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Ecstatic Music, Bang on a Can and New Sounds Live

Music Review
Wed Jan 29th, 2020

Bang On A Can. Photo by Lisa Bauso.

Four new works premiered at Merkin Hall, last Tuesday, introduced by John Shaefer of New Sounds Live (the name of his WNYC music show) at the 10th anniversary version of the Ecstatic Music Festival.  The new works were all funded by the People’s Commissioning Project that solicits small donations from hundred of music lovers.  The pieces are then played by Bang on a Can All-Stars. An open mind is necessary to enjoy this work, the more open the better.

On the stage a collection of percussion, paired down to the basics: a few chairs and an excessive amount of speakers and wiring with, of course a piano. It seemed like a lot of stuff for a sextet – percussion, base, cello, guitar, sax or clarinet and piano, the basic Bang on a Can setup, but the concert was being recorded and the sound was monitored and professionally balanced through a consul manned by the group’s sound engineer who did a superb job.

Qasim Naqvi, a bearded composer, explained his piece as music for a black hole.  If you were inclined to visit a black hole, this is the music you might experience.  It starts with a short voyage through space and changes as you enter the black hole and begin to feel the pull of its anti-matter forces that will break down your molecular structure, break down your atoms, bombard you with negative energy until you become part of the blackness and nothingness.  A pleasant thought for a winter’s night…

Amanda Berlind coyly explained Bird Chart as not exactly taken from bird songs and not exactly related to dance and not exactly about the video she made which accompanies the piece. The visual showed a crudely drawn bird-like form that flitted into and out of video shots of common birds that flittered in and out of the picture like sparrows, starlings, pigeons, and crows. The music, like the birds, was abrupt, jerky, and not pretty.  But it was spirited and fun—like children’s art.

Hildur Gudnadottir, whose absence was due to her performing that night in Berlin, provided a piece that might be for dance yet sounded just like Icelandic music because that what it was. This is now a well-established genre as almost everyone in Iceland seems to be a composer, composing being something Icelanders do during those long winters.  It was effective and short, a blast of Icelandic lilt.

Alvin Curran explained that he normally does long, extended pieces, so when 7 minutes was suggested he said he couldn’t do it.  He settled on 10 minutes.  He is an accomplished composer who likes to dig in and give a panorama of sound.  He said he would vary his tempos, and he did.  He really likes dance music, the old fashioned kind, fox trots and the like.  There was a raucus opening followed by a period of pleasant sounding memories of 1950’s radio music which ended in chaos. 

The second half consisted of two meaty pieces from the Bang on a Can portfolio.  Phil Kline’s “Exquisite Corpses” was an extended, tasteful piece of memory-based sounds from many sources: all gentle, vaguely familiar, all rhythmic, a magnificent progression of sound of near orchestral proportions.

Julius Eastman (1940-1990) was a gay, black figure on the downtown scene who died homeless, broke and addicted, but he left music that was compelling and is being re-discovered.  Clarinetist and sax player Ken Thompson explained that he and Ed Rosenberg reconstructed and arranged “Stay On It” from two recordings, the lone surviving record of how it might be played.  It consists of five notes repeated over and over in different keys, a minimalist exploration of harmonics to a fixed melody, richly decorated with subtleties, changing tempos and changing combos.  The message was “Stay On It”, words sung by cellist Arlen Hlusko and base player Robert Black as reminders to keep the music going, just stay on it. It was joyful and humorous.  I was smiling the whole time, right to the end, which was thoughtfully wrought by David Cassin the percussionist.  Vicki Chow, the group’s long-standing pianist, had a solo moment that harkened back to their origins when Eastman played piano.

This music reaches out and embraces the audience, and the audience loved it. 

While not new, it was freshly minted in a crisp version most suiting the considerable talents of these players who have been a team since 1992.

John Shaefer will replay this music on his radio show.  It may end up on YouTube.