There is a long tradition of found sounds–nature calls, recordings of voices, mechanical whirls–serving as musical inspiration. Olivier Messiaen took cues from bird calls, transcribing them and building melodies from their leaps and gestures. Steve Reich’s “It’s Gonna Rain” and Alvin Lucier’s “I Am Sitting in a Room” are early minimalist and sound art masterpieces, both constructed from looping and rerecording segments of spoken text. Practically any natural sound can become a reference for a composition; the challenge, effectively, is finding musical meaning within a non-musical element.
Last year represented the 30th anniversary of Bang on a Can, a collective of musicians and composers dedicated to furthering the scope of new music. Their flagship ensemble, the Bang on a Can All-Stars, formed in 1992 to interpret, champion, and program the compositions from their founding collective as well as other innovative and inspiring composers. By blurring the traditional and the progressive, the introspective and the visceral, the All-Stars has long represented the exciting, accessible, and essential qualities of the classical tradition moving into the 20th and 21st centuries.
More Field Recordings, their latest effort, continues the work from their 2015 Field Recordings by commissioning composers to write music in dialogue with elements of found sounds. It’s a project that requires more than just building a groove over a recorded text or finding the right chords that go with the sound of crunching leaves. Consider Caroline Shaw’s “Really Craft When You”, a stitched together musical collage that interacts with the voices of quilters from North Carolina and Virginia discussing their craft. It’s a meditation on how constructing musical elements–a drum beat, a guitar riff, a clarinet melody–and piecing together a quilt are not too dissimilar.
Paula Matthusen responds to the concept by exploring sound and architecture. Her contribution, “ontology of an echo”, involved playing recorded sounds from New York City’s Old Croton Aqueduct for various members of the All-Stars who, in turn, recorded their responses and variations. Said responses were then played back in the aqueduct. The final product is a glorious wash of glimmers and gestures drenched in natural reverb.
Likewise, Zhang Shouwang’s “Courtyards in Central Beijing” responds to the conflict of the modern industrial world against the delicate architecture of ages past by mixing chirping birds and snapping branches with electronic manipulations. Long tones from the All-Stars are recorded and digitally segmented, turning placed tones into a repeated siren that wavers from ethereal to sinister. Both works beautifully reconcile the architecture of the past with modern progress, specifically how the two can both coexist and re-contextualize one another.
In addition to more personal and intimate works, More Field Recordings welcomes compositions that explore grander, occasionally sinister topics. Ben Frost’s “Negative Ghostrider II” is a hellish, cacophonic experience with ties to technology and war. The work blends direct audio and musical translations of the Northrop X-47B, an experimental, unmanned semi-autonomous drone Frost witnessed in action from an undisclosed location in the Atlantic Ocean (no joke). It’s a brutal work, replete with heavy string work, walls of static, and wailing clarinets.
Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir reflects the beauty and desolation of her homeland’s landscape with “Fields”. Recorded footsteps and a moaning cello invoke images of a solitary twilight stroll, while arpeggios from the piano and knocking percussive elements add a sense of mystery. Slightly more meta, Juan Felipe Waller examines the very idea of composing for found sounds with his “Hybrid Ambiguities”. Specifically, Waller contemplates whether the preexisting sound dictates the music or whether the newly composed music reframes the sound. Based on the recording of a 1940s microtonal harp (an instrument capable of more notes within the octave than our Western 12-note system), it’s a deliciously chaotic fusing of sounds that would appeal to fans of Frank Zappa and Mr. Bungle.
More Field Recordings represents the Bang on a Can All-Stars’ mission of promoting new experimental music more than anything. Each work reflects the theme of interacting with found sounds in new and uniquely respective ways. From incorporating non-musical recordings to transcribing them for instruments to merely using them as a starting point, each composer toys with the idea of using sound from our every day as a means for musical inspiration. It’s not the most original prompt–electroacoustic works are relatively standard in music today–but it undeniably provokes fascinating compositional possibilities.