ALBUM REVIEW: More Field Recordings by the Bang on a Can All-Stars

by Maggie Molloy

Photo by Lisa Bauso.

Some composers can make music out of just about anything—and that’s precisely the idea behind the Bang on a Can All-Stars’ newest release.

A follow-up to their 2015 album Field Recordings, the recently released More Field Recordings features the same basic premise as the original: a star-studded cast of composers are each asked to find a recording of something that already exists—a voice, a sound, a faded scrap of melody—and then write a new piece around it. This year’s release is a two-disc album featuring new works by 13 of today’s top composers: Caroline Shaw, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Ben Frost, Nico Muhly, Richard Reed Parry, Glenn Kotche, Dan Deacon, Jace Clayton, Gabriella Smith, Paula Matthusen, Zhang Shouwang, Juan Felipe Waller, and René Lussier.

The album begins with a sonic quilt composed by Caroline Shaw. “Really Craft When You” is a chamber piece that stitches together vibrantly textured patches of chamber music with recorded interviews of quilters from North Carolina and Virginia in the 1970s. Its equal parts humorous and heartfelt, and it also serves as a beautiful metaphor for the rest of the album: a colorful patchwork of found sounds and sonic squares from over a dozen different composers.

It’s followed by the dawn chorus of Southern Chile, with Gabriella Smith’s “Panitao” weaving together field recordings of birdsongs from a small Chilean town with her own imaginary birdsongs chirped by the All-Stars. A very different type of song is at the heart of Jace Clayton’s piece “Lethe’s Children,” which explores the music of memory. He asked each of the All-Stars what the first song was that they memorized as young children—then he reimagined fragments from each in an expansive stream of sound named after the mythical river of forgetfulness.

Paula Matthusen’s “ontology of an echo” finds its music in the resonant frequencies of an Old Croton Aqueduct, while Glenn Kotche’s “Time Spirals” swirls together live music with field recordings ranging from parades and festivals to protests and dying electronic toys—all of which he collected while touring and traveling the world.

Zhang Shouwang’s “Courtyards in Central Beijing” entwines the All-Stars in a gentle musical blossom; the piece was composed in a courtyard house south of Gulou where Shouwang says “the feng shui is so strong that a flower seed can bloom in just three days.” And the first disc closes with and a transatlantic lullaby: Nico Muhly’s “Comfortable Cruising Altitude” weaves together audio from overnight airplane rides with the soothing accompaniment of the All-Stars to craft a softly shimmering serenade.

Disc two begins with quite a different type of flight: Ben Frost’s ominous and immersive “Negative Ghostrider II” is an electroacoustic translation of field recordings from an unmanned semi-autonomous drone aircraft. It’s followed by the quiet heartbeat of Richard Reed Parry’s “The Brief and Neverending Blur,” a nostalgic and nuanced chamber work based on a recording of a piano improvisation played at the speed of the composer’s own breath.

Photo by Peter Serling.

Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s “Fields” is similarly introspective, though more atmospheric in nature. Inspired by a twilight stroll among the lava fields of her native Iceland, the piece builds from the quiet music of her footsteps to gradually encompass the exquisite timbre and texture of the natural world around her.

Dan Deacon explores a more intergalactic soundscape in his dark-ambient drone “Sago An Ya Rev,” a transcription of a NASA Voyager recording that evolves slowly through dissonant harmonies and rumbling metallic noise. Juan Felipe Waller’s “Hybrid Ambiguities” is a bit sprightlier in nature, with the All-Stars bouncing along to the echoing flurries of a microtonal harp.

The final square of the patchwork quilt comes from René Lussier, his “Nocturnal” mirroring the humor and sincerity of the album’s opening track—but here embodied through the clever and vividly colored music he writes to accompany his sleeping sweetheart’s snores.

But whether playing along to quilting interviews or Chilean birdsongs, lava fields or snoring sleepers, the All-Stars bring personality, precision, and a pioneering creativity to every musical interpretation on the album. In the end, that’s what the series is really all about: hearing music amid the found sounds and field recordings and clamors of everyday life.

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