Strange Intimacy in the Uncanny Valley: Bang on a Can Marathon June 2020

Since its 1987 inauguration at Exit Art in SoHo, the annual Bang on a Can Marathon has been a New York staple. Due to the ongoing impact of COVID-19, the second in this year’s series of online Marathons was held on June 14, 2020. Performances from twenty-five artists based across the United States and internationally made up the six hours of innovative, boundary-bending live music. In between each set, Bang on a Can directors Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe interviewed composers and performers in a Zoom conference room. The program was free, with the option to donate $10, $20, or $50; patrons with deep pockets could additionally donate $1,500 to commission a future work.

Now nearly three months since the Governor’s office issued the PAUSE Order to shelter in place, New York is beginning phase two of reopening. At the same time, many orchestras and performing arts organizations have canceled their fall seasons, and in some cases, all events through spring 2021. In many ways, the performing arts have never felt more distant. In the midst of this, Bang on a Can is a beacon of light, as they continue to compensate performing artists and commission new works—ten of them for this event alone. Another Marathon is scheduled for August 16, 2020, and will similarly feature ten more premieres and an exciting roster of artists.

Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe, David Lang, and Aaron Garcia in conversation--Photo courtesy Bang on a Can

Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe, David Lang, and Aaron Garcia in conversation–Photo courtesy Bang on a Can

At this point, I would be surprised to find someone who hasn’t attended a livestreamed concert. Big name performers and curators like Jennifer Koh, who recently presented the ninth consecutive week of premieres in her “Alone Together” project, and Nadia Sirota, whose Living Music: Pirate Radio Edition airs its twenty-second episode since the lockdown on June 27, have shown that much can be done from afar. With this brave new world of online concerts comes a new culture of distribution and reception, one that is strangely intimate and also a bit unsettling.

Through much of the Marathon, the concept of the “uncanny valley” lingered in the back of my mind. First proposed in the 1970s by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori, the uncanny valley describes his observation that as robots come to resemble humans more closely, the more appealing they become—except for a significant dip where the resemblance is too much and becomes, well, uncanny. Despite planning and best intentions, technology issues abound in livestreamed concerts. Unbalanced sound levels, glitchy and out-of-synch video, and those awkward pauses and doubled talking due to latency in Zoom interviews—these elements build up an inhuman patina that amplifies our state of isolation.

At the same time, there is something oddly comforting about watching video streamed from inside the practice studios and living spaces of the performers. Here we become voyeurs not just of person but also of place, where the choice knick-knacks, children’s drawings, and bookshelves that decorate these spaces bring about a strange intimacy.

Roscoe Mitchell performs at the online Bang on a Can Marathon--Photo courtesy of the artist

Roscoe Mitchell performs at the online Bang on a Can Marathon–Photo courtesy of the artist

It’s easy to think of a livestreamed concert as simply a performance viewed on a screen from somewhere else, yet the medium is totally different from a live concert. Viewers are likely wearing headphones, are watching through a small screen, and may be multitasking or have other distractions in their environment. In the chat, one viewer remarked, “there is exactly one upside to the virtual BOAC marathon: I can carry it into the kitchen and listen while I cook dinner.” Livestreamed concerts are best viewed with a splash of humor and a quiet reminder that this isn’t the future (this cannot be the future; this must not be the future), but a Band-Aid at best: uncanny connection is better than no connection at all.

Some things work better in this format than others. Iva Bittová’s set featured hummed and sung folk melodies, sometimes accompanied by violin, enveloped in softly droning electronics. The intimacy of this work pulled me out of my dinner prep and demanded my quiet attention. By contrast, Aaron Garcia’s disconnect. (world premiere) for Bang on a Can All Star Ken Thomson on bass clarinet, was at odds with the medium—Thomson’s clarinet occasionally maxed out the audio input, and the backing track (loud, with metal-inspired drums) was simply too quiet in the mix to be effective. Performed live in a concert hall, I can imagine this raucous and exhilarating work to have a dramatic impact, but over the compressed stream it didn’t quite land.

That being said, there were countless moments of impactful music and words in the Marathon. Here are five of them that stuck with me long after I closed my laptop:

Alvin Curran’s work for electronics and shofar—a ram’s horn historically used for Jewish religious performances—was a welcome trip down the rabbit hole.

Alvin Curran--Photo courtesy of the artist

Alvin Curran–Photo courtesy of the artist

David Cossin’s performance on a makeshift drum kit (complete with a double bass strapped across the top) in the incessantly rocking Bass and Things (world premiere) by Kendall Williams was rapturous.

David Cossin--Photo courtesy of the artist

David Cossin–Photo courtesy of the artist

Pamela Z’s stunning performance and heartfelt interview with Bang on a Can directors; she spoke of her experience packing up and returning to the United States as her Rome Prize (2019) year at the American Academy was cut short by COVID-19.

Pamela Z--Photo courtesy of the artist

Pamela Z–Photo courtesy of the artist

Carla Kihlstedt’s new work based on erasure poetry, where selected words from Igor Stravinsky were curated to have new meanings; her warm vocals resembled a kind of blissed-out indie recitative.

Carla Kihlstedt--Photo courtesy Bang on a Can

Carla Kihlstedt–Photo courtesy Bang on a Can

Conrad Tao’s performance of Frederic Rzewski’s politically infused piano piece Which Side are You On under the iridescent sheen of rainbow LEDs; he began by playing a recording of the original union song written by Florence Reece and ended with a hair-raising and devilish improvisation (as indicated in the score).

Conrad Tao--Photo courtesy Bang on a Can

Conrad Tao–Photo courtesy Bang on a Can

The Marathon wrapped up with a set by the father of minimalism himself, Terry Riley, who joined in early celebration of his 85th birthday. Rather than fighting with the “uncanny valley” nature of the livestream, Riley pitched a tent and camped there. Donning a multicolored Nepalese outfit, blue-tinted aviator sunglasses, and the infamous “universe” Zoom background, Riley’s upbeat and modal set on vocals and synthesizer was a genre-bending sonic safari, and the perfect nightcap to another successful Bang on a Can Marathon. I wholly enjoyed this day of uncanny connection and strange intimacy, and look forward to attending the next Marathon on August 16, 2020.