Vivid images of birds, blue skies, and cacti flashed across a screen as the Bang on a Can All-Stars played an eccentric rock jam: Bird Chart, a raucous new piece composed by Amanda Berlind, lit up Merkin Hall on January 28, with an uncanny humor that celebrated her love of birds and their many oddities. Recorded chirps interlocked with the band’s brash, pulsating melody, forming a quirky harmony and an off-kilter beat.
The concert – presented as part of the Ecstatic Music series at Kaufman Music Center – was a showcase for Bang on a Can’s People’s Commissioning Fund, an annual project that pools together donations of any size to commission new works written for the Bang on a Can All-Stars. This year’s commissioned composers were Berlind; Qasim Naqvi, a founding member of Dawn of Midi; the Icelandic composer and cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir, an Emmy, Golden Globe, and Grammy winner and current Academy Award nominee; and the illustrious experimental composer Alvin Curran. They were asked to write pieces that responded broadly to dance, and the results often were quite abstracted.
The evening opened with Naqvi’s Featureless, a rumination on what might happen if a human were sucked into a black hole and transformed into an atomic trail of light. The piece was textural, building melodies from a collage of rippling sound. A sense of urgency colored the atmosphere as it broke down into a funky syncopation and abruptly ended. Curran’s Missteps was a 10-minute roller coaster ride of different dance styles, eventually devolving into discordant wildness. He took inspiration from all corners of his interest in and experience with dance, mashing together the sharp swishes of recorded tap dance with a swinging band, biting chords and jazzy melodies, idiosyncratic melodies and frenzied noise.
Formed in 1992, the Bang on a Can All-Stars — currently featuring Robert Black (bass), Vicky Chow (piano), David Cossin (percussion), Arlen Hlusko (cello), Mark Stewart (guitars), and Ken Thomson (clarinets) — have developed a sort of quintessential sound due to their unusual instrumentation. They carry with them the flare and energetic force of rock, fusing this gregarious style into the ethos of post-minimalism and experimentalism. While the similarity of the pieces on Tuesday made them start to seep together, the thrill of performance and the celebratory joy they emitted was infectious.
Guðnadóttir’s Illimani, a meditative work inspired by the endless stream of notes that dance through her mind while she moves, provided a contrast to the otherwise boisterous evening. The beginning of the piece was uncertain, a bit shaky in its intonation, as it asked musicians to play fully in sync. Each repetition of the plaintive melody resulted in a deep sense of nostalgia, yet ultimately the work felt bland.
After the premieres, the All-Stars presented two older pieces, by Phil Kline and Julius Eastman. Exquisite Corpses, created for the first People’s Commissioning Fund concert in 1998, was Kline’s first notated work. In Tuesday’s performance, the sound was polished and muted, as a slowly building groove moved against a backdrop of bells and a mysterious melody.
The program closed with a stunning rendition of Eastman’s Stay On It, in a new arrangement prepared by Thomson and Ed RosenBerg III. Eastman was a composer, vocalist, and pianist whose work was vital to the late ’70s/early ’80s New York downtown scene, falling under the broad umbrella of minimalist style. Stay On It strikes a delicate balance between the comfort of repetition and the chaos of freedom.
In the All-Stars arrangement, presented here in its New York premiere, performers occasionally spoke a rhythmically timed “stay on it” above a peppy, oscillating melody. The vibrancy of the opening devolved into a sort of sonic pandemonium, only to return to a state of pure serenity at the end. Piano sliced through the thick atmosphere with tranquility, interjecting into the chaos with placid chords moving in the already-established rhythm. The other instruments each began to fade out, until all that was left was the piano vibrating in a quiet sort of hope. As the piano faded away, a tambourine began to beat that same rhythm, and time stood still, until it ended.
Vanessa Ague is a violinist, avid concertgoer, and music blogger at theroadtosound.com, and the development and research associate at National Sawdust. She was a 2019 Bang on a Can Media Fellow, and holds a Bachelor’s Degree from Yale University.
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.
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