Bang on a Can Live: Second Opinion

by Brian Howe on January 31, 2011

Bang on a Can All-Stars (photo: Stephanie Berger)

Reynolds Theater was only about half full for the Bang on Can All-Stars’ show with Glenn Kotche, for easily guessed reasons. To the patrons who usually fill up Reynolds to see chamber ensembles on weekend nights, the arrival of this experimental troupe might have made Friday seem like a good time to catch The Lion King at DPAC instead. And for the younger crowd that avant-garde music tends to attract, the ticket prices may have been insurmountably steep. Top it off with a program of iconic Minimalist (Steve Reich) and challenging post-Minimalist music (Michael Gordon, Glenn Kotche), and you’ve got a recipe for attracting a smaller, more esoteric but fiercely devoted audience, plus a few brave skeptics. Adam Sobsey spoke eloquently for the skeptics today, which I appreciated—avant-garde music must always be tested for hubris, and there is no genuine experimental work that will not strike someone, validly, as the emperor’s new clothes.

But for balance, I will speak for the credulous estoerics, as this was my favorite Duke Performances concert yet this season. This isn’t necessarily just a case of Adam and I having different viewpoints on the objective value of cerebral music—I actually heard the concert differently on an aesthetic level, though, as aesthetics don’t grow out of a void, my vested interest in process-based arts certainly informed my automatic perception. Where Adam heard bewildering hybrids, the “organic as inorganic,” and a stress on ideas above melody, I experienced the same phenomena as startlingly pure and sentient, with a tremendous level of musicality. Where Adam heard unnatural musical foam, I heard a sound so natural in its structure and effects that the complex processes behind it dissolved into a liminal bliss. Where Adam heard the mind at work, I heard the mind on fire. An impartial system, properly arranged, becomes more than a system—it produces the chaotic conditions we call life.

Steve Reich (photo: Jeffrey Herman)

If Steve Reich did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him. (Sorry, Voltaire.) As a big fan of techno and rap, I hear them as owing a great debt to his durable ostinato-based minimalism, which ticks behind modern music like a metronome. The jaunty, blinking fillips of NY Counterpoint had a Technicolor pounce suggestive of the hip-hop productions of the late, great J Dilla. I agree with Adam that it sounded simpler than it was—it includes elements of phasing (a technique Reich virtually owns, where like quantities of musical information are played simultaneously at slightly different speeds, exfoliating complex patterns from simple means) and an odd meter that produces ambiguous measure lengths, with shifting accents in the live clarinet creating illusory changes. But for me, this heady apparatus produced a luminous, awakening, highly corporeal experience. It could be difficult to tell which sounds were live and which were recorded, and I thought of the great scene at the end of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive where the nightclub singer swoons and her voice, so inextricable from her body a moment ago, continues booming into the air.

Newer work 2×5, I thought, was as loud as it needed to be to show off the nuances of its muscular, forward-slanted pulses, though I agreed with Adam that it felt a bit long at over twenty minutes. Full of Reich’s old tricks yet absolutely contemporary-feeling, it was an ecstatic rush, with staggered elements embedded in its sleek cascades for hallucinatory double-exposed effects. The hive-like matrix of sound, with its clipped, singing guitars and zooming dynamic shifts, obliquely evoked both the regal post-rock of Tortoise and the sublimely emotive minimal techno of the Field. (Check out the Field’s “A Paw in My Face,” and be sure to wait for the big reveal of the sample at the very end.)

Michael Gordon (photo: Peter Serling)

The program also testified to Reich’s legacy within experimental music. In the powerful Michael Gordon piece, For Madeline, the cello and guitar played deep, pealing, portamento alarms, ground to a thick syrup between two different time signatures in the percussion. Kotche’s homage is obvious—one of his pieces was an augmentation of Reich’s Clapping Music, and everywhere his synthesis of conflicting orders of time saluted the master. His excellent revamp of Clapping Music for various percussion did dilute the formal purity of the original, where the African bell pattern is phased by two clappers, one inexorable eighth-note at a time. Along those same lines, my only real disappointment was that Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood, played on two drum kits instead of tuned wood blocks, lost a crucial element: pitch.

Much of my favorite music is either dense with thinking or contains none at all. The magic of Reich, as ably brought to life by the Bang on a Can All-Stars, is that somehow his music fulfills both criteria at once. It is so interesting and so hypnotic; so cognitive and so present. Its teeming cells obey orders too large and elaborate for the mind to grasp at length, and we have to give ourselves over to the endlessly varying repetition; the kaleidoscopically shifting stability. When I listen for it, I hear it everywhere. Like Adam, I continued to think about Reich’s music after I left Reynolds.

First, a Julianna Barwick CD resumed playing in my car, her voice building up in periodic loops that overlapped unevenly. Then I went and saw a musician called Lady Lazarus at the Nightlight Bar and Club, who plays with the reverb on her electric piano cranked so high that excess tones gather and sing in Reichian quasi-tandem. I thought then that even if Reich’s music isn’t for everybody—which it isn’t—the legacy of simple, soulful, evolving repetition it has engendered certainly is, in some form or another.

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