It wasn’t until about 1995 that I really tapped into avant-garde music, so I have a romanticized image of the 1980s “downtown” scene. I arrived for the tail end of that era. The Knitting Factory was feeling the decay that would eventually transform it into a rock club. John Zorn and other avant-jazz stars were starting to become accepted by the critics (if not the general jazz public). Still, with lots of recent history to catch up on, I had a terrific adventure backtracking the careers of folks like Tim Berne, Bobby Previte, and Jim Black.
Bang on a Can emerged from that era as well, but not quite from the same direction. Liner notes to Industry (Sony Classical, 1995) describe the 1987 debut of the Bang on a Can festival as an attempt to create a polyglot musical direction, one that bridged the tuxedos of uptown new-classical with the black T-shirts of the downtown scene.
It must have been an exciting time. I’ve certainly heard of Bang on a Can, and I’ve played the music on KZSU, but I’ve never really listened to much of their output. I recently amended that by cozying up with two earlier Bang on a Can All Stars CDs: Industry and Cheating, Lying, Stealing (Sony Classical, 1996)
Those recordings come from an intermediate stage, when the Bang on a Can Festival was lesser-known to the wider world but accepted enough to drive a recording deal with Sony. For me, the CDs were a good lesson in the group’s aesthetics and goals. In the past decade, I’ve heard a lot of new-classical music that seems to fit the Bang on a Can mold, where minimalism, virtuosity, and even improvisation collide, and now I know at least one force that helped get that message out.
Pounding It Out
In particular, a lot of new music is loaded up with percussion, sometimes to lend a rock-like heartbeat, sometimes to just plain bash and thrill. Industry shows how strong that trend already was prior to the ’90s. “Lick,” by Bang on a Can co-founder Julia Wolfe, opens the album with strident blips that build into something like a rock rhythm (Mark Stewart’s electric guitar certainly helps push that suggestion). Built of various types of pounding that eventually emerge in melodic forms, it’s an engaging piece that grabs me like a good jazz track would. “The Anvil Chorus” is simply all percussion. David Lang composed the piece, then left Steven Schick to pick just which junk-percussion items would be making the sounds — a nice idea that acknowledges the importance of percussion and the wide flea market of sounds waiting to be tapped.
Two compositions take some inspiration from the early Soviet practice of trying to replicate pounding, steaming factory sounds in music. One is “Industry,” a somber Michael Gordon piece performed by cellist Maya Beiser. But the one that’s particularly effective is Annie Gosfield’s “The Manufacture of Tangled Ivory.” It uses a sampling keyboard where some notes are “tuned” to industrial clangs or to muffled, prepared-piano clacking. That lends a percussive sound to the keyboard solo that starts the piece — and then, when the ensemble kicks in like a fast conveyer belt, the percussive piano, guitar, and bass sounds augment the outright percussion for what, indeed, comes across like the sound of a factory.
Pianist Lisa Moore gets another percussive turn on Frederic Rzewski‘s “Piano Piece No. IV.” While it’s got some rich melody and some serious classical-music flutters and runs, it’s also full of pecking, poking, and two-handed jackhammering. A regally lyrical passage might give way to a sudden near-tuneless pounding — followed by a very tuneful pounding in the higher registers, like a small spoon delicately cracking an egg.
Another element often found in modern classical music, and even in improvisation, is process. Louis Andriessen‘s “Hocketus” has two identical sextets playing one chord at a time in strict alternating patterns: Team A plays, then holds silent as Team B plays. On the CD, one sextet is in each speaker, so you get the ping-pong effect of the music bouncing back and forth, eventually in rapid patter that creates long rhythmic phrases. After several minutes, the music feels purely percussive. The exact notes being hit become secondary to their timing; by altering which instruments’ sounds dominate, Andriessen creates different sounds, but you’re not trying to follow any melodic thread, not until the saxophones start building one in the end.
I’ve seen Andriessen’s name but never realized he was such a patron saint for Bang on a Can’s cause, a composer “versed in the European modernist tradition but [who] recognized that rock ‘n’ roll existed,” as Wolfe, Gordon, and Lang (Bang on a Can’s founders) write in the Industry liner notes. To me, as a latecomer, Bang on a Can itself has always been a touchstone for new-classical music; it’s strangely refreshing to think of the outfit as the spunky new kid looking for sympathetic ears out in the classical world.
Just Rock, Dammit
At the root of it all is a desire to just plain rock out, as the Bang on a Can founders state on Cheating, Lying, Stealing:
In classical music, you’ll have this amazing musician, but he sits in a chair or stands still. There’s no visual element, no show. In rock bands, it’s all show. Since we began the Bang on a Can festivals in 1987, we have merged and synthesized these worlds, putting together programs of seemingly contradictory pieces: gutsy, funky, highly energetic, sound-world stretching music that takes in influences from rock, jazz, folk, world music, and technology.
The track where those principles particularly shine is “Arapua,” by Hermeto Pascoal — an exciting, screeching free-jazz tumult that lets the band really tear it up while never fully giving way to abandon. It’s driven by big piano chords and some searing electric guitar, including a whole patch of chord strumming that plays out like a solo. Evan Ziporyn goes nuts on bass clarinet above the tumult. That’s how it’s done!
It’s a comfort to listen to this music and read these liner notes knowing that Bang on a Can’s ideas and experiments won out in the end. Artists have embraced the idea of letting classical music absorb modern influences rather than the other way around, and the resulting works are rich and plentiful — you just have to find the right places to look. The Bay Area’s Switchboard Music Festival, which I’ve mentioned here but never actually attended, would be a perfect example. Now I can’t wait to go.