Bang on a Can
The Bang on a Can composers are three friends who studied composition at Yale together in the 1980s. Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe are married to each other, and David Lang is the third member of the group. All three have a post-minimal aesthetic that takes the ideas of Glass and Reich and injects them with a new shot of complexity, often reaching for the loud, aggressive textures of rock music.
Faced with the prospect of leaving school and becoming working composers, these guys realized that they were going to have to build their own scene. They created an annual festival (called Bang on a Can) which featured their own music combined with that of their friends and heroes, an ensemble (called the Bang on a Can All-Stars) that could specialize in their particular flavor of new music, and eventually their own record label (called Cantaloupe). This “do it yourself” approach is also based on the early careers of Glass and Reich (who also created their own groups and even briefly participated in the same ensemble), but here it was taken to a new level. (Here’s a nice New York Times article that reflects on what the group has achieved, on the occasion of their 25th anniversary.)
If you are in New York, you could go see the free marathon concert at the World Financial Center on June 17. I’m not crazy about the WFC as a space to do serious listening, but if you’ve never been it would probably be a fun way to take in some new music and get a taste of “the scene.”
Of the three composers, Michael Gordon seems the most like a guy who would rather be a rock star but somehow wound up composing classical music. His sound is usually quite heavy, and it’s sometimes characterized by twisty rhythmic devices that sound like something out of Rush.
His first real breakthrough, in my opinion, was Trance, a 50-minute piece for chamber orchestra that mimics the textures of electronic music. Before this his stuff was more chromatic and thorny, but here he figured out that he could use a very simple tonal language to let his rhythmic counterpoint shine through.
That’s a live clip performed by the young musical group SIGNAL. I would recommend the original recording by an English band called Icebreaker.
Gordon does have a friendlier and more contemplative side as well. Here’s a nice slow piece called Light is Calling, for solo violin and electronics. It is paired with a cool film by Bill Morrison which is made entirely out of decaying archival movies.
Light is Calling appears on an album of the same name, which has Gordon experimenting with various studio-based rock concoctions. Sadly, the rest of it isn’t quite as good as the title track, and you aren’t allowed to buy the piece by itself.
Other works which I would highly recommend include Weather and his Van Gogh opera.
Julia is ultimately my favorite of the three composers, because she’s the most complex. She can write very tender, thoughtful stuff (which perhaps might resonate with one’s stereotype of a female composer), but just as often her music is the most extreme and aggressive of the bunch. It’s not ugly, though – I think she is going for (and often achieves) a kind of ecstatic effect by letting the sound just pile up and overflow waaaaaay past the point you might have been expecting.
Here’s a recent piece called Cruel Sister that shows off both sides of her personality. Like many of her works it starts off slowly and carefully, kind of feeling its way along with a few simple gestures (i.e. the pulsing fifths in the low strings, and these clusters and smears that keep poking in), but each section slowly builds tension until it is a massive, pulsing chromatic cluster. Here are the first two parts:
…and I might as well embed the last two as well. We go through a somewhat severe slow movement to get to a nice payoff at the end (about 8:00), a constellation of pizzicato pulses that swirl and intersect chaotically.
I’m going to include one more piece of hers from back in 1994, to demonstrate how over-the-top aggressive Wolfe used to be. You are going to think I am nuts, but I really like this piece. It sounds like a marching band on a murderous rampage! The first time I heard it was in a live performance at one of the marathon festivals and I was very confused by it. But, it grows on you with familiarity. When the storm clears around 4:10 and the violin solo begins it becomes pretty magical.
This one is on an out-of-print disc on Phillip Glass’s old label – Amazon CD
Overall I’d say that while Julia Wolfe is less eager to please than the average post-minimalist, her work definitely rewards repeated listening.
David Lang is probably the most successful of the three in terms of getting his stuff played and hitting the sweet spot of substance and accessibility. At the height of the BoaC years he penned Cheating, Lying, Stealing, which I think is the essential post-minimal piece. It’s appealing, easy to understand, and yet purposefully twisty and unpredictable.
(What’s neat about this piece is that if you write the opening rhythms down you can see what he’s doing. Each iteration takes an eighth note in the previous phrase and changes it into a quarter note. When the rhythm is finally all “ironed out” as straight quarters he’s done, and he moves on to a new idea.)
As time went on Lang started to hit more of an ambient vibe, writing works that sound intensely pleasant and dream-like. His piano solo Wed is a good example. Here is the winner of a youtube-based competition playing it:
The suite called Child is another work with subdued, dream-like writing. Here’s the second movement.
Since one of the people I’m writing this for is a percussionist, I should mention that he’s written a few big pieces just for people who hit stuff. This three-movement work called The So-Called Laws of Nature was written for the the group So Percussion, and it is pretty awesome. In the video of the first movement you can see that they are sometimes passing rhythmic ideas down the line in a canon.
I feel like I would be remiss to write about Bang on a Can without mentioning Louis Andriessen, a Dutch composer who started doing the same sort of slightly-thorny post-minimal writing in the 70s and was thus a major hero to these younger composers from Yale. Andriessen’s point of reference is often commercial jazz and R&B rather than rock, but he will reach for the same aggressive brutality that the Bang on a Can composers do.
We have a small problem here, that the absolute best Andriessen pieces don’t seem to be on youtube. So you know what? I’m going to switch strategies and link to the music streaming service Spotify. You will need to sign up for Spotify (and install an app) to hear them, but it will be worth it.
Perhaps the best intro to Andriessen is De Stijl, an oratorio about the painter Mondrian that is part of a larger, four-part work called De Materie. Here you can definitely hear his jazz influence, with the saxophones and jaunty rhythms and whatnot, and it’s just a really fun piece.
You can get De Stijl as a standalone piece, paired with something called M is for Man, Music, and Mozart — this is what I would do if I was just getting started with Andriessen.
Another piece which you simply can’t live without is De Tijd, a long, slow work which is simply about the passage of time, how it ticks away. It features a long vocal melody that sounds frozen in place, and lots of little pulses and patterns that measure the seconds as they pass. It’s drop-dead gorgeous.
Finally, I’ll embed a youtube video of Hout (Wood), which involves a marimba, electric guitar, sax and piano playing a super-tight canon – one player literally follows the next a mere sixteenth-note later. It’s a blast.