Bang On a Can Plays Art, Radiohead, and Wilco

In a season overflowing with music festivals that seem to merely trade headliners, Bang On a Can's annual Summer Festival offers a "utopian residency" of uncommon contemporary music, with top new players from multiple continents. Best of all, Banglewood (as it sometimes called) makes all this future music not only supremely enlightening but also a ton of fun. And when Bang On a Can topped off this 13th season with glasses of champagne, the New York-based, downtown-modern collective could toast perhaps their most edifying Summer Festival yet— a balance of the challenging and the sublime with odes to art, death, rock culture, and nine world premieres.

Steve Reich and Glenn Kotche at MASS MoCA (Ivan Singer Photography_
Steve Reich and Glenn Kotche at MASS MoCA (Ivan Singer Photography_

REICH REWORKS RADIOHEAD

A chance meeting a couple years back with Radiohead guitaristJonnyGreenwood turned out to be most fortuitous for noted minimalist composer Steve Reich. Just as Greenwood had reinterpreted Reich's "Electric Counterpoint," Reich was inspired to rethink two Radiohead songs, "Everything In Its Right Place" and "Jigsaw Falling Into Place." The result was the 20-minute "Radio Rewrite," the featured finale of this year's Summer Festival and an invigorating reboot of Reich's mesmeric composing style.

Scored for flute, clarinet, two vibraphones, two pianos, string quartet, and electric bass, BOAC conductor Brad Lubman and All-Stars pianist Vicky Chow led the young ensemble of summer fellows through "Radio Rewrite" in a sharp, on-point performance. The piece's five fast-slow-fast-slow-fast movements provided fresh textural adventures, alternating hyper-staccato treatments of the Radiohead songs' harmonies and melodic lines with hauntingly serene slower sections.

Glenn Kotche drums on Music for Pieces of Wood (Ivan Singer Photography)
Glenn Kotche drums on Music for Pieces of Wood (Ivan Singer Photography)

WILCO'S GLENN KOTCHE PLAYS REICH… AND KOTCHE

Glenn Kotche, obviously having a blast, helped kick off the final two-hour segment of this year's summer Marathon with BOAC All-Stars percussionist David Cossin on Reich's "Music for Pieces of Wood." Arranged by Cossin for drums, the piece played like two in-sync, locomotive drum solos. (You can check out the pair's 2008 performance of the piece here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uGsP0trd27E ).

Kotche followed that with his own "Mobile," from a 2006 CD of the same name. Inspired by Alexander Calder's artwork, the circular syncopations of "Mobile," which Kotche originally tracked with all drums, were superbly expanded for melodic instruments in a chamber septet led by Kotche on drums and the BOAC's intense All-Stars cellist Ashley Bathgate. Earlier in the Marathon, the discordant march of "Bells and Honey," another of Kotche's drum-set compositions, got a stark, compelling recital.

MORE MARVELOUS MARATHON

The Bang On a Can Marathon, which finished off the Summer Festival with a 51-musician, 19-composition, six-hour-plus extravaganza of envelope-stretching new music that climaxed with "Radio Rewrite," offered so much memorable listening it was hard to keep track. Following Kotche's "Mobile," Michael Gordon's aptly named "Hyper" spun a sparkling AD/HD shower of notes. "Imagine the massage bills, not to mention psychiatrists, that the musicians need after playing "Hyper," co-artistic director David Lang joked in his between-set fundraising plea.

Next, setting up the finale, was another demanding Reich composition, "Variations for Vibes, Pianos and Strings." Clearly and passionately played by an 18-piece ensemble, despite some slight drifting, their contrapuntal layers of upward tonal swirls delivered one of the richer realizations of Reich's cycling visions one is likely to hear.

Andy Akiho's manic, cadenced "Erase" — a King-Crimson-as-downtown-ensemble-like composition that started the day — and "so called laws of nature," a percussive contemplation by BOAC co-artistic director David Lang, were among the early highlights. BOAC All-Star Mark Stewart led a modern string quartet — four guitars — through four frenetic, grumbling, chicken-picking tunes that cast the electric six-string in new roles.

Caroline Shaw's (traditional) string quartet "Entr'acte" played on some gorgeously fluid and evocative pluck. Annie Gosfield's gripping "Overvoltage Rumble" and its analog synthesizer samples found redemption in an industrial scrapyard of tones and groans. And the latest exploration of Appalachian influences by co-artistic director Julia Wolfe was a standing-O revelation, a stomping violin hoedown of humming drones and calls-and-answers that sounded like they were bouncing around the holler.

David Lang, Julia Wolfe, Steve Reich, and Michael Gordon (Ivan Singer Photography)
David Lang, Julia Wolfe, Steve Reich, and Michael Gordon (Ivan Singer Photography)

DEATH SPEAKS, SOFTLY

The previous, kick-off weekend for "Bang On a Can Plays Art" produced its own share of fireworks, foremost among them composer David Lang's fatalistic masterwork "death speaks." Using text by Franz Schubert, sung by My Brightest Diamond's Shara Worden, in which the classical composer tracks human demise, Lang's music follows our final journey to the promise of peace beyond death. The New York Times called it "Schubertgaze" for its combo of morbidity and emo rock themes. But at Banglewood, "death speaks" was much more, a gentle percolation of spare, melancholic descent that followed the grim reaper through invitation, resignation, and release to the promise of joy in the afterlife, as Worden's heavenly beckoning channeled Jeff Buckley, Kate Bush, and a host of angels. Lang's score lifted slightly toward the light but seemed to contradict the joy that the texts promise, instead reflecting the unsettling uncertainty of never-ending rest.

Shara Wordern (photo: Caleb Blansett)
Shara Wordern (photo: Caleb Blansett)

Still dressed, somewhat appropriately, all in white, Worden continued the evening in a free afterhours performance at The Chalet, a speakeasy-ish beer garden set in one of MASS MoCA's brick mill buildings. With guitar, keys, and a few backing tracks courtesy of her MacBook, a solo Worden delivered a brash indie mash of attitude and raw invention. Worden promised that her next album, due this fall, would feature a human band and marry rock music and marching bands.

Terry Riley's In C in the Wandering Veil galleries (photo Caleb Blansett)
Terry Riley's In C in the Wandering Veil galleries (photo Caleb Blansett)

BOAC TOURS THE MASS MoCA GALLERIES

Terry Riley's seminal, enduring "In C" is sort of the minimalist equivalent of rock music's "Louie Louie"; it's generally one of the first pieces a minimalist musician performs. But there's never been a more compatible venue for Riley's signature work than the giant MASS MoCA hall that housed Izhar Patkin's installation of diaphanous paintings on wall-size lengths of mesh, "The Wandering Veil." The willowy sheers that hung in a half dozen ceiling-less gallery rooms were a perfect backdrop for the three dozen musicians whose chiming, ethereal pulse echoed throughout the hall, floating between absence and presence. "In C" throbbed and lurched as the players roamed the different rooms, finally convening in a single space to end the piece.

Julia Wolfe's With a Blue Dress On (Ivan Singer Photography)
Julia Wolfe's With a Blue Dress On (Ivan Singer Photography)

The afternoon "In C" was the first of a week of 14 "Bang On a Can Plays Art" gallery concerts that also included Steve Reich with the repeating intricacies of the wall drawings of his friend Sol Lewitt; Morton Feldman's meditation "Why Patterns?" staged at the entrance of Mark Dion's encyclopedic Octagon Room; a string orchestra performance of Julia Wolfe's "Cruel Sisters" matched with art by Teresita Fernandez; and a set of Glenn Kotche's material for two drummers. Bang on a Can has long had a very supportive partner in MASS MoCA. But this year — with Summer Festival events in the galleries and the All-Stars' late-night jams on campus — MASS MoCA seemed more like a true collaborator.

Mark Stewart leads Page Sounding (Ivan Singer Photography)
Mark Stewart leads Page Sounding (Ivan Singer Photography)

SO, IS MARK STEWART AVAILABLE FOR PARTIES?

There's always a bit of whimsy woven into the fabric of BOAC's Summer Festival. Take this year's night concert inspired by the art of Anselm Kiefer, which was performed in complete darkness, with musicians scattered among the audience as they played music by Georg Freidrich Haas. More often than not Mark Stewart could be found near the center of the fun. In one instance, Stewart and Dave Cossin led the Orchestra of Original Instruments in a Marathon excerpt from Ann Hamilton's "Page Sounding," in which "hand masks" from an art project of paper garments were shaken, rattled, and rolled to produce rhythm and ambience.

But it was after hours at the Chalet where Stewart truly came alive and adapted a persona as an impromptu dance-party ringleader. The guitarist was the willing concert master for a wild set of audience-participation and cover tunes featuring a rotating cast of players that included Glenn Kotche, Bang All-Stars, and various summer fellows.

You haven't lived until you've heard the Stewart and the All-Stars rock Stevie Wonder's "Superstition." Or sung along to their mash up of "I've Got Rhythm" with the "(Meet) The Flintstones" theme.

Or been to a Bang On a Can Summer Festival, for that matter.