The State of the Art—Thoughts on the Final Week of ‘Bang on a Can Festival’
By Leonard Bopp, Contributing Writer, August 8, 2017
NORTH ADAMS, MA. When curating a project, an exhibition, a concert, even a festival, there are typically two approaches the producing organization may take. One, is to organize around a particular idea, theme, or message (as many exhibitions, concerts, and festivals tend to do) in hopes of trying to communicate and impart something specific. The other approach—equally valid, and just as important—is to put together a survey of the world in which you’re working by programming the varied and diverse state of the art, in all its many forms and colors. By presenting as much as possible, both the presenters and attendees are able to see what sticks. In this way, we may possibly uncover the overall direction of the field itself. I review the Bang On a Can Festival here.
The Bang on a Can organization, at both their summer festival and with programming throughout the year, leads the way with both approaches. For the theme-driven approach, this was exemplified by last week’s premiere of Road Trip (‘Road Trip’ Reflects on the Journey). This week Bang on a Can, however, presented a wide-ranging, catchall lineup showcasing the vast array of contemporary music composers, artists, and practices.
This brilliantly sprawling approach was showcased most prominently at the Bang on a Can Marathon, the closing event of the festival. This is the type of event the organization is most known for, beginning thirty years ago with a marathon at an art gallery in SoHo, and currently presenting annual marathons in both New York (May) and the summer festival at MASS MoCA (July/August).
This summer’s closing marathon featured a wide survey of all things happening in the contemporary music scene. Two compositions for ensemble and film by the eminent Dutch composer Louis Andriessen, this year’s composer-in-residence at the festival, served as highlights, not least because Andriessen’s aesthetic has notably influenced the hard-edged, visceral aesthetic that the Bang on a Can group is known for.
These Andriessen pieces were notably more ethereal than many of his other compositions. In contrast, however, were Vanessa Lann’s sparkling Dancing to an orange drummer and Judd Greenstein’s upbeat, rhythmic Clearing, Dawn, Dance. Perhaps the most moving piece on the evening, however, was the world premiere of Jeffrey Brooks’ The Passion, a Bang on a Can commission, which he describes as a passion not about the suffering of a single person (in the tradition of the great passions focusing on a sole Biblical figure) but the suffering of many. It was cacophonous, ecstatic, visceral, and even hopeful.
Bang on a Can founders Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon, and David Lang each contributed one piece to the evening: for Wolfe, her seminal composition Lick for the Bang on a Can All-Stars; for Lang, his selection i want to live from the trifecta’s collective project Shelter; and from Gordon, his ensemble piece Dry. Celebrating his immense contribution on twentieth-century contemporary music, as well as the Bang on a Can composers themselves, Steve Reich’s Tehillim closed out the evening.
The final week at the Bang on a Can festival presented a similar mix of many different facets of the contemporary music world. A concert on Wednesday featured two very different compositions by Philip Glass—one being perhaps the seminal example of minimalism (or, to use the term Glass prefered, music with repetitive structures), his famous Music in Similar Motion; the other the less-heard Symphony No. 3 in its string sextet version, which, both in terms of sound and structure, is more along the lines of a romantic composition than other Glass compositions. Another concert featured the music of George Lewis, the genre-bending pioneer of electronic music, from which the blistering Anthem was a highlight; another concert featured the work of the maverick performance art pioneer Meredith Monk. Lastly, an event with Louis Andriessen, featuring a discussion with the composer and a performance of his thrilling Worker’s Union, was a treat for anyone who has an appreciation for the world of contemporary music on which he has been an enormous influence.
Cover: Brad Lubman conducting a concert in MASS MoCA’s Hunter Center with (l. to r. / seen visibly) Shannon Steigerwald, violin; Maiani da Silva, violin; Anna Heflin, viola; photo: Jason Reinhold.