It’s a wonder how art (read: “classical”) music has arrived at the stage it has now. The three major periods of art music – the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic – all had overarching traits that gave a unity to the various composers. And while concert halls worldwide still revel in the mastery of those long-gone composers, the people involved in contemporary art music seem to have become as diversified as the other major music genres. The minimalism of Steve Reich and Philip Glass differs considerably from some of the quasi-ambient fare to be found on the indie classical progenitor label New Amsterdam. Then there’s the cases of musicians turning to art music after a long career in popular music; Steve Vai, like his mentor Frank Zappa before him, memorably merged guitar virtuosity with the pomp and circumstance of an orchestra. As this shift in paradigms continues, there are clear benefits and drawbacks. The chief gain of this diversification is the indisputable fact that classical music doesn’t have to be stuffy and boring, nor must it always be backwards-looking. On the other hand, a difficulty arises in trying to peg a conceptual identity to “art music” despite some underlying traits that may unify certain composers. Given the genre’s sudden variegation, “art music” could stand to only really refer to the three aforementioned periods. Could it be that we will soon progress past art music?
Big Beautiful Dark and Scary, like many releases that have come out of the still-young “indie classical” scene, is solid evidence for the negation of that question. Genre purism may be helpful in reminding us of the importance of past contributions, but most damningly it can lead many to overlook the innovation of groups like Bang on a Can All Stars. This collective, which here is comprised of a cellist, a bassist, a pianist, a percussionist, a guitarist, and a saxophonist/clarinetist, at times doesn’t sound like they’re playing art music. Parts of “Sunray” sound like honest-to-God prog rock. The Zappa-esque charm of the record’s shorter pieces like “Instructional Video” and “Breakfast at J&M” also skirt past what most people might think to be art music. Yet these moments of varied genre experimentation don’t detract from the album’s standing as a collection of art music pieces: they add to it. The inclusion of an electric guitar can at times derail any traditional “classical” sound, but if you open yourself up to the possibilities of revitalizing the sound of art music the experience is all the richer. Upon listening to Steve Vai’s guitar-and-orchestra double album Sound Theories, Vol. 1 and 2, I was initially unsure of what to think. It sounded like art music, but Vai’s distorted guitar noodling seemed to run against the grain of the orchestra. After several listens, however, I came to realize that the inclusion of contemporary instrumentation in art music isn’t anachronistic. Big Beautiful Dark and Scary proves that in spades; the guitar work in the polyrhythmic masterpiece “Four Player Piano Studies” is a testament to that.
To cover each of the album’s compositions would require several pages worth of analysis. The album draws from several different composers, who all provide ample ground for the band to display their music theory bending chops. The greatest of these compositions is worth special mention: the title track. If anyone ever sought to capture the essence of escalation in song form, “Big Beautiful Dark and Scary” would be it. Composed by Julia Wolfe as a musical portrait of America right after 9/11, the mood of the piece is tense, oscillating between slightly subdued moments and shrill strings accompanied by loudly banged cluster chords on the piano. Though it is far from the album’s most technically impressive cut (“Four Player Piano Studies” takes that title), it’s definitely the most successful. Like Penderecki’s “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima,” it uses harsh sonics and atonality to craft a stark and intense portrait of a country after a harsh attack.
While the track list of Big Beautiful Dark and Scary is overall quite impressive, it does run almost an hour and a half, and given the denseness of most of the music here it’s not an easy listen. When the album’s diverse sonic palette is considered, it can also come off as uneven, despite the high quality of the recording. I had to come back to the record in multiple sittings, giving each piece its own consideration. But then again, the whole MO of groups like Bang on a Can is that they aren’t supposed to be a simple listen. These musicians are taking part in a whole new take on a long-standing form of music; the music will correspondingly be difficult. This difficulty does make Big Beautiful Dark and Scary something of a project to listen to, but make no mistake: this is an invigorating and diverse look at one of indie classical’s most prominent collectives.
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