Bang on a Can
The 2020 People's Commissioning Fund Concert, 28 January, Merkin Hall
“Stay on it stay on it stay on it stay on it stay on it.” That mantra came at the end of this concert, with the Bang on a Can All-Stars reaching heights of joy—appropriate as this was an Ecstatic Music event. It was also co-presented with New Sounds Live and hosted by John Schaefer from WNYC. He received a rambunctious, hooting welcome, his job at WNYC saved in no small part due to the energies of Judd Greenstein, the composer who curates Ecstatic Music.
Schaefer has, for almost 40 years, been a one-man introduction to new music, and if Ecstatic Music boasts a post-genre viewpoint, Schaefer’s example is a starting point. The same is true for Bang on a Can—their annual Marathon appears to have shrunken away (though this year will see the launch of a promising three-day Long Play event, May 1-3, at various locations in Brooklyn), but their pioneering work of cementing post-minimal classical music, rock, improvisation, and world music into its own, new musical culture lives on.
Out of those values comes the People’s Commissioning Fund, essentially crowdsourced new music, with Bang on a Can taking donations and paying composers for new work based around a theme. For this concert, that was the general idea of dance music, and BoaC’s wide reach meant work from Qasim Naqvi, Amanda Berlind, Hildur Guðnadóttir, and the venerable Alvin Curran.
Having Naqvi and Berlind in the fold pointed to another valuable contribution from BoaC, which is helping musicians finding their way into composition. Unlike the over-privileged and dilettantish work of Bryce Dessner, Naqvi and Berlind brought music that positively vibrated with the energy of curiosity and discovery.
Naqvi's Featureless stretched the edge of dance music as it was a contemplation on how a black hole would shred the body down to basic particles—maybe dancing—while Berlind’s Bird Chart was accompanied by a DIY animated movie of birds bouncing around a landscape. Both had the virtue of being clear, to the point, and succinct, a demonstration of what each composer was thinking. Naqvi was more concentrated on repeated, staccato attacks, Berlind put together chords into a kind of woozy step. More thoughts than complete works, both had the virtue of personal engagement, and future promise.
There was a broad divide between the first two commissions and the two that followed, and also the music on the second half from Phil Kline and Julius Eastman. These were, for lack of a better term, the professional pieces. They were just as whimsical—Guðnadóttir was turning the running thoughts in her head into Illimani, while Curran was reliving his youth playing in dance bands—but they were extremely well made. One could hear the All-Stars (for this concert bassist Robert Black, Vicky Chow at the piano, David Cossin playing drum set and percussion, cellist Arlen Hlusko, guitarist Mark Stewart, and reed player Ken Thomson) stretching out and digging into the rhythms and ensemble passages.
Curran’s Missteps was something of a surprise. An essential avant-garde artist, his music often alternates between great beauty and great, sardonic chaos. But this piece was pure dance music, a touch of foxtrot here, a waltz there. It was also sweet and gorgeous.
Kline’s Exquisite Corpses has been in the All-Stars repertoire for decades, and talking with Schaefer on stage, Kline pointed out that it was his first composition in traditional notation. Like the preceding two works, this showed what a fine composer (not just musical thinker) he is. Using the cadavre exquis technique, he stitched the work together, one page per evening. This rocking performance showed off the great heights that the BoaC post-minimal ideal—pushing rock attitudes through compositional forms—can reach.
An even greater pinnacle was Eastman’s Stay On It. As Thomson explained, there’s no score to this piece, only some audio and video performances. He and Ed RosenBerg III went through every recording they could find and distilled some instructions from it. One was the uplifting, seven-note riff that organizes the instruments, the other the spoken phrase “Stay on it,” each word landing on a downbeat, a three-beat pattern that wove its way through the performance and added a jazz counterstep.
There’s more to this piece than what can be heard: the title comes from an accompanying poem by Eastman that reads, in part: “Com’on now baby, stay on it. / Change this thread on which we move / from invisible to hardly tangible / With you movin and groovin on it / making me feel fine as wine, / I don’t have to find the MEANING...But only if you stay on it. You Dig”
Not the kind of thing one associates with new music, which was Eastman’s point and that of the whole evening. There’s always been dance music, Haydn and Mozart made it before Chic did, there’s no reason the pop musicians should have all the fun. And this was explosive fun, a rousing anthem to life, living, getting down, and staying on it. You dig?