Bang on a Can is a 30-year-old collective of adventuresome composers and musicians whose home is New York City, with summer quarters at Mass MoCA. The Delaware Art Museum hosted music by all three of the group’s founder/directors David Lang, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe, along with selections by minimalist masters Steve Reich and Philip Glass, and the late British composer Steve Martland. It was a beautiful concert, masterfully played, as part of the museum’s performing arts series (more outstanding new music artists coming in the spring).
The performance was held in the large space at the museum’s entrance under the gaze of the Chihuly glass. The six-musician ensemble took up almost half of the room with much percussion, also electric guitar, acoustic and electric bass, ‘cello, grand piano, and reeds, and all of this was amplified: mics, cords, amps and speakers, with a busy sound engineer at the back of the room. There were two veteran musicians in the band and four younger players. Composer Julia Wolfe was there; she did not address the crowd but did accept generous applause for her “Big, Beautiful, Dark & Scary,” a depiction of how life felt several months after 9/11.
The concert opened with David Lang’s “Sunray,” which considered various responses to sunlight but was actually named for the dry cleaner shop next to Lang’s summer residence in 2006. We learned this from sax/clarinetist Ken Thompson, the well-spoken concert narrator. Lang’s sections were alternately gorgeous and somewhat intrusive and irritating. Next up was Can composer Michael Gordon’s “For Madeline,” in memory of his mother. It featured sliding sounds (glissandi); the unison of cello with sliding-capo-guitar was particularly striking.
After intermission came Steve Reich’s “Electric Counterpoint” for 11 pre-recorded guitar parts (by Pat Metheny) with the live solo part performed by Mark Stewart who introduced the work. We learned of another time when Stewart worked with 12 guitarists to learn and perform the difficult score. Philip Glass’ “Closing” followed, an arrangement by Michael Riesman of the final movement of Glassworks (1981). There was something about the arrangement which did not seem to express Glass’s usual sensuous unanimity of sound. The concert closed with Martland’s “Horses of Instruction,” composed for Bang on a Can in 1994, and a repertoire favorite.
All of the music was part of what is called “minimalism,” referring to simple materials, but not a good word to describe this complex and gripping music. The real hallmark of the style is repetition, often inspired by the composers’ experiences with African or Balanese music. Glass and Reich (now around age 80) in particular had great success with this style and the four younger composers (about 60) were inspired by them, as well as by other genres, particularly Martland (jazz and pop). My favorite piece on the program was Reich’s; it is rhythmically infectious and inventive, also with beautiful harmony, breathtaking modulations and transitions, and gorgeous sound. Kudos to sound engineer Andrew Cotton and the ardent commitment of Mark Stewart. It does what a masterpiece can do: create a magic world the listener enters but doesn’t know why or how. It was like a shower of caresses.
That reaction is just my personal taste. Everything was played at the highest level, and all of the pieces were tightly constructed with clear aesthetic intent. The musicians were serious and remarkably focused, but finally cracked smiles with the Martland “Horses” finale. This was rollicking, witty, and gregarious music; loud, too, and left the audience ebullient and energized.
For more information about Bang on a Can All Stars, visit bangonacan.org/bang_on_a_can_all_stars.
Review by Chuck Holdeman (guest contributor)