Jessica Schmitz (left, playing piccolo) and The Asphalt Orchestra performing outside the World Financial Center at the start of the Bang On a Can Marathon in NY, June 19, 2011 (Photo courtesy of Phoebe Zhang/Epoch Times)
‘Are you experienced?’~David Lang
I’ve come to the conclusion that the Bang On a Can Marathon (And any of the other events given by BOAC’s many artists like “Banglewood” and the various stand-alone concerts) is like a compositional music Woodstock for the mind (You can even quote me on that). Having volunteered for merchandise sales duties for the marathon 2 years in a row now, just within slightly distracted ear-shot I have heard a huge cross-section of the different ideas the new music makers have presented. There’s music that outright spooks you, forces you to think about why it’s spooking you, delights you, makes you happy, makes you dance, makes you sad, makes you despise it, bores you, and sometimes pieces that even all of the above applies to, depending on what you go for. Even though the music and the composers’ styles are all quite different (Composers that range from BOAC founders David Lang, Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon, to Evan Ziporyn, Todd Reynolds, Toby Twining, Yoko Ono, Bjork, Frank Zappa and Philip Glass just to name a giant handful), the common denominator is that they are all composers of contemporary music. So if you expect to hear Mozart or Mendelssohn at this show, this might not be your cup of tea.
Philip Glass: Closing (Philip Glass, piano, and the Bang On a Can All-Stars, World Financial Center, NY 6/19/11)
There were a few people that felt strongly enough to complain to us, the people seated at the merch table, as if we could possibly adjust the music somehow to their liking. One guy was trying his best to explain to me completely on his own volition why he thinks Philip Glass’s compositions don’t work as we were being shushed by audience members standing nearby that did get Philip’s music.
“The audience tends to enjoy the concert overall, but much of the music is very polarizing.” explains BOAC’s store manager and bookkeeper Brian Petuch. “When you perform Iannis Xenakis and Philip Glass on the same bill that is probably inevitable. Overall though I would say most people enjoy the diversity in the programming and we have many diehard fans. One of my favorite things to witness are the tourists and regular mall shoppers that stumble upon this massive event where strange sounds are being blasted throughout the mall. They all have looks on there faces as if they stepped into an episode of the Twilight Zone.”
David Lang: Sunray (Bang On a Can All-Stars; filmed at MIT circa Apr. 2011)
Another great thing to admire about this day-long show is the musicians. The Asphalt Orchestra, an eclectic marching band (Very similar in nature to Chicago’s Mucca Pazza), played outside and walking into the center at the beginning of the marathon and again in the middle of the center by the flat stairway (That was a treat! I know my friend Scott Parker, who’s a Zappa authority, would have loved their take on ‘Zomby Woof’). Cellist Ashley Bathgate, whose dad started talking to me about her when he saw my BOAC T-shirt while standing in line at the nearby Starbucks, sounded gorgeous among the BOAC All-Stars during their collaborative set with Philip Glass. Even though I missed his set at the marathon (Reason being that I was downsized to 2/3 shift when they cut the merch table to one this year), electric violinist/composer Todd Reynolds is always a pleasure to hear. And it really was an incredible experience to see The Sun Ra Arkestra for the first time ever; Even though Sun Ra himself died in 1993, his group carries on their traditional blend of free-jazz and big-band with electronic noise thrown in.
Sun Ra Arkestra (Photo courtesy of Tim N.)
Then there was Glenn Branca. I admire him immensely as a musician, an artist and as an historian for punk rock, but his “Ascension II: The Sequel” (Said sequel to his 1981 album) sounded like a repetitive punk jam. Philip Glass makes beauty from repetition as he did with his opening piece “Music In Similar Motion”, but Branca’s 6-piece group felt to me like some dudes wanted to rock out in the key of E all night long. My apologies to Branca enthusiasts. I hope I can make my way back to his music the same way I did for Schoenberg.
I have to say there’s many reasons to come to the marathon; It’s free, it’s a great place to see, hear and even meet various composers, artists and musicians. And those palm trees are so nice in what kind of looks like a giant sanitarium!
Zappa: Zomby Woof (Asphalt Orchestra; This version is from Le Poisson Rouge Jan 2011; They performed this in the middle of the hall at the marathon)