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The Bang On A Can All Stars at Zankel Hall

December 5, 2006 – One of the great things about the internet is that several of the pieces on this concert were available for preview on the Bang On A Can website, and in fact you can still hear those previews to get a flavor of what I’m talking about.  New music concerts are so hit-or-miss, it’s a shame more organizations don’t offer this service to help potential audience members pre-screen their events.  If you’re listening to that preview, you will already have figured out that this concert was one of the good ones.

Fred Frith’s “Snakes and Ladders” opened the program — a beautiful and elegant work which featured, as you might expect, many  ladder-like arpeggios, but not in the obtrusively obvious way that a lesser composer would have done.  Clarinettist and composer Evan Ziporyn spoke briefly at the end of the Frith piece, talking about the piece, the history of the All Stars, and introducing the next pieces: Martin Bresnick’s “The Bucket Rider” and “BE JUST.”  Ziporyn would continue introducing the pieces and making jokes, adding the usual Bang On A Can air of friendly intimacy to the event.

“BE JUST” (the title is taken from Franz Kafka’s story “The Penal Colony”) was fast paced and quite good, but “The Bucket Rider” (the title of a different Kafka story) was gorgeous–simple and elegant, with clean lines and a straightforward yet constantly shifting structure.

The highlight of the program for me was Julia Wolfe’s “Big, Beautiful, Dark, and Scary.”  Almost the whole piece consisted of the performers playing tremolos, very loudly, and moving slowly up and down scalar patterns while the drummer did the same on bass drums and a cymbal.  The effect was an enormous wash of sound — it sounded like being inside a hurricaine, but an awesome hurricaine, not one of the unpleasant ones.

While I prefer the original player-piano versions, Evan Ziporyn’s arrangements of Conlon Nancarrow’s Piano Studies 2a, 3a, 3c, and 11 were quite good.  His assignment of the lines to the various instruments was smart, his use of a drumkit to illustrate and clarify the cross-rhythms helped aleviate the risk of muddiness obscuring the structure, and the basic idea of the experiment was well worth undertaking.  Plus, the ability of the performers to stay locked into their conflicting tempi was very impressive.

Former Sonic Youth member Thurston Moore wrote “Stroking Piece #1″ on a commission from the Bang On A Can People’s Commissioning Fund, and it was premiered in 2003.  Not being familiar with the Sonic Youth corpus, I can’t assess Moore’s assertion that this piece is “a fairly typical example of a mid-period Sonic Youth-centric guitar instrumental,” but I can say that it rocked.

If I liked jazz more I probably would have loved Don Byron’s “Show Him Some Lub” and his “Credits,” which was played as an encore.  As it was, I still enjoyed both pieces thoroughly.  “Show Him Some Lub” incorporated spoken words and phrases by the instrumentalists, which were apparently answers to questions about their ethnic identity and histories to which the audience was not privy.  Toward the end, cellist Wendy Sutter began reciting a sequential list of years in the early 20th century, and maybe it was because some of her earlier answers had seemed related to Jewishness  (to me — I could be totally wrong), I found myself waiting in anxious anticipation for her to reach the World War II years, and thinking of the spoken dates in Steve Reich’s “Different Trains.”  I’m always impressed when quasi-abstract lists manage to be powerful.

The title of this concert was “American unPop,” and the theme was supposed to be the sounds of popular music imported into a quasi-classical context.  Bang On A Can lives so close to that line so much of the time that I wonder why bother making the situation explicit.  On the other hand, their familiarity with the territory puts them in a position to assemble a smart, sophisticated group of works where the pop-music relationship is always integral to the music and never self-conscious.  Afterwards, I was chatting with David Lang and he told me that both Philip Glass and David Bowie had been in the audience.  I’m not sure I can justify it, but somehow that seems like proof-of-concept to me, as if any such proof were needed.