PopMatters Associate Events Editor
c=”http://images.popmatters.com/bullet.gif” alt=”” width=”10″ height=”10″ border=”0″ /> Comment Though the Bang on a Can Marathon has taken place since 1987, this marks the first time that the mind-blowing avant-garde event has been free and open to the public. In keeping with this new utopian ideal, the organizers decided to hold the 10-hour festival of jazz, avant-garde, and “world” music in that most public of spaces: a mall. I entered the glass doors of the World Financial Center suitably suspicious, and as I walked towards the stage, the fluid, the ethereal chimes that met my ears seemed the festival’s death knell. They couldn’t still be piping in Muzak I kvetched as I rounded the corner to find the massive, roughly 30-member Gamelan Galak Tika on stage playing soothing, unobtrusive Balinese music. So okay, I was wrong. The Bang on a Can Marathon is exactly the type of festival that you want open to the public. Come one, come all. Who knows what innocent mind may be drawn to the tiny universe of the avant garde while stepping out of Banana Republic? The Gamelan Galak Tika wasn’t the most foreign; they were actually from MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Far more unusual were Icelandic quartet Amiina; Siberian punk band Yat Kha, which featured throat singing; and Milan’s incredible Sentieri Selvaggi ensemble, making their first appearance in the United States.
One of the best-conceived elements of the day’s program was the practice of inviting composers to talk a little bit about their pieces. Not only did this cover for the predictable delays while roadies scrambled to set up and break down equipment, but it also offered listeners the chance to hear about the inspiration behind the works. Julia Wolfe was able to explain how she converted a piece for six pianos into a piece for one, and tossed us a line about where the composition’s core riff came from (Aretha Franklin’s “Think”). Thus, what might have sounded like an awkward piece of multi-tracking was established as a fragmentary exploration of a traditional blues riff. In high-concept compositions like these, there’s a fine line between the clever and the gimmicky. It’s easy to criticize the Tuvan throat-singers’ version of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, or Matmos and So Percussion’s “Aluminum” (which was mostly an excuse to play with a set of Budweiser cans), as a case of artists pandering to the crowd. But the crowd loved every second, and these types of unusual pairings made for some of the best performances of the day. The grand finale, for instance, in which new music ensemble Alarm Will Sound played Aphex Twin’s “Four” and “Cock/Ver 10” was a fantastic, breathlessly paced translation of Richard D. James’ skittering electronic symphonies. AWS proved itself a immensely talented group of string, wind, and percussion musicians. Though it can’t quite match seeing the pieces handled live, the recorded version, Acoustica, comes highly recommended. And Glenn Kotche and David Cossin’s propulsive reinterpretation of Steve Reich’s “Clapping Music Variations” for two drum sets will send Wilco fans running back to Reich’s work.
Collaborations like Kotche and Cossin, or Matmos and So Percussion, were the order of the day. TACTUS, the Mahattan School of Music’s Contemporary Ensemble, played solo and with the Gamelan Galak Tika, and the Bang on a Can All-Stars played with everybody. The All-Stars seemed the most traditional of the marathon’s performers, particularly in the jazz arrangements played with the clarinetist/composer Don Byron from their new CD, A Ballad for Many.
As the night grew darker and lightning flashed through the glass of the mall’s atrium, several musicians appeared with short films to accompany their sets. Violinist Todd Reynolds played in sync with a frenetic stereoscopic film from the 1899 subway in a piece titled “Outerborough”. And in the hat trick collab of the day, the All-Stars performed a piece composed by Michael Nyman to accompany a 1920s film titled Manhatta. Created by painter Charles Sheeler and photographer Paul Strand, the piece included text from Walt Whitman’s ode to the city, “Mannahatta.” This multilayered collaboration, with the words of one of the city’s greatest poets projected on-screen, seemed the perfect ode to the ecstatic creation that the marathon itself seeks to capture:
The parades, processions, bugles playing, flags flying, drums beating;
A million people — manners free and superb — open voices — hospitality — the most
courageous and friendly young men;
The free city! no slaves! no owners of slaves!
The beautiful city, the city of hurried and sparkling waters! the city of spires and masts!
The city nested in bays! my city!