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Little Match Point

Since the ability to use sound clips is one of the signal advantages of online media (and yes, there will be CD reviews on this blog), I thought I’d supplement my review of Bang on a Can’s marathon at the Clarice Smith Center this past weekend with a few illustrations of what this group’s music sounds like.

We’re talking about three composers who deliberately embrace an eclectic mix of styles, who have tried to open up concert music to a range of different influences, and whose music is not to everyone’s taste. Some people find it shallow or lightweight or, well, bangy. But they represent an important current in contemporary music – something visceral, accessible, vibrant. One commenter on this blog yesterday expressed a hope that I would "not get too uppity and exclusive" in my writing; I believe he was referring to the same high-church thinking that Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolfe were reacting against when they founded Bang on a Can in the first place.

This idea certainly came across to me as I listened to some of the more involved concert pieces at the 4:15 session of Sunday’s marathon, in between two sessions by the Bang on a Can All-Stars, the group's performing arm. In certain moods, I could have donned my “uppity and exclusive” mantle and given a reasonable-sounding exegesis on George Aperghis’s “Le Corps à Corps,” a music-cum-theater piece for solo percussionist, well played by Lee Hinkle, with lots of squeaks and grunts and a certain amount of mangled French. But after the simplicity and even wholesomeness of “Music for Airports,” I just didn’t feel like playing.

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See for yourself. The three Bang on a Can composers certainly have distinct personal styles. Michael Gordon digs deep grooves of sound, gouging out musical thoughts, as in "Decasia", written as a soundtrack to a Bill Morrison film comprised of decaying clips of very old footage in which the images melt or burn away before the viewers' eyes. Julia Wolfe's music is muscular and sinuous; you can hear the athleticism in her string quartet Dig Deep. (These clips are from Cantaloupe Music, the group’s label, which has released more than 50 CDs to date.) And David Lang offers shining suspended thoughts, as in his Little Match Girl Passion, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize last year, and which you can still listen to in its entirety, courtesy of Carnegie Hall.

The contrasts are equally clear in their arrangements of the sections of Brian Eno’s “Music for Airports,” which, if you missed it on Sunday, you can hear on a recently released DVD with accompanying videos by the filmmaker Frank Scheffer. The blurred videos of airports – planes suspended, out of focus, as if seen through agar; distorted people flowing past like ghosts – adapt to each section’s distinct moods, and the disc offers a bonus of Scheffer’s film “In the Ocean,” a documentary about Bang on a Can themselves. But seeing “Music for Airports” on DVD forces a conventional narrative format on a piece that is really meant to be inhabited; and the whole point of arranging it for acoustic instruments seems to me to be so that you can hear it live. Thus it remains a fine but limited document.

By Anne Midgette  |  March 31, 2009; 11:50 AM ET
Categories:  Washington , local reviews  
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The story carried in Monday's Post was interesting and the inclusion of sound clips on this web site it a great idea. I tried them all until a voice from the other room said "How long does this last?" Very modern music is difficult. I suppose you could subscribe to the idea that if it was difficult to write, it should be difficult to listen to. I found Michael Gordon's Decasia the most accessible. Could it be that that was because it was film music? It reminded me a bit of Philip Glass. It could be that it plays much better in a concert setting (rather than my home office) where there is a little peer pressure to pay attention and concentrate. Maybe seeing the players also helps by bringing you into the performance.

Alas, I am an amateur listener. Not an amateur musician who listens to concert music but a real amateur when it comes to listening. I am also lazy. I want to have some sort of emotional response to the music and if I have to think too hard as if I were solving a mathematical problem, I lose the emotional content of the music. This is a quandary. If all I could hear were the emotion laden music of dead Europeans, then classical music would die. Some balance needs to be struck between the intellectually challenging and the emotionally rewarding (and these two are not mutually exclusive.) In so much modern music, be it "classical" or rock. this balance is elusive.

But I did listen to the clips. I really appreciate you including them. I would never have heard this music if you hadn't.

Posted by: AugustPaul | April 2, 2009 4:35 PM | Report abuse

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