I’ll let you in on a shameful secret: I don’t care for/actively dislike most Contemporary Music. For this reason I’m kind of stunned by how much I liked Saturday’s Bang on a Can Marathon, which, I’m embarrassed to say, was the first I’ve attended. (This was actually more like a mini-marathon; only six hours or so. I think the NYC ones are longer, and the ones I used to produce at Yale went until dawn.) Here is the whiteboard backstage. You can see that David Lang made everything a little late, but they managed to get back on schedule. Right on.
Every time I hear Meredith Monk’s music I am totally entranced. She has a tiny two-piano piece called Ellis Island that I like to listen to on repeat. On the Marathon we heard Three Heavens and Hells, a 25-minute setting of a 7 years old child’s poetry with animal noises. This sounds like the thing I might hate most in the world, but it was actually fantastic. (My parents, conversely, were either bored or scared and left right after this piece.) Even the poem was pretty good, better than I could do at least, and it didn’t rely on being cute.
Right after that was Zorn’s Cat o’ Nine Tails (subtitle, thanks to David Lang: “Tex Avery directs the Marquis de Sade”). Actually now that I think about it, this piece is kind of cute. It relies pretty heavily on sudden jump cuts from [noise+dissonance] to [outdated music genre+consonance], but, if performed well (and it was!) these juxtapositions are jarring and hilarious. Andi Hemenway was wearing some serious peeky-toe leather booths, befitting her role as violist/S&M dungeon master.
I love Julie Wolfe’s piece Dark Full Ride, because it is loud and badass and I feel badass after I listen to it. Dave Cossin remarked that it sounds like a 70’s cop show without the bass or saxophone. Someone else remarked that it had the most “testosterone” of any music on the male-dominated program. That seemed like a weird comment to me. Are female composers supposed to write quiet, pretty music? And then go knit little hats or something?
Then Shaker Loops. I don’t really need to describe this piece. I love it more each time I hear it, and it is especially great in a really tight live performance. Which this was. It was also heavily amplified, but Tommasini wasn’t there, so no one complained. (By the way, did you know that parts of Shaker Loops were used in the game Civilization IV? Because I didn’t.)
Everyone said Todd Reynolds’s performance of Michael Gordon’s Light is Calling was a highlight, but I missed it because I was backstage getting primed for the grande finale, George Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique. Not the original version for 24 player-pianos and 96 hot water heaters (or whatever) but a slightly less ridiculous version for four pianos and a huge battery of percussion. It’s still a piece of extremes; of volume, tempo, musical banality and catchiness (these inane fragments will be running through my head for weeks). I’m not sure I like the piece; it’s like saying you like a USB drive, it either works or it doesn’t. But I sure enjoyed playing it, and my three fellow pianists (Vicki Ray, Richard Valitutto, and Andrew Drannon) were a pleasure to play with.
A Couple Things I Didn’t Understand About the Marathon
There were several pieces by younger composers that were Way Way Too Long. Aren’t we supposed to be the ones with short attention spans and texting and guitar hero and stuff? News flash, unnamed composer, you are not Morton Feldman! Lisa Bielawa’s The Boat, a funny setting of Gertrude Stein, was notably Just the Right Length™. Maybe you should be more like her.
There were a few musicians in residence who came over from Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan and played traditional instruments and musiks. This was a cool idea and I’m all for globalization and cross-cultural exchange, but it gave me a funny feeling. Especially when the two handsome fellows from Kyrgyzstan came out in their traditional ethnic garb, complete with upright white bowler-like hats. No one else on the marathon had to dress up at all, in fact many just wore jeans and the BoaC T-shirt. The whole thing reeked of exoticism. Musically, I didn’t understand the connection to the rest of the marathon, if there was one at all; it’s nice to hear new things, but you can’t just take Kyrgyzstani folk music played on chopo chuors and sybyzgys and temir ooz komyzs, amplify it a bunch, and expect it to fit in with a bunch of overthought, overwrought contemporary American concert music. Because it doesn’t.
I don’t like being negative (actually who am I kidding— I love it) so here is a picture of some graffiti I found on an abandoned building on the Mass MoCA campus: