Ecstatic Music Festival Rings in Bang on a Can’s 30th Anniversary

On Monday, January 9, 2017 within the cozy setting of the Kaufman Music Center’s Merkin Concert Hall, a number of milestones converged in a single event. The Bang on a Can All-Stars–performance ambassadors of the festival and multi-faceted arts organization that gave it its name–took to the stage to celebrate and kick off its 30th anniversary season, which also marked the opening of the seventh annual Ecstatic Music Festival and a new season of live-streamed concerts co-presented by New Sounds Live on Q2, hosted by resident new music champion John Schaefer. In accordance with the shared mission of these forces, the evening melded the presentation of new works funded by the 2017 People’s Commissioning Fund and the exploration of signature and historic works by Bang on a Can’s trio of founders, David Lang, Julia Wolfe, and Michael Gordon.

This year’s People’s Commissioning Fund Concert is an extension of Bang on a Can’s ongoing multimedia Field Recordings Project, which has tallied commissions of nearly 30 new works on the criteria that composers “find a recording of something that already exists–a voice, a sound, a faded scrap of melody–and then write a new piece around it.” The composers on 2017’s roster include Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldosdottir, Mexican-Dutch composer Juan Felipe Waller, and eminent American composer Nico Muhly.

The stage was set by a piece called sunray by Bang on a Can co-founder David Lang. Lang, who was in attendance, remarked that he had composed this work in 2006 while in residence at MASS MoCA. As the composer explained, the work was inspired by the sign above the SUN Cleaners next door to the provided artist’s housing and bore the depiction of a blazing sun with radiating lines suggesting the rays of the work’s title. Lang went on to describe his exploration of imagery associated with the sun, leading him so far as to discover that an obelisk (familiar to most as the shape of the Washington Monument) is meant to be a ray of sunlight captured in stone. Performed beautifully by the ensemble, the metallic, undulating textures of Lang’s energetic work seemed a fitting prelude to the new works included in the Field Recordings Project, in its transformation of a found image into a soundscape endeavoring to represent something so abstract and intangible as a ray of sunlight.

Anna Thorvaldsdottir‘s work, entitled Field, made use of ambient sounds captured by the composer herself while walking through a field in her native Iceland. In a short dialog to introduce the work, emcee John Schaeffer probed about the relationship between sound and the environment, alluding to Iceland’s well known natural splendor and which Thorvaldsdottir acknowledged contributed to the synthesis of the piece. In contrast, Juan Felipe Waller‘s piece, entitled Hybrid Ambiguities, layered its performative elements over recordings made by the composer of a special instrument known as the Carrillo Harp. Invented by Julian Carrillo in 1940, his harp is a microtonal stringed instrument that crams ninety-six (as opposed to the more conventional twelve) tones into a single octave. The final commission of the evening was Nico Muhly‘s Comfortable Cruising Altitude, a work that felt more closely related to Thorvaldsdottir’s Field in that the underlying recorded material bid the audience enter into Muhly’s most familiar environment; the passenger cabin of a trans-atlantic flight.

Despite each composer’s intention (as articulated in pre-performance dialog with Schaefer or in their respective program notes), each of these works bore in common a distinct separation between the found sound element and the performative layers. Waller’s Hybrid Ambiguities came perhaps the closest to establishing a holistic synthesis with his field recording of Carrillo’s harp, building to a sparkling climax in which the live elements emerged and subsided from the recording, and the recording in turn seemed to emanate from and resonate with the performance. Overall, there was the looming sense of a missed opportunity to truly build a sonic, acoustic language from the material of each recording, rather than to present live music unique to each composer’s personal idiom merely accompanied by recorded sounds.

Following a brief intermission, the All-Stars returned to the stage with Bang on a Can co-founder Michael Gordon‘s operatic work Van Gogh (an excerpt entitled “St. Remy”), joined by Eliza Bragg and Charles Yang, who both offered dual talents as accomplished violinists and vocalists. Gordon’s work is a beautiful and haunting exploration of Vincent Van Gogh’s correspondence with his brother, Theo, between 1889 and 1890 (a period during which the artist created nearly 150 paintings). The combined talents of Bragg and Yang on voice and strings elevated the group and made for a stunning performance of what was perhaps the most successful piece on the program.

Bang on a Can All-Stars - Photo by Peter Serling

Bang on a Can All-Stars – Photo by Peter Serling

To close the loop in contributions from the founding members of the group, Julia Wolfe offered her work, Believe. As she explained, at the time of its creation, the piece was crafted in response to the personalities and abilities peculiar to the ensemble at the time. In the All-Stars’ thirty-odd years, the line up of performers has changed almost entirely. As the years have passed, Wolfe went on to point out that work has not been left behind as a relic of the former ensemble, but has grown and aged along with the group, a beautiful testament to the living quality of music in performance and to the hidden potential for a work of art to be reborn in each performance.

The conclusion of the concert revamped two historic works by Philip Glass with special arrangements tailored to the ensemble; an excerpt from his monumental Einstein on the Beach (sung beautifully by Eliza Bragg) and a movement from Glassworks, aptly titled “Closing.” At this point, the inclusion of these works felt somewhat frivolous, pushing the concert beyond a necessary limit that felt like too much of a deviation from the tightly organized concept to showcase works newly commissioned by the ensemble embedded within established works written by its trio of founders. Nonetheless, the ensemble played masterfully and evinced the stability of the platform that has held them aloft for the past thirty years, indeed, that shall do so for the next.