one harried mom, at least.
Are you kidding me; no, I am not typing this out. Just see here.