Last week, I finally made the pilgrimage to Mass MoCA to see their exhibitions and to hear performances from the Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival. It was inspiring to hear experimental music in the same room as a giant Joseph Beuys sculpture, drawing clear associations between the musical and visual arts of our time. This cross-pollination—which extends beyond the simple act of performing in a gallery space to include installation pieces by BoaC artists—can help call attention to experimental music’s place among the contemporary arts. I hope that the example of this collaboration will inspire those museums devoted to the new which have not already done so to consider allying themselves with similarly ambitious experimental music concert presenting organizations.
The museum’s current exhibitions included a massive Sol LeWitt retrospective comprised of 105 wall drawings spanning four decades and three floors. It was fascinating to ingest such a massive amount of his work chronologically in one giant feast. I was surprised at the clear teleological drive that this mode of presentation made evident, as his work developed over the years in beautifully effective ways. This subtle progression continued until his final works, serving as an inspiration for budding artists finding their own voices and mature artists seeking to continue expanding their expressive capabilities.
Katharina Grosse’s massive installation, one floor up more highly, was simultaneously delightful and horrific. Brightly colored mounds of spray-painted dirt were pierced by huge styrofoam ice formations with discarded dresses and preserved grasses scattered throughout, creating landscapes that suggested in equal measures a fairy tale wonderland and a post apocalyptic hell. Various vantage points, including two balconies, allowed us to observe aspects that were originally hidden and also wreaked havoc with the observer’s sense of perspective.
While wandering the galleries, I was delighted to chance upon a mid-afternoon concert that included one of the highlights of my experience, the Australian percussionist Adam Jeffrey performing a movement of Franco Donatoni’s Omar for solo vibraphone. He played with incredible lyricism, creating singing lines throughout without losing the drive and forward momentum of the music. The extended true fade dal niente at the end was managed without ever losing a rounded tone. I feel extraordinarily fortunate to have caught this performance.
The main event of the day was a faculty recital of works by Julia Wolfe and David Lang. I’ve long been a fan of their music—finding it a freeing inspiration when I first encountered Bang on a Can CDs nearly twenty years ago—and I’ve greatly enjoyed watching from a distance as they have moved from the outer fringes of the Downtown music scene towards a nearly universal acceptance within the experimental music world. I view this shift as part of a larger evolution away from a community defined by divisive bickering and towards a more unified front that we can present to the outside world, helping to make all of us more relevant in the process.
Julia Wolfe’s Girlfriend, originally composed for the California EAR Unit, evokes the defining characteristics of the commissioning performers’ hometown by incorporating recordings of car crashes into the musical textures. For the first 16 minutes of this work, we are immersed within a sonic sculpture of slowly changing harmonies punctuated by these destructive noises. Although interrupted by several lengthy pauses, this musical world only changes subtly. Our sense of time slowly expands until, just as we begin to accept that these slight gradations will comprise the entire piece, the music explodes into one of Wolfe’s patented, rollickingly nasty, ear-splittingly tasty grooves. The combination of horror and delight created by her strong musical statement treads within an emotional landscape similar to the art of Grosse residing in the same building as the performance.
The two movements from David Lang’s Child create contrasting obsessive images. The first, “Sweet Air,” reflects the pun of its title with purely beautiful music that somehow avoids becoming cloying despite remaining unabashedly, single-mindedly pretty. (While this may sound like faint praise, in my mind it’s a very impressive feat and one that I would love to be able to accomplish myself.) The second, “Stick Figure,” is one of those pieces that provides a completely different experience when heard live than when listening to the recording. Very slow, quiet counterpoint in the piano and extreme registers of the cello and clarinet is continually interrupted by screamingly loud staccato hits. While the limited decibel range of the recording allows our ears eventually to reconcile and combine these two textures, the extremes created in performance by the delicacy of the held notes against the force of the interjections negates any attempts to view them as two parts of a single whole. As a listener, this was a powerfully emotional experience, as if I was stranded in a liminal zone for an extended period of time, seeking some sense of there-ness but instead remaining imprisoned between two worlds.
The performances by the festival’s faculty ensemble were convincing and musical throughout. Most of the textures focused on tightly knit cohesion, which the players accomplished admirably. The three who were exposed in the slow music of “Stick Figure” were all exemplars of the rising tide of excellence in the new music performance community. Vicky Chow created a silvery tone with a keen sensitivity to the long phrases and overall affect of the music. Nick Photinos, of eighth blackbird fame, performed with great delicacy and impressive intonation in the extended high register passages. Alejandro Acierto’s clarinet playing matched these two all-stars in expressiveness and sensitivity. (This latter fact was especially moving for me, since I’ve known Alejandro since he was a composition student of mine while he was in high school. I didn’t know that I’d be hearing him on the concert, much less that he’d more than hold his own while being paired with some of the best performers of new music.)
After a day packed with amazing art and music, my biggest question is whether it’s too soon to start planning a return visit next year, for their marathon concert.