Bang on a Can Marathon 2013 Live Blog

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Ready for nine hours of new music? For those who can’t be in the crowd for the 2013 Bang on a Can Marathon in New York City on Sunday, June 16 (Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts @ Pace University), we’ve embedded intrepid NMBx columnist Rob Deemer to keep you apprised of the goings on. So get ready, get set…

12:59. One minute to go and the audience is still filing into the hall here. Christina Jensen explained that, while normally the Marathon would be held at the World Financial Center, that venue is currently under contruction. The Schimmel Center at Pace University is an excellent venue – I saw David T. Little’s performance of his Soldier’s Songs earlier this year and it works great for both acoustic & amplified genres. I’ll be curious how the traditional setting affects the feel of the Marathon throughout the day – if you have questions or comments, please leave them below! 

1:19. The Marathon kicks off with Alarm Will Sound performing “El Dude”, the first movement from Derek Bermel’s Canzonas Americanas. This is my first time hearing AWS live, so check one more item off that particular bucket list! The ensemble is tight as they maneuver through Bermel’s serpentine counterpoint and backbeats; while it doesn’t swing per se, it comes mighty close at points. The luscious harmonies are well-orchestrated throughout the ensemble and overall the performers seemed to enjoy chewing into this piece. Acoustics have always been tricky with these concerts in the past – this performance was balanced well on stage, from my bearing, but some of the strings and other instruments are being amplified while others aren’t, which makes for a slightly off-kilter experience from the audience.

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Alarm Will Sound
(Photo by Thomas Deneuville and used with permission)

1:28. Alarm Will Sound continues with a work by Minnesota-based composer Jeffrey Brooks entitled After The Treewatcher. I’m not sure if it’s the particular way this piece is textured (it’s much thicker overall than Bermel’s with synths and electric guitar prevalent throughout), but the balance issue seems to be fixed. Brooks’ work is big and brash – very tasty piece!

1:38. In a complete contrast to AWS’s two big pieces, trumpeter Peter Evans comes out to perform a solo work of his own. Performing into a microphone, the virtuosic skitterings slowly morphed into a distorted sound mass…I’m not sure what kind of electronics are being used from the back of the hall (if there’s no electronics on this, then color me gobsmacked), but the performance as whole is very effective. Whispering in jazz-tinged lines that don’t ever seem to settle in one direction or another, Evans builds into something that could only be described as an Arban etude from hell. Scary chops and supremely musical performance.

1:51. Both Bang on a Can and Alarm Will Sound have been active in cultivating emerging composer talents – BOAC with their Summer Festival at MASS MOCA and AWS at the Mizzou New Music Festival at the University of Missouri – and the next piece has connections to them both. British composer Charlie Piper has attended both festivals and wrote Zoetrope for Alarm Will Sound last year. With its emphasis on cross-rhythms, insistent pulse, and fanciful colors, this piece is definitely within the BOAC oeuvre, but Piper’s use of light textures and transparent textures makes it stand out.

1:53. Christina Jennings just handed me a URL that you’ll want to check out: www.ustream.tv/channel/littledogtv – this will be in tandem with an upcoming piece by Lukas Ligeti!

2:07. Conductor and Artistic Director Alan Pierson announced from the stage that Caleb Burhans, one of the ensemble’s core members and composer of the next piece, got into a pretty serious accident last night after AWS performed an all-Burhans concert at Le Poisson Rouge last night. With hopes that he recovers fully, they lay into Caleb’s o ye of little faith…(do you know where your children are?) with conviction. o ye… relies less on constant pulse (though it is never missing) and more on slowly-evolving chordal gestures that build to a rumbling crescendo.

2:08. UPDATE: The link above will be a livestream of the Ligeti piece in a few moments…there will be a handful of performances that will be livestreamed today. Stay tuned!

2:16. As I mentioned before, the feel of this Marathon is pretty different – not bad, just different – than the previous ones in the Financial Center. The pace seems to be much quicker between pieces and you see less of the relaxed atmosphere than in the mall-like venue across town…again, no criticism, just an observation. I’ve wondered how well these concert Marathons would connect in a more traditional, enclosed space – time will tell.

2:36. Lukas Ligeti has been exploring the music of African and incorporating its concepts into his music for quite some time now and his new work for two drumsets, Iakoni in kazonnde, is a very impressive example of this integration. Inspired by Ghanian agogo bell traditions, Ligeti pits one drumset against another with intricate cross-rhythms overlaying on top of one another. It’s not as flashy as one might expect a double drumset piece to be, but infinitely more interesting.

2:48. Proof that the rock band/chamber music combination is not just an American concept, Cabaret Contemporain seems to have picked up the idea and ran with it in their homeland of France. They’ll be starting in just a few minutes…

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Cabaret Contemporain
(Photo by Thomas Deneuville and used with permission)

3:05. Wow – wasn’t expecting that. Not sure what I was expecting, but I’m liking it nonetheless. I’ve seen BOAC have DJ’s perform during past Marathons and this performance reminded of that – except it’s a live group with keyboards, electric guitar, drumset and two upright basses (though one had to leave the stage due to technical difficulties beyond his control only to emerge minute later to the delight of the audience). Not very subtle – it wasn’t meant to be – but quite satisfying in a visceral way. Their attention to timbre, balance, and texture is pretty impressive – it’s not often you see a bass player playing beneath the bridge and a pianist playing inside the piano while a guitarist and drumset lays down a complex techno beat. If you haven’t heard of this group – now’s the time.

3:32. After the first of several pauses, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus performs two new works, the first one, Before the Words, is an a cappella work by Shara Worden (she of My Brightest Diamond). Joyous in nature, Shara’s first foray into choral repertoire is deceptively challenging for the choir, but the young singers do a wonderful job of executing the interlocking textures – kudos to the two solo singers who came out front! All of these singers seem about 12-15 in age…really glad to see composers working with younger performers in such a high-profile context.

3:40. The 45-member choir is now being joined by a string quartet and piano to perform Nico Muhly’s Respect of a Storm. This piece pushed the envelope in different directions than Worden’s and didn’t fare as well…the textures seemed blurred at times and while the string quartet didn’t get in the way, it didn’t seem necessary either. The Chorus’ performance was solid, however, and one hopes that more choirs take this group as a model for working with new literature and living composers.

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NYUSTEEL w/ NYU Contemporary Music Ensemble
(Photo by Thomas Deneuville and used with permission)

4:10. From Michael Gordon’s comments, Kendall Williams’ Conception is the first instance of a steel band – in this case NYUSTEEL along with the NYU Contemporary Music Ensemble) – that they’ve had at a BOAC Marathon. The work combines a six-piece steel pan ensemble with a 10-piece mixed chamber ensemble and the result is quite good – I’d be curious to hear what it sounded without the amplification (which made sections almost unbearably loud from my perch in the balcony). Williams mentioned that he’s played steel pan for over 20 years and is a graduate of NYU, so he knew the group well and wrote a damn fine piece for them.

4:19. You’ll probably notice that I mention the use of pulse, repetition, ostinati, etc. a lot today…I’m gonna stay away from labels, but safe to say we are at the Bang on a Can Marathon, so there are several threads that tend to run through much of the repertoire  during the day that I’ll try to explore as we go along.

4:33. One of the  characteristics of the BOAC Marathons are their penchant for sudden stylistic “left turns”, and we’ve just took one. Yungchen Lhamo and Anton Batagov (voice & piano respectively) are performing two works (entitled White Palace and Medicine Buddha) that are much more relaxed and tranquil than anything else we’ve heard so far. Batagov’s effective accompaniment serves as an undulating foundation upon which Lhamo meanders utilizing the vocal techniques she learned in her native Tibet. It is mysterious at times, listless at others, and ethereal throughout.

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Brooklyn Youth Chorus and TILT Brass
(photo by Thomas Deneuville and used with permission)

4:58. The Brooklyn Youth Chorus returns to the stage along with members of the NYC-based TILT brass ensemble for Astral Epitaphs, a work John King composed for the final performances of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company at the Park Avenue Armory two years ago. From what I can tell, the work is completely aleatoric, with each instrument and the choir being picked up by microphones that are being fed into a computer and relayed back through spatial speakers throughout the room with various elctro-acoustic transformations. With an array of 45 singers in a half-circle around the stage and three trumpets and three trombones lined up in front, the work is as visually stunning as it is aurally. I can imagine this piece was scheduled before the move to the Pace Center was necessary – the effect in the Financial Center’s Winter Garden would not be quite so harsh at points and more expansive in others…but overall the impact of the piece was very strong, especially as the choir began to sing in (relative) unison at the conclusion.

5:20. In-yo-face duo Talk Normal is about half-way through their set of three pieces…I’ll talk more about the music in a sec, but I’d like to point out that we’re sitting in a 700-seat theatre and not a stadium…I have the utmost respect for viscerality in performances, but I also like my eardrums. Taking the risk of sounding like an old man – it’s a little too loud. Just a touch. UPDATE: Ok, rant over. Talk Normal was actually quite inventive in their concept – they obviously wanted to make an impact with the audience and they most certainly achieved that.

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Asphalt Orchestra
(photo by Thomas Deneuville and used with permission)

5:30.  It wouldn’t be a BOAC Marathon without the Asphalt Orchestra bringing their front line attitude bear. As the only new music marching band, they really do have a vast latitude with which to push & pull their repertoire. Today they’re  playing arrangements of several Pixies tunes arranged by the members of the ensemble as a sneak peek of their concert next week at Lincoln Center. Ken Thomson in particular is on fire during this set and Ken Bentley stands out in a great way on sousaphone.

5:54. Going on five hours planted in one spot…luckily I’m being easily distracted by the beautiful solo violin performance of Monica Germino. More soon…

6:07. I’ve seen a fair helping of works for solo instrument and electronics, but Julia Wolfe’s With a blue dress on may be my new favorite…a major work for solo violin (expecting the violinist to sing) along with looping and other digital effects based off of the folk tune “Pretty Little Girl with the Blue Dress On”. Germino was awe-inspiring in her performance of the work and the sound design by Frank van der Weii was just right…definitely one of the highlights of the concert so far.

The next work is Schnee by Hans Abrahamsen performed by the Talea Ensemble…Michael Gordon just warned us that it was an hour long and suggested those of us who have been here for a while might want to use the opportunity to grab a bite. I shall do just that…

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Talea Ensemble
(Photo by Thomas Deneuville and used with permission)

7:38. Alright – just was able to grab some dinner with Alexandra Gardner, so we’re both much more with it (6 hours in one place is a long time). I’d like to take this opportunity to give special props to Thomas Deneuville, the force of nature behind the online new music magazine I Care If You Listen. This is the second year that Thomas and I have sat next to each other as we live-blogged our way through the Marathon and while I was able to offer my power strip for his equipment, he’s been nice enough to share his photos of the concert (which are much better than anything I can get with my iPhone). When you get a chance, check out ICIYL!

7:45. A newcomer on the NYC new music scene, Hotel Elefant makes their debut performance on the BOAC Marathon by performing Angélica Negrôn’s trio for flute, viola/mandolin, and harp,  Drawings for Meyoko. Audacious, since the work was composed for another not-ancient ensemble – the Janus Trio – but also because the ensemble is so much bigger than this trio. Made up of 20 performers from NYC, Hotel Elefant is one of many new groups combining strong performers with an entrepreneurial mindset. It was a pleasure for me to hear the work, since I was already familiar with it from the Janus Trio’s recording and it’s so rare that we get to hear new works performed by more than one ensemble. The three performers, Domenica Fossati (alto flute), Andie Tanning Springer (viola and mandolin), and Kathryn Andrews (harp), were equally audacious and unafraid in the face of technical difficulties when they abruptly and calmly stopped the performance because they had lost their click track. A few minutes later and the second try came across quite strongly…Negrôn’s delicate electronics and intricate writing is top-notch and the trio performed beautifully in the face of adversity.

8:12. BOAC was nice enough to bring back the French quintet Cabaret Contemporain for a second set and while I think this set is even stronger than the first one (which was pretty amazing), it’s still a little disjunct to hear a group playing music that seems to scream to be danced to in front of 600+ audience members sitting there politely. Not a criticism, but an interesting observation…not sure what to make of it.

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Bang on a Can All-Stars with Shara Worden
(Photo by Thomas Deneuville and used with permission)

8:56. Almost eight hours in and the Bang on a Can All-Stars with their newest member, Ken Thomson, on clarinet and guest vocalist Shara Worden, have taken the stage. Introducing the next work is the composer, David Lang, as he describes his process of scanning through all of Schubert’s vocal works to find instances of Death being portrayed as a sentient being speaking about the afterlife, organizing them into a sensible order and setting them for the All-Stars. As with many of Lang’s other works, each section within the work seems to have one primary mood and texture with subtle changes shifting constantly. Worden’s voice is hauntingly beautiful in this context and the timbre of her voice soon becomes necessary – even a requirement – to make the full impact of the work come through – it’s hard to imagine anyone else supplying so much character while hewing to a narrowly limited melodic range. The ensemble as a whole gels effortlessly with no one sticking out or fading into the woodwork.

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Maya Beiser with the Provenance Project Band
(Photo by Thomas Deneuville and used with permission)

9:46. After taking a quick break to wish my dad “Happy Father’s Day” (hi, Dad!), I got back in time to hear cellist Maya Beiser perform Tamar Muskal’s Mar de Leche with the Provenance Project Band. Beiser sang magnificently through Muskal’s Arab-infused melodies while her compatriots on oud and hand drums all demonstrated their mastery on their instruments throughout the work. Beiser, more than almost anyone performing today, demonstrates a persona and an energy onstage that is difficult to define but definitely becomes an important part of not only her playing but of the work itself.

10:16. Blown away by the All-Stars’ performance of Annea Lockwood’s Vortex – great to hear the new version of the group with Ken going freakin’ nuts on bass clarinet. It’s been 10 hours since I got here and as much as I want to suck the marrow out of this bone to the very end, I am cashed out. I hope you’ve enjoyed my musings throughout the day and hope you get to come experience the Marathon at some point soon yourself.

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