Icebreaker, Trance

John Schaefer

By John Schaefer

on 07.11.11 in Reviews

Michael Gordon is one of the three founding composers of Bang on a Can, the New York-based new music consortium that has spawned an annual series of concerts, an ensemble and a record label (Cantaloupe Music). Along with David Lang and Julia Wolfe, Gordon has had a huge impact on the so-called post-classical scene. And in a career that began in the early ’80s this piece, originally released in 1996 on the Argo label, is a landmark work. Gordon recalls writing the piece after a dream, in which his composition teachers appeared to him and told him it was time to start working with “large forces.” After years of composing for his own Michael Gordon Philharmonic (an early electric chamber group) and the Bang on a Can All-Stars, Gordon took this charge seriously. “Trance” is conceived as a single, massive work — a kind of meditation on the effect of music, when played by large forces and at high volume, on the listener’s state of consciousness. “Trance” here refers not just to the ancient musical rituals of the world’s ecstatic traditions (Gnawa music of Morocco, qawwali music in Pakistan, the kecak chant of Bali), but to their contemporary Western counterparts in the field of ambient electronica.

An immersive experience, unfolding over time

So Gordon works with repetition and gradual development, with acceleration and crescendo — all the classic techniques of trance music traditions, old and new. The piece was written specifically for Icebreaker, the English new music ensemble, and takes advantage of that group’s brassy, hard-rockin’ sound. Saxes and electric guitar figure prominently, and this remixed version of the original brings the amplified and sampled sounds to the fore (or to the sides, as in the case of the eerie vocal samples that appear later in the piece). The overall shape, though, is unchanged: a steady and unsettling buildup of a wave of sound that crests in “Trance 4,” recedes in the becalmed but unquiet “Trance Drone,” and unleashes its full tidal force in “Trance 5.” The decision to break the latter piece into two tracks could be viewed as an annoyance, but since this piece is meant to be an immersive experience, unfolding over time, you’ll want the whole thing anyway.