Bang On A Can All-Stars, Big Beautiful Dark and Scary

John Schaefer

By John Schaefer

on 03.06.12 in Reviews

This collection was put together to mark the 25th anniversary of Bang On A Can, the New York-based composers collective/presenting organization/festival/record label. It features the house band, the Bang On A Can All-Stars, whose mix of “classical” and “rock” instrumentation (a chamber ensemble with electric guitar and drums) is now commonplace but was still a leap of faith back in the early ’90s when they started. With works by each of the founding BoaC composers, plus pieces showing the organization’s widespread influence and its own sources of inspiration, this two-disc set is both a fine introduction as well as a must-have for longtime fans.

A fine introduction and a must-have for longtime fans

The compilation begins the way Bang On A Can itself did: with music by Julia Wolfe, David Lang and Michael Gordon. Wolfe’s “Big Beautiful Dark and Scary” is not only a good description of the sound of this insistent, post-9/11 work, it also reflects the ambiguous place of BoaC in the classical music world: barbarians at the gate 25 years ago, and now home to a Pulitzer Prize winner (Lang) and a finalist (Wolfe). Lang’s “sunray” reflects his continuing interest in ambient music, and Gordon’s “For Madeline” has his signature combination of sliding, slithering melodic cells over a relentless, almost trance-like rhythm. The group’s “fifth Beatle” is clarinetist and composer Evan Ziporyn, a founder of the All-Stars and the fourth BoaC composer in the organization’s much-acclaimed reworking of Brian Eno’s Music For Airports. Ziporyn has long studied Balinese gamelan music, and his three excerpts from the large-scale music-theater piece Shadowbang, drawing on the sounds of Balinese shadow-puppet music, are among the most arresting and colorful works here.

BoaC’s influence in the world of indie rock is evident in the three short works by David Longstreth, the singer and composer behind the art-rock band Dirty Projectors. “Instructional Video,” “Matt Damon” and “Breakfast at J&M” transfer the jittery, angular, unpredictable sounds of that band to the All-Stars. All three were commissioned by BoaC’s People’s Commissioning Fund, as was Kate Moore’s “Ridgeway,” a slow-burner that builds to a bruising climax. But this set also points to a major influence on the three founding composers: the Dutchman Louis Andriessen. Andriessen’s score to a series of short videos called Life stands quite well on its own, especially in the measured exoticism of “Couple” and the uncharacteristically restrained “Light.”