Time doesn’t stand still as Bang on a Can Marathon showcases emerging composers

Tue Jun 08, 2021 at 11:48 am
Eddy Kwon performed Seep at Sunday’s streaming Bang on a Can marathon. Photo: BOAC

To the long list of innovations that Bang on a Can has brought to musical performance, one can now add an erroneous countdown clock on their streaming page, which caused this reviewer to miss the first 28 minutes of the new-music organization’s four-hour online Song Marathon on Sunday afternoon.

Maybe that was part of the show. With an outfit as dedicated to the unconventional as this one, one can never be sure.

Certainly the featured composers and performers made every effort to expand the horizons of “song” far beyond the Schubertian singer-and-piano model by all means acoustic, electronic and visual. The marathon’s new works were never less than simulating, sometimes deeply moving. Most were receiving their world premieres.

In fact, at least four of the 15 items on the program didn’t involve singing at all. But the human voice somehow got into every one, even if it was only composer-performer Fred Frith introducing his improvisation-style Now Here for electric guitar and kitchen percussion with a hearty “Here goes!” and ending it with a modest “Voilà.”

Presiding as cheerleaders and interviewers between performances were Bang on a Can co-founders David Lang, Julia Wolfe, and Michael Gordon, whose internet connections mostly worked well, as did those of the two dozen or so composers and performers who came onscreen from Brooklyn, Java, and points in between to talk about their work.

It seemed miraculous that tenor Julian Otis could talk at all after his intense, unaccompanied performance of Julian Eastman’s Prelude to the Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc—a “meditation” on the saint’s fiery vision taken at a high, relentless, voice-stripping fortissimo nearly throughout. Coupled with the names and particulars of people killed by police flashing on the black background, the performance was a white-hot threnody, a trumpet for battle, or both.

In contrast, Anna Clyne’s shadowy Zero at the Bone, with its languid waltz tune, subtly modernized the lieder tradition of classic poetry set to picturesque music. Ken Thomson not only performed on live and pre-recorded clarinets, but evoked Emily Dickinson’s eponymous “Snake” in speaking and singing that were as smooth and cool as his playing. Touches of electronic looping and reverb suggested the creature’s sinuous, disappearing track through the grass, making this song the concert’s most elegant sonic experience.

Sophie Cash’s Homecoming also offered embracing electronics, with pianist Vicky Chow treading in gentle chords while duetting vocally with a pre-recorded Cash and with herself in loops and an electronic octavizer. Onscreen, one saw acoustic padding hugging the pianist and the candle-lit keyboard like a box lined in magenta satin. The text by the composer, with its tantalizing images, was (she revealed afterward) actually a dummy lyric, with phrases fitted to the music “like trying different lids on a jar.”  (Perhaps the best lyricists, then, are the ones with the biggest lid collections.)

The singer L’Rain needed no words, just a microphone and a vocoder, to loop together an ethereal chorus of rising and falling female voices in her untitled piece, disrupted near the close by a deep bass entrance that caused the whole scene to go out of focus and eventually dissolve–a metaphor to ponder.

World cultures had their say as a twitter of whistling, vocalizing, and folk-inflected violin effects evoked woodland spirits in Korean composer-performer Eddy Kwon’s Seep. Allison Russell plucked a West African riff on her banjo, her voice soaring with gospel fervor in an untitled encomium to an enslaved black woman of ancient times (“Thanks to your strength, we are home.”). Tuvan throat singer Albert Kuvezin growled a Siberian shaman’s song in Eremchick (The Spider), accompanying himself, incongruously yet compellingly, with American folk- and rock-style guitar strumming.

Rock got its full due, at least in percussion, via Kyle Brenn’s Still/Exist, with the composer at the drum kit, sempre crescendo, reciting and tape-looping the mantra “I am now still…This is why I exist” as a jumpy light show exploded around him.

Rock figured also in Trevor Weston’s Rainbows and Butterflies, a setting of Maya Angelou’s and Julian Bond’s sayings fervently sung and played on a plush-toned electric guitar by Mark Stewart.  In comments afterward, the composer tipped his hat to Anglican chant,  bluesman Robert Johnson, and Guillaume de Machaut as well.

Not everything at this marathon was so serious. In RYB by Florent Ghys, David Cossin played tubular bells, cymbals, and drums, each object wired to generate a voice saying “red,” “yellow,” “blue,” or some other color name when struck. As Cossin neared his fortissimo, a blizzard of words colored the air. On a nearby shelf, three large glass bowls of red, yellow, and blue liquid loomed over the scene, waiting for their big moment—which never came.

Finally, the marathon ended with one of those only-at-Bang leg-pulls: First the performers sent word they weren’t ready, which necessitated 15 minutes of fill by the three hosts, conversing about the coming music season and their own compositional plans. Finally, the double bass player Robert Black materialized onscreen, in deadpan dialogue with the velvety, disembodied voice of composer Charles Amirkhanian.

It became apparent that their “song” for the song marathon consisted of a desultory discussion of what song to do for the song marathon. The Bob-and-Ray-style dialogue went everywhere but that, from Black’s middle-school career as a tuba player to the wallpaper in his Zoom room, before ending in a sudden blackout.

In a final twist, Amirkhanian disclosed during the ensuing interview that what the audience had just seen was not a performance in real time like the others (his internet was still down), but a recording of the dress rehearsal.

Also programmed for Sunday’s marathon, but not reviewed here, were Mary Kouyoumdjian’s and there was, with cellist-singer Arlen Hlusko, and a new work by the Indonesian gamelan player-singer Peni Candra Rini. Estimable musicians all, and worth seeking out online.

But if you see a clock, don’t believe it.

The next Bang on a Can live online event will be “Michael Gordon’s Timber Turns 10,” performers to be announced, noon-midnight, June 20. live.bangonacan.org.

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