Bang on a Can founders’ music still iconoclastic after all these years

Thu Apr 20, 2017 at 12:46 pm
Music of David Lang, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe were performed Wednesday night at Zankel Hall.

Music of David Lang, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe were performed Wednesday night at Zankel Hall.

Classical concerts are nearly always presented as a means to visit the past, which is an impossibility—there is nothing about hearing Mozart that makes us truly experience the 18th century. Concerts are often best when they bring ideas and values into the present, and make them relevant.

One of the best examples of this was the “Three Generations” concert presented Wednesday night at Zankel Hall. This three-concert series, programmed by Steve Reich, explores the avant-garde roots of minimalism and the style’s legacy through post-minimalism and the current indie-classical scene.

Wednesday’s concert offered music from Bang on a Can founders David Lang, Julia Wolfe, and Michael Gordon. Though all the pieces performed are only 25 years old (or less), these early adventures in post-minimalism proved more vital than ever.

The importance and influence of these works—Lang’s cheating, lying, stealing, Wolfe’s Lick and the string quartet Early that summer, and Gordon’s Yo Shakespeare—cannot be overstated. If minimalism showed the way out of the end-of-history cul-de-sac of totalistic serialism, this music showed how to use the fundamentals of minimalist technique as a way to revive classical forms.

But that may be the least of its virtues. What the exhilarating performances from the Bang on a Can All-Stars and JACK Quartet showed was that the sincerity, affectlessness, and palpable joy of the music was its most revolutionary and enduring quality. The technical features—especially the recursive repetitions, the staggered pulses, and explosive use of rhythmic tension and release—were important, and played with confident precision (with excellent amplification by Jody Elff). But it was the attitude, the street-wise iconoclasm, the sense that the composers knew the physical and social pleasure of the mosh pit and the dance floor, that was most visceral.

Sub rosa and consistent in the performances was a sense of constructive, creative struggle. In cheating, lying, stealing, the music keeps trying to repeat the initial statement, but the copies are all different; meanwhile the cello tries to break through  with an expressive solo voice. In Wolfe’s pieces, the musicians wrangle with a consensus, while in Yo Shakespeare, multiple rhythms fight against each other for dominance. Each begins with the sense of trying to discover its own meaning and goals, and each ultimately comes together with the raucous thrill of a great rock band playing at its peak.

That was the case with these performances. JACK was, for once, surpassed in drive and energy by the All-Stars, led by the yeoman work of reed player Ken Thomson, who kept a clear beat through all the whipsawing rhythms and meters. The performance of Lick, which depends on the musicians’ ability to play with the power and swagger of a rock band, was blistering, and the level of execution and groove in Yo Shakespeare matched the awesome power of the piece itself  (the All-Stars were augmented with a group of veritable all-star musicians, like violinist Todd Reynolds, with Gordon himself at one of the keyboards). All the players seemed even more thrilled than the audience.

That was the point, and it’s a deep one. In the Bang on a Can Marathon concerts, the All-Stars have shared the stage with the likes of Sonic Youth and the Sun Ra Arkestra, the common bond being an awareness of the fundamental social aspect of music making and the value of casting oneself into an unknown future, and seeing what one might find. As Lang said when Reich asked him how they all went from music school to their post-minimal style, it was a matter of doing “things that looked like fun, and that you weren’t supposed to do in music school.”

That’s appropriate to a movement that began with the DIY explorations of La Monte Young and Terry Riley, and much needed today. Eclecticism is an ethos in the music schools, and the roughness of the streets, of lived life, that attitude that anything is possible if you go your own way, is sanded down. There are audible beats and catchy riffs, but the vital oppositional energy and attitude of rock has been replaced by a polite conformism. One eagerly awaits the next iconoclasts.

The final “Three Generations” concert presents music by Bryce Dessner and Nico Muhly, 7:30 p.m. April 26, in Zankel Hall.

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