by Maggie Molloy
You’ve probably heard countless buskers playing bucket drums and other found objects on city streets—but you’ve never heard anyone bang on a can like this before.
The Bang on a Can All-Stars are a six-member amplified ensemble known for exploring the furthest reaches of the classical music world, with an affinity for imagination, experimentation, multimedia music performances, and all things avant-garde.
The one of a kind ensemble is comprised of cellist Ashley Bathgate, bassist Robert Black, pianist Vicky Chow, percussionist David Cossin, guitarist Mark Stewart, and clarinetist Ken Thomson, and their wide-ranging repertoire spans from the minimalist musings of Philip Glass and Steve Reich to the computer music compositions of Paul Lansky and Tristan Perich.
But the All-Stars’ latest project combines an even more colorful palette of creative influences. Toeing the line between music and sound art, “Field Recordings” is a new multimedia project which combines music, film, found sound, and obscure audio-visual archives to create a dialogue between past and present art traditions.
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“It’s a kind of ghost story,” composer David Lang said of the album. “We asked composers from different parts of the music world 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.”
Lang is one of the co-founders of Bang on a Can, along with Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon. The three appear as featured composers on the new 12-track album, along with Florent Ghys, Christian Marclay, Tyondai Braxton, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Todd Reynolds, Steve Reich, Bryce Dessner, Mira Calix, and Anna Clyne.
The album begins with a performance of Julia Wolfe’s “Reeling,” a lively piece based around a sound clip of a French Canadian vocalist. He sings in a twirling, sing-song style with no lyrics, his melody taking on the role of a fiddle or banjo soloing in a folk reel. Little by little Wolfe adds more instruments to the mix, creating an increasingly chaotic and computerized sound, like a record being rewound and replayed over and over, speaking to the album’s overarching theme of manipulating recorded sound.
The next piece on the album is nothing short of an absolute treasure. Florent Ghys’s “An Open Cage” uses as its basis excerpts from John Cage’s “Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse),” a poetic five-hour diary recorded by Cage himself a year before his death. In Ghys’s piece, a solo pizzicato bass line dances within the rhythms of Cage’s calm and serene narration, painting his deadpan delivery with a funky groove and a distinctly contemporary color. The lively bass line creates an undeniably catchy duet with Cage’s witty and obscure observations, and the piece grows in musical force, gradually adding more instruments until finally a small chorus of voices appears, echoing Cage’s words.
Christian Marclay’s “Fade to Slide” is equally experimental. The multimedia piece is a dramatic exploration into the rich sounds and distinctive timbres of the world around us, featuring everything from water splashing to record playing, bike riding to gong ringing, glass breaking to soup eating, perfume spraying to bagpiping. Yes, even bagpiping.
Marclay specializes in creating sonic collages from found footage, as evidenced by the imaginative—and at times humorous—combinations of recorded sounds in both the audio and video versions of the piece. (The video version is included in “Field Recordings” on a DVD along with five other multimedia pieces.)
The All-Stars also pay tribute to one of the biggest names in contemporary classical: Steve Reich. The album features the ensemble’s own arrangement of “The Cave of Machpelah,” an excerpt from Reich’s multimedia opera, “The Cave.” The slow-moving and ambient piece features an interesting mixture of musical timbres, with wispy, high-pitched cello strings skidding above a deep, droning bass, muffled recorded sound, and a bowed xylophone.
The album ends with a performance of Anna Clyne’s “A Wonderful Day,” the first in a series of short electroacoustic works combining recordings of Chicago street musicians with live instrumental ensembles. This particular piece features the raw, slow voice of an elderly man singing a sweet and poignant tune, surrounded by the muted sounds of the city and the All-Stars’ gentle accompaniment.
Each piece on the album uses recorded sound in a different and distinct way, but they all have one thing in common: they combine music of the past with music of the present, thereby crafting a new vision for music of the future. And in doing so, “Field Recordings” opens up a colorful new can of worms in contemporary classical music.