Bang On A Can
photo by Peter Serling
And the gold medal goes to… the Bang On A Can All-Stars and the Australian Chamber Orchestra for bringing new American music to the Sydney Olympic Festival on September 12th and 13th. The two ensembles collaborated on three works that will receive Australian premieres on the 12th: Hard Times, by British composer Steve Martland; Game Over, by the young Australian Brett Dean; and Haircut, jointly composed by Bang On A Can’s artistic directors, Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe. All three pieces were jointly commissioned by the ensembles, and were given world premieres last April at the University of Iowa.
The concert will open with George Crumb’s Black Angels, arranged for electric string ensemble by ACO artistic director Richard Tognetti. The All-Stars will continue the program with Tan Dun’s Concerto for Six and Elena Kats-Chernin’s ProMotion. Kats-Chernin has lived in Australia since 1957. The concert will conclude with the three collaborative works. ABC Classics will tape the program for later broadcast.
The impetus for the collaboration came from the ACO’s wish to create something international and unique for 2000. A combination of admiration for Bang On A Can’s recent discs and the fact that the group’s pianist Lisa Moore is Australian, led to a meeting in New York at the end of the Orchestra’s US tour in 1998.
Julia Wolfe admits that the group’s habit of playing amplified instruments impressed her from the start. The collaborative project went forward, receiving generous grants from Wally Chappell at the University of Iowa‘s Hancher Auditorium, where the ACO has an on-going performing presence, and Leo Schofield at the Olympics Arts Festival.
The Olympic Festival provides Bang On A Can and the ACO with the opportunity to “move new music outside the normal arenas,” according to Wolfe. She calls this opportunity “thrilling,” not only because it is international in scope, but also because the Olympics are not necessarily connected with the arts. The audience will hopefully be a mix of die-hard music-lovers, and Olympics visitors who would otherwise never step into the concert hall. Wolfe made a delightful observation that will hopefully be shared by many at the Festival: athletics and music are really first cousins. Doing gymnastics and playing the cello are both athletic activities, and yet both require a great deal of artistry, according to Wolfe.
The two groups made decisions together about which composers to commission. Steve Martland has a long history with Bang On A Can. Hard Times is a virtuosic work. The title refers to the “hard times” suffered by much of modern society; in his program notes, for example, Martland refers to “the fact that a tiny number of Americans own more money than the entire Indian subcontinent.” Wolfe calls the piece “beautiful,” and claims that despite Martland’s British citizenship, the “exuberance” of the work and its “bright, folk sound” come across as distinctly American.
Brett Dean describes his Game Over, for 7 instrumental soloists, chamber orchestra, sampler and multi-track sound design, as “a live tone poem of unrealizable desires for a flailing generation.” The piece includes scraps of confessions from game show contestants and sounds of audience hysteria worked into the musical texture. There are also “striking” solos for electric guitar and electric violin. Wolfe calls the piece a mixture of “romanticism and noise.”
Haircut marks the second collaboration between Gordon, Lang, and Wolfe. Their first collaboration was the “comic book opera” Carbon Copy Building, premiered in September 1999. For Carbon Copy Building, the three composers took different sections and wrote them separately. For Haircut, they employed a different approach: one person started the piece, then gave it to the next person, who took things out and added others, and so on. Wolfe calls the result a “true blend.” The piece is “very rhythmic,” and keeps the performers “constantly moving.”