The inimitable art-music collective Bang On A Can turns 25 this year. The trio of composers — David Lang, Michael Gordon, and Julia Wolfe — have been racking up anniversaries lately: their in-house label, Cantaloupe Music, turned 10 years old in 2011. In all this time, they’ve changed a lot about how the world thinks about “classical music.” Not sure whether something you’re listening to counts as “classical music,” “ambient music,” “indie rock” or something else, but certain that it’s “cool music?” The odds are good that either Bang On A Can, or one of their students, made it.
Below, we’ve selected 10 of their best records — from Philip Glass, Brian Eno and Terry Riley to records made entirely from jaw harps or wood blocks, discover their strange, fascinating universe today…
Michael Gordon's bracing Timber is a symphony of rhythms and textures coaxed, quite literally, from blocks of wood. A co-founder of the art-music collective Bang on a Can, Gordon may never have taken the directive in his group's title quite so literally before. Seeking to clear his mind and cleanse his palette of the orchestral works he was writing, Gordon went on a tour to find the sparsest, simplest musical materials he could find. He settled on long slabs of a wood that, when hit, make an improbably resonant, full sound.
What he produced from this humble material is nothing short of astonishing; rippling, sinuous, and hypnotic, Timber is like shiatsu massage for the ears: a polyrhythmic bludgeoning of percussion that will recalibrate your body's internal rhythms if you surrender to it. It is impossible to classify this music: It sounds like Detroit techno made by cavemen. Or a men's-group drum-circle conducted in an abandoned lumber yard. It is endlessly stimulating and an inspiring case of what can happen when a venerated composer hits the "restart" button and follows a logical impulse to an illogical conclusion.
Julia Wolfe is one of three composers (along with Michael Gordon and Pulitzer Prize winner David Lang) who founded the ever-expanding contemporary music empire known as Bang On A Can. Her own music occupies a fertile territory that acknowledges both rock music and the twitchy, modernist pole of classical music (so both "downtown" and "uptown" schools), and she has displayed an affinity for scores with multiples of the same instrument. Her works for potentially dubious forces, like nine bagpipes or four drum sets, benefit from her keen ear for texture and gesture — these pieces can be both hypnotic and startling. The two on this recording are also restricted in instrumentation, though it's a restriction that has a long tradition behind it: These are works for string ensemble.
In recent years, Wolfe has begun to mine her early interest in American and British folk ballads. She was a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for her "Steel Hammer," a piece inspired by the song "John Henry." The first part of this release, "Cruel Sister," is a close relative of that work. Based on the old British song known as "The Two Sisters" (among many alternate titles), "Cruel Sister" closely follows the tragic tale of a love triangle that ends (surprise!) very badly indeed. Without quoting from the actual folk tune and without resorting to words, Wolfe's music has a strong narrative arc. The strings rush inexorably toward the conclusion of their tale of the murder of one sister by her scorned sibling. A gently rippling meditation follows, as the body of the victim floats on the water; and a dramatic conclusion follows as the dead girl's bones are recovered — and made into a harp to be played at the cruel sister's wedding. The Ensemble Resonanz plays the piece with bite and perhaps ghoulish glee. Don't even think of getting one track without getting all four.
Ditto for "Fuel," the companion piece. A churning perpetual motion machine for strings, this piece was written for a silent film by Bill Morrison which focuses on the familiar-yet-alien landscapes of oil refineries and the like.
This is the first non-soundtrack album by post-minimalist Lang since the recording that included his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Little Match Girl Passion was released by Cantaloupe last year, and thusly, expectations are high. Are those expectations deliberately subverted with an album of old compositions (nothing here is newer than 2003) and only short pieces for solo piano?
Furthermore, many of the pieces here seem to run counter to the expectations of even listeners unfamiliar with Lang: There are deliberately clumsy-sounding rhythms, and intentional "wrong" notes abound. One might doubt pianist Andrew Zolinsky's technical prowess if not for his flawless traversal of "Wiggle"; after hearing that dazzling display of digital dexterity, one must take seriously all the seemingly sloppy bits in the other tracks. It and the beautiful "Cello" are the closest to convention that Lang comes here. Without access to extramusical clues to why the music is constructed the way it is, This Was Written By Hand challenges us to relax longstanding ideas of what makes music good.
Held in the palm of one's hand, with a metal or wood "tongue" that protrudes into the mouth and is plucked by the opposite forefinger, the traditional jaw-harp of Kyrgyzstan is not anyone's idea of a conduit for blog-hype music. Which is why, taken together, the 15 jaw-harp-led songs here make for one of the best palate-cleansing albums of 2011.
It wasn't long after their show-stopping, out-of-nowhere turn at the 2009 Bang On A Can marathon in lower Manhattan that Kambar Kalendarov and Kutman Sultanbekov found their way to the studio, at the behest of Cantaloupe records. Once there, the duo cut driving, motorik-like jams ("Echoes of Time") with the aid of simple percussive and woodwind support, as well as gentle solo sighs ("Reverie"). Though in either case, it's the titular instrument's overtones — at once lazer-like and breathy — that seduce the ear, giving shape to the album. ("In the Jurt," for only one player, reveals how much like singing controlled jaw-harp technique can sound.)
Will you listen to all 40 minutes in a row, each and every time? Perhaps not. Had the riffing, strummy tunes been more reliably alternated with airier koans, the overall experience might feel better sequenced. But in isolation, it's hard to find fault with a single performance here, whether in the droning harmonies of "Echo" or during the catch-me-if-you-can blowing session that is "Forward." Taken at the level of minute-to-minute experience, JAW winds up becoming buzz-band music of an altogether different frequency.
Steve Reich's milestone 1971 work "Drumming," written for nine percussionists, two vocalists and piccolo, accomplished two things: while elegantly distilling Reich's ideas about music -- merging Western, European-focused classical music with exuberant, sophisticated "world music" traditions (in this case, drumming styles of Ghana), it also fathered a whole new repertory of works for percussion ensemble. On this recording, the four ebullient and masterfully precise musicians of the Brooklyn-based So Percussion ensemble are unmatched for precision and enthusiasm, overdubbing themselves as needed.
Toby Twining is a hauntingly pure-voiced singer from Texas who layers his birds-egg fragile, Antony-high voice into mini-choirs and makes records that sound like modern madrigals. There is a chanting-beneath-the-waves feel to his latest record, Eurydice, that will easily hook the ear of those interested in Julianna Barwick or Tune-Yards. Twining artfully twists and manipulates his vocals so that they sound like a lot of things - pipe organs, French horns, wah-wah-ing guitars. It's often hard to discern his voice from the few spare instruments that creep into the mix. The result is disarmingly beautiful and subtly, pleasantly mind-bending.
Tristan Perich's 1-Bit Symphony began as a nerdy tinkerer's idea about physical music packaging as a piece of music. The original product, now out of print, was a jury-rigged CD case, with a headphone-jack built into its side that led to a 1-bit microchip. You plugged your headphones in, and the music played. Which makes it a high-level po-mo irony, then, that we're offering it as a digital download, but 1) we can't help but think it's the sort of meta-level irony its creator would savor, and 2) the sparkling music on 1-Bit Symphony transcends its medium. You don't need the Inspector Gadget-style artifact to be fully absorbed in the tiny, spinning-mobile microverse Perich creates from humble materials that redefine "minimal."
The inimitable art-music collective Bang On A Can turns 25 this year. The trio of composers — David Lang, Michael Gordon, and Julia Wolfe — have been racking up anniversaries lately: their in-house label, Cantaloupe Music, turned 10 years old in 2011. In all this time, they've changed a lot about how the world thinks about "classical music." Not sure whether something you're listening to counts as "classical music," "ambient music," "indie rock" or something else, but certain that it's "cool music?" The odds are good that either Bang On A Can, or one of their students, made it.
Below, we've selected 10 of their best records — from Philip Glass, Brian Eno and Terry Riley to records made entirely from jaw harps or wood blocks, discover their strange, fascinating universe today...