Classical CD Reviews

‘Big, Beautiful, Dark and Scary’ = Works by JULIA WOLFE, MICHAEL GORDON, EVAN ZIPORYN, CONLON NANCARROW, LOUIS ANDRIESSEN & others – Bang on a Can Ens. – Cantaloupe (2 CDs)

Wildly creative works from this cutting edge ensemble are big, beautiful, dark and…

Published on February 25, 2012

‘Big, Beautiful, Dark and Scary’ = JULIA WOLFE: Big, Beautiful, Dark and Scary; DAVID LANG: sunray; MICHAEL GORDON: For Madeline; EVAN ZIPORYN: Music from ‘Shadowbang’ (Angkat, Ocean, Meditasi, Head); DAVID LONGSTRETH: Instructional Video, Matt Damon, Breakfast at J&M; CONLON NANCARROW: Four Player Piano Studies; LOUIS ANDRIESSEN: Life; KATE MOORE: Ridgeway – Bang On a Can – Cantaloupe Records CA21074 (2 CDs, one enhanced with video), 90:13 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

I have been a fan of the new music ensemble, Bang On a Can, and in particular composer David Lang for awhile now. This group is consistently amazing and very capable of playing some of contemporary music’s most heady but entertaining and technically demanding (but entertaining) fare!

So, aside from looking forward to any new Bang On a Can release, I cannot imagine anyone not wanting to find out more about pieces with titles such as those herein. Any disc with works entitled Big, Beautiful, Dark and Scary; Instructional Video and (yes) Matt Damon deserves to be heard!

For reasons from satisfying curiosity to admiring terrific ensemble playing this two disc collection does not disappoint! First, the title work by Julia Wolfe; a BOAC regular, is exactly what the title implies. Written as her reaction to the tragic events of 9/11/2011 this piece is loud, frightening in places, feverish and requires the ensemble to play with a nervous energy that nearly defies description. Wolfe explains that, at the time, she was standing, literally, two blocks from the World Trade Center with her two young children (!) How could a piece striving to evoke what that must have felt like not be dramatic and impulsive and – yes – just a bit “scary?”  This is a great piece and commands your attention.

The music of David Lang is always attractive, with a kind of para-minimalist style that moving steadily. Some of his works are quite angular, rhythmic and propulsive. Others, like the present sunray, move more deliberately, almost hypnotically. Lang cites a description of the Washington Monument as a shaft of light, transformed into a solid object as a source of inspiration. In this case, it does seem like sunray is music that successfully transforms the character of light into sound; and does so in a very captivating way!

Michael Gordon is another composer whose voice is tonal and whose music is frequently built on small phrase and cells that interact with each other. In For Madeline, there is some very nice interplay between piano and vibraphone and the whole effect is actually kind of ethereal. Melodies sort of ebb and flow in a most fascinating and emotional way throughout this beautiful work.

Evan Ziporyn is one of the founding members of Bang On a Can and a composer of note. He wrote a large, multi-movement work, Shadowbang, originally as a theatre work involving Balinese shadow puppetry, and which premiered at MIT in 2003. Ziporyn professes a fascination with Balinese music and the harmonies inherent to the style. This disc showcases three movements of this much larger work; Angkat, Ocean and Meditasi, Head – each of which a reference to locations and atmosphere within Bali. There is a sort of minimalist trend herein as well, both spritely and pensive, and all three movements work together to form their own fascinating whole. It really made me want to hear the whole original work!

David Longstreth is a new name for me. Longstreth has his own New York based band/new music group, “Dirty Projectors” (a great name). The three pieces played here are catchy in a very tongue-in-cheek sort of way (and hence the equally tongue-in-cheek titles!) Instructional Video does sound like sort of cheesy soundtrack to a….. you get the idea. I could not wait to hear Matt Damon. These three pieces are actually an outgrowth of a project and work Longstreth created called Slaves’ Graves from 2002, based on the composer’s impressions of Mahler and others he grew up listening to. After hearing one of these pieces, apparently David’s brother remarked that he could “totally imagine Matt Damon running down a cobblestone street in Europe during that music”. That – and the far simpler reference of Breakfast at J&M – is so random it must be admired. The music is good but seems to depend, in part, on the symbolism of the titles.

I was not familiar with Kate Moore either. Her work, Ridgeway, explores her own heritage as an Englishman living in Australia. The title refers to a very ancient path (barely even a “road”) that winds its way through southern England and has been used for commerce as well as safe passage for people relocating. The music itself is built on a series of rhythmic cells that “stutter” along and occasionally seem to interfere with each other. I found the piece interesting but just about the right length as my interest started to wane after about ten minutes.

This really interesting collection also includes with two very familiar names. Conlon Nancarrow’s Player Piano Studies are sort of legendary and idiomatic works from this iconoclastic and hermit-like composer who spent most of his adult life in Mexico. Nancarrow’s intent behind creating pieces by hand-selecting the pitch, rhythms and register of a player-piano by literally manually manipulating the rolls makes for music that – once the composer is done – completely eliminates human involvement but is still acoustic in origin. BOAC has taken the Nancarrow originals and rescored the present four (and others) for their very capable human musicians. The effect is actually a bit jarring. Having heard the originals, these arrangements take the fairly spunky but cold originals produced by Nancarrow’s vision and give them “life”, certainly with the appreciable technique of their ensemble.

Louis Andriessen is a major force in the Netherlands and across Europe. Not as well known or often played in the U.S. as perhaps he should be, his music has a drama and tension to it that really hold the interest. Life is a fairly large new work that is intended to accompany a short film by Dutch video artist Marijke van Warmerdam. In this double-disc set, the film on the second enhanced CD/DVD, is included and is quite interesting, indeed. Andriessen considers Life a sort of contemporary Pictures at an Exhibition. I found each section worth the watching and listening. I found Couple to be a bit dark and pessimistic and my favorite was Wind with its strong imagery and music. I have enjoyed Andriessen’s music for awhile, with De Staat being my first exposure. This work, especially, when experienced with the film is a very good and welcome addition to his output.

This is a very full and very unusual compilation but I would say it is one of Bang On a Can’s best. While this music may not appeal to everyone it should definitely be experienced. If the ensemble’s appreciable skills are not enough to hook you, I would bet that the David Lang or Michael Gordon works would. Personally, I enjoyed all of it. My answer to my own headliner is that the wildly creative works from this cutting edge ensemble are big, beautiful, dark and… well worth your while!

—Daniel Coombs




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