A Visit to Banglewood

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.

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9 thoughts on “A Visit to Banglewood

  1. Megan Ihnen

    Smooke:
    “Wolfe’s patented, rollickingly nasty, ear-splittingly tasty grooves.” Just one of the many reasons I enjoy your writing. Glad you had the opportunity to get up to Mass MoCA and doubly glad that I get to read about it. Thanks!

    Reply
  2. Sam Scranton

    Its funny you mention Joseph Beuys, because I just watched an incredible video called Art Thoughtz with Henessey Youngman

    For those that don’t want to cut and paste that link into your browser, let me tell you what you’ll miss- a conversation comparing Joseph Beuys and Jay Z. I thought how natural the comparison is, and also how I can’t imagine a similar conversation happening in the contemporary classical music world. “Personal mythology”, to my knowledge, doesn’t figure in to much new music outside of John Luther Adams. For me this is a bummer. “Personal mythology” can make art feel “high stakes”. Not that Beethoven cultivated one (maybe he did), but think about his final string quartets; they are obvs. masterpieces, but they also feel “life or death” because they are his FINAL works! With JLA,one feels the resonance of the entire natural world! Its a doorway, signpost, or surface seduction that can open up or demand further exploration. I hope more composers take a cue from our man Beuys.

    Reply
  3. Phil Fried

    “..I hope more composers take a cue from our man Beuys…”

    Sam I’m a little surprised that you didn’t take Mr. Youngman (Youngman?)as a tongue in cheek spoof. That said many composers find art exhilarating and a source of inspiration. Well perhaps not with the same emphasis as you suggest. As too the lack of “personal mythology” in living composers are you kidding?

    Reply
  4. Sam Scranton

    @Phil Fried

    I do think that Mr. Youngman is being tongue in cheek, its obviously funny, but the core of his argument is un-ironic. Joseph Beuys and Jay Z, as spectators/fans understand them, are not the REAL Joseph Beuys or Jay Z, they are total artifice, and that’s part of what makes participating in their worlds so enjoyable. They’ve created complex characters that enhance audience appreciation of their art, think “Master Raro”. And I wasn’t joking about the lack of personal mythology in living composers, if you know of some I would LOVE to hear about ‘em! I am always happy to learn about more greatness. Thanks.

    Reply
  5. Phil Fried

    Sam we are going off topic and I think my point was clear. The question of avatars and their use or misuse has come up before. My personal preference has always been to look outside the frame. Sorry.

    Reply
  6. smooke

    The video to which Sam linked is hilarious, even down to the implied tribute to the more famous Youngman (Henny). And certainly Beuys asked his students to cultivate that personal mythology as well (Blinky Palermo being an obvious example).

    Phil, please correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that your point is that there is no dearth of this sort of mythologizing among composers. The most obvious example was Stockhausen (from the planet Sirius). Perhaps you’d like to add more here? It would be fun to have a list of some of the best examples.

    – David

    Reply
  7. phil fried

    “…Phil, please correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that your point is that there is no dearth of this sort of mythologizing among composers….”

    Bingo David!

    Phil’s very short list of composer mythologists.

    Any composer on the internet, or with a presence on the internet.
    Any composer with a web site. (University web sites count.
    Any composer who also performs.
    Any composer who wears black to performances(their own or others).
    Any composer who’s personal look reflects their sound.
    Any composer who studiously avoids trying to look like a composer.
    Any composer with students.
    Any composer who works within the tradition.
    Any composer who works outside the tradition.
    Any composer who switched styles.
    Any composer who works in many styles.
    Any composer who is style free.
    Any composer part of a school.
    Any composer who is called; uptown, downtown, bridge and tunnel, out of town, mid town etc.
    Any composer who is a Mod or Rocker.
    Any composer who is “new” or “old” or “young” etc.
    Any composer who write impenetrable prose.
    Any composer who writes concisely.
    Any composer who blogs.
    Any composer who knows a composer who blogs.
    Any composer who avoids blogging.
    Any composer who knows a composer who avoids blogs.
    Any composer who is part of a trend.
    Any composer who claims to be outside the trends.
    All insiders and all outsiders.
    Any composer who does not know how the read or write music and can’t wait to tell you.
    Any composer who is pushy.
    Any composer who pretends not to be a composer.
    Any composer who lives for their art.
    Any composer who is modest.
    Any composer who is personally wild but composes staid music.
    Any composer who is boring but composes wild music.
    Any composer who is a brainiac.
    Any composer who is brain dead.
    Any composer who is disgruntled.
    Any composer who is successful.
    Any composer who is successful and disgruntled.
    Any composer, former composer, or budding composer.

    Did I leave anyone out? Yanni and John Tesh-just kidding—-maybe

    Its all of us.

    As much as I would like a particular composer and their music to be treated as separate values, the composer reflects the music.
    True, its also a question of degree. Some more than others. Many times its not the composer who initiates this labeling but entrepreneurial marketing creates this need. Labels stick.

    Reply

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