Looking to Pin Down the Sounds of Today, Bang on a Can Jam-Packs Long Play 2023 with Joyful Experimentation

At Bang on a Can’s Long Play Festival, nothing is more exciting than pulling open the door to a new venue after traipsing down the street, letting the sounds hit your ears and transport you into yet another sonic world. The three-day event, which ran from May 5 to 7 at venues across downtown Brooklyn, featured a characteristically wide range of artists: In one day, you could hop from Lori Goldston’s folk improvisations to Yarn/Wire’s performance of Annea Lockwood to Dawn Richard and Spencer Zahn’s ambient-jazz experience.

This was the second year of Long Play, which was conceived in 2020 as an expanded version of Bang on a Can’s annual 12-hour marathon. Since its first run in 1987, the marathon carved a niche as a space for the kind of eclecticism you can now experience at Long Play, which takes the marathon’s concept to the max. But with an oversaturated program that packs more than 50 concerts and talks into only three days, it’s inevitable that you will miss something great, and the added option to curate your day based entirely on personal preferences takes away some of the surprise that made the marathon so beloved. Yet despite the new format, the weekend radiated an invigorating energy that lasted until long after the music ended, continuing Bang on a Can’s legacy as a space for finding experimentation and joy in new music.

The festival started slowly, though. My first stop was Alarm Will Sound’s performance of Tyshawn Sorey’s For George Lewis, which required great concentration when each instrumentalist carefully played quiet, wispy drones. Unfortunately, the street noise overpowered the music — the sounds of one of the first sunny and busy Saturdays of the year in competition with Sorey’s fragile soundscapes.

Alarm Will Sound at Bang on a Can's 2023 Long Play Festival -- Photo by Peter Serling

Alarm Will Sound at Bang on a Can’s 2023 Long Play Festival — Photo by Peter Serling

At the BRIC Ballroom, around the same time, Sō Percussion’s vibrant set included Nathalie Joachim’s Note to Self, featuring spliced vocals interwoven with percussion, and a new work by Jason Treuting and Vân-Ánh Võ. Midway through the performance, Treuting asked the audience to take a deep breath and let out the “biggest whoop you can muster,” so we collectively breathed in and let out a massive cheer. The pieces exhibited the intricate, twinkling rhythmic patterns that define the group, with Vân-Ánh Võ’s 16-string đàn tranh (zither) adding a new layer that made the piece ethereal.

These musical events were interspersed with a few free talks, including an enthralling conversation between George Lewis, composers Hannah Kendall and Jessie Cox, and percussionist and writer Donna Lee Davidson. The four panelists raised questions about how we write Afrodiasporic composers into the future while reflecting on the failure of institutions to support and present their music. The stories they told — of being unable to secure funding, or learning about Afrodiasporic composers who had been written out of the canon — served as powerful reminders that there is much work yet to be done to make meaningful change. As Lewis said: “I’m imagining a wide-ranging assault on structures of power.”

Donna Lee Davidson, George Lewis, Hannah Kendall, and Jessie Cox in conversation at Bang on a Can's 2023 Long Play Festival -- Photo by Peter Serling

Donna Lee Davidson, George Lewis, Hannah Kendall, and Jessie Cox in conversation at Bang on a Can’s 2023 Long Play Festival — Photo by Peter Serling

Saturday’s standouts came from the jazz and improvised music programming. Bassist Brandon Lopez and poet Fred Moten played to a full room at Mark Morris Dance Center, where the two bounced off each other’s energy, weaving an intricate lattice of plucks, delicate rhythms, and searing words. Over at Littlefield, Harriet Tubman — a trio formed in 1998 by guitarist and vocalist Brandon Ross, bassist Melvin Gibbs, and drummer JT Lewis — played fiery patterns born out of rock, free and spiritual jazz, and blues. Their music reached its pinnacle with the song “Where We Stand,” inspired by the music of Turiyasangitananda (Alice Coltrane), which branched out from slowed-down meditations into electrifying, cascading riffs. Later on, Thumbscrew — the trio of bassist Michael Formanek, guitarist Mary Halvorson, and drummer Tomas Fujiwara — played nonstop, blistering melodies in near-perfect rhythmic interplay; a packed audience swayed along to the music, soaking in every beat.

When night fell, the tough decisions began to creep up on me. I wanted to stay in Lopez and Moten’s braided patterns, but I also wanted to catch the jubilant psychedelia of the 75 Dollar Bill Little Big Band; I wanted to see the spectacle of the star-studded new music ensemble EXO TECH, but I also wanted to see the one metal performance of the weekend, featuring Scarcity and Liturgy. I tried to catch snippets of it all, choosing to run from venue to venue, which made for an exhausting day. When it came time for Tyondai Braxton and Ben Vida to fill Roulette with an accordion and synth-based drone, I was ready to relax and let the sound wash over me. Many others were also taking a break, eyes closed, letting the gently wavering music consume them.

Nailah Hunter at Bang on a Can's 2023 Long Play Festival -- Photo by Peter Serling

Nailah Hunter at Bang on a Can’s 2023 Long Play Festival — Photo by Peter Serling

While Saturday offered the most back-to-back programming, Sunday brought highly memorable moments, particularly in some of the more intimate sets. In the early afternoon, cellist Lori Goldston filled Littlefield with a wandering and contemplative improvisation; she colored her melodies with a folksy flair and rolled her bow across the strings like she was playing a blown-out version of a Bach sonata. At Mark Morris, harpist Nailah Hunter created a meditative oasis out of interwoven melodies for harp and vocals, letting them swirl around each other with grace. Though Hunter’s and Goldston’s sets were under-attended, everyone in the room was fully immersed in the sonic refuges that they created.

Continuing in this vein of quietude, percussionist Susie Ibarra and pianist Alex Peh played a series of solos and duos in the BRIC lobby that exploded small sounds into large webs. Peh’s prepared piano sounded like a woodblock, while Ibarra explored the softer side of her kit. Yarn/Wire, too, brought detailed, whispering music to the BRIC lobby in their performance of Annea Lockwood’s Into the Vanishing Point, which weaves a tapestry of rustling sounds into large-scale drones to reflect on the collapse of insect populations. The music was a constant ebb and flow between distant jingles and full, piercing textures. Some of the sounds were akin to those of nature, like gushes of wind or croaking frogs. But it was hard to stay focused when the sounds of the lobby overpowered some of the most minute sounds. This was the biggest downside of the weekend — Bang on a Can brought music to a variety of spaces, but some were better suited for close listening than others.

Shabaka Hutchings and Moor Mother at Bang on a Can's 2023 Long Play Festival -- Photo by Peter Serling

Shabaka Hutchings and Moor Mother at Bang on a Can’s 2023 Long Play Festival — Photo by Peter Serling

After the day in downtown Brooklyn wrapped up, it was time for one last stop: The Art Ensemble of Chicago, which played a whirlwind, exhilarating finale at Pioneer Works. The venue was filled to the brim; from the first seconds, the ensemble had the room captivated. The group emerged from backstage, jangling small percussion instruments and milling about in the middle of the audience with cheer. When they took the stage, eddy kwon played a raucous violin solo as Moor Mother’s poetry cut above the noise. But a saxophone solo by Shabaka Hutchings (filling in for Roscoe Mitchell) stole the show; his playing flew above the group’s undulating sound with tumultuous fervor, pummeling through ecstatic riffs and overblown notes. We erupted in cheers as he blared his last pitch with volcanic strength. It was a feeling of pure abandon, of letting go and letting be. At the end, Moor Mother summed it up the best — “this is what freedom looks like, feels like, sounds like.”

In the map that Bang on a Can provided for the weekend, they noted that it’s impossible to pin down all the music of today, but that they’d give it a shot. Yet I left Long Play thinking more about the future than the present. I spoke to many audience members who said they’d found something new that they loved and would take with them; I myself encountered new stories and music that I know will stay with me. In the end, Bang on a Can’s marathon weekend wasn’t so much about the now, but about the music that burrowed into your mind and unlocked some part of yourself you wouldn’t have known otherwise. And so, we ended the weekend on our feet, dancing and clapping, looking out ahead of us to whatever might come next.


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