Snapshots from the Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival

This July Second Inversion’s Maggie Molloy was thrilled to be among four writers covering the Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival as a participant in the first ever Media Workshop! Under the mentorship of John Schaefer (of WNYC’s New Sounds) and Will Robin (writer and musicologist), Maggie wrote five articles for the New Sounds website highlighting unforgettable musical moments from this year’s summer festival. Click the links below to read each installment.

Bang on a Can, Sing through a Vacuum Tube

The world is Mark Stewart’s orchestra, and every pipe, tube, tabletop, and balloon is an untapped vessel just waiting to make beautiful music. Take a step inside Stewart’s Orchestra of Original Instruments. Click here to read more.


Vicky Chow Mesmerizes MASS MoCA (And She’s Just Warming Up)

“Please do not touch or play this piano” reads the sign atop a shiny Yamaha grand standing in the center of the Wardwell Gallery at MASS MoCA. That sign, of course, doesn’t apply to Vicky Chow. Go behind the scenes of her gallery performance of the Philip Glass Piano Etudes. Click here to read more.


Folk Songs from the Bang on a Can Festival

Scottish composer Ailie Robertson loves a good folk tale—and the spookier, the better. Explore the influence of Scottish folk traditions in Robertson’s music through two pieces performed at the Bang on a Can Summer Festival. Click here to read more.


Playing Like a Girl

There are 40,320 different ways to make music like a girl. Or at least, that’s how many ways you can perform Eve Beglarian’s piece Play Like a Girl. The Bang on a Can Fellows performed just one rendition of the piece in an afternoon concert of Beglarian’s music. Click here to read more.


The Celestial Music of Samn Johnson

“There’s something very comforting about music’s ability to manipulate time,” says composer Samn Johnson. Explore the influence of space, time, and the cosmos in Johnson’s music through three of his pieces performed at this summer’s festival. Click here to read more.

STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from their weekly playlist. Tune in on Friday, June 15 to hear these pieces and plenty of other new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre!

Andy Akiho: Vick(i/y) (New Amsterdam)
Vicky Chow, piano

Andy Akiho is rapidly becoming one of the most interesting movers and shakers in the contemporary music world, and his piece for prepared piano Vick(i/y) is one of my favorites. The piece doesn’t limit itself to the usual prepared sounds of clanging and crashing and twanging, but uses normal piano sound as a sort of through-line to tell its story. Andy says that this alternation of prepared sounds and conventional sounds represents a “consistent, yet fading image of a forgotten dream.” Andy is a percussionist, and it’s the percussive sounds of Vick(i/y) that define the piece. There is also a really cool music video that transports the piano into natural locations, and features an Andy Akiho cameo. – Geoffrey Larson

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 11am hour today to hear this piece.


John Cage and Sun Ra: Empty Words and Keyboard (Modern Harmonic)
John Cage, voice; Sun Ra, synthesizer

A near-mythic musical encounter happened on Coney Island in the summer of 1986. Two of the 20th century’s most iconoclastic musical philosophers, John Cage and Sun Ra, came together for a concert. For one night only, two artists from opposite ends of the avant-garde shared the same stage.

That fateful day has been immortalized on a record that is best listened to from front to back, as the two artists tend to trade off soloing. Empty Words and Keyboard offers a rare exception: Cage’s sparse, wordless vocal improvisations are echoed by Sun Ra’s even sparser synth accompaniment, the two intertwining in a delicate meditation on sound, silence, and the music in between. – Maggie Molloy

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 12pm hour today to hear this piece.


Nico Muhly: Comfortable Cruising Altitude (Cantaloupe Music)
Bang on a Can All-Stars

As many people look toward a summer filled with long-distance travel, it’s nice to know that even the experience of riding inside the cabin of a commercial airliner has been used as fuel for new music.  Nico Muhly’s Comfortable Cruising Altitude opens with a field recording taken from inside an airliner cabin.  The piece explores the many layers that make up a typical airline trip, including complex contemplative feelings, the anxiety of waiting, and even a crying child.  This work encapsulates the commercial air travel experience with striking poignancy, especially given its relatively short duration.
– 
Seth Tompkins

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 4pm hour today to hear this piece.


Matt Marks: “I Don’t Have Any Fun” (New Amsterdam)
Matt Marks and Mellissa Hughes

Matt Marks called the album that this song is from (The Little Death: Vol. 1) his “post-Christian nihilist opera.” This almost spastically poppy track is poking fun at a mutually destructive relationship dynamic. In this case, a guy is placing a woman on a ridiculously high pedestal, telling her that he doesn’t have any fun on his own, that he needs her, and in his final appeal, that she is like a god to him. The more he entreats her, the meaner she gets, and the meaner she gets, the more desperate his attempts become.

Marks captures the nuances of this variety of romantic behavior so well, so hilariously, and so succinctly, you might even think he was That Guy at one point in his life—that maybe he was making fun of his own emotional tendencies. Or maybe he was illuminating how in a post-Christian nihilist world, God is sometimes replaced with other gods in the human race’s ongoing quest to annihilate the Self. Matt Marks died this past month, and people close to him describe him as being both really serious and really funny. This song is that exactly. – Dacia Clay

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 6pm hour today to hear this piece.

ALBUM REVIEW: A O R T A from Vicky Chow

by Seth Tompkins

Pianist Vicky Chow’s recent release A O R T A is above all else a triumph of curation. Chow’s performance, the editing, and the mixing are all laudable as well, but the real story of this album is the strength of the playlist and its presentation. A O R T A is a rare instance of an album in which the delivery of the audio itself contributes to the artistic goals of the project in a meaningful way.

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Even before the music begins, curatorial strength shapes the album. A O R T A is packaged with only minimal notes and there is no explanation of the project’s genesis nor discussion of the artists involved or their biographies. While this may initially appear to be a simple stylistic choice in favor of minimalist packaging, after listening it is apparent that this lack of detail is, in actual fact, a bold statement about how well the music on this release hangs together. The lack of notes seen on A O R T A would diminish other albums, but in this instance, the dearth of information makes this release stronger. It is a symbol of how well-designed the album is as a whole, letting the music and its curation stand on their own.

However, if you are curious, a more detailed explanation of the release is available here.

 

Musically, the supreme design of A O R T A takes the shape of remarkable continuity between the first three tracks. These tracks, which encompass Christopher Cerrone’s Hoyt-Schermerhorn, Jacob Coopers Clifton Gates, and the first movement of Jakub Ciupinski’s Morning Tale, all for piano and electronics, flow seamlessly from each into the next. That is not to say that these pieces are continuous or homogenous; upon closer listening these tracks each yield interesting features deserving of investigation and fascination.

These first three pieces make up the programmatic section of the release. All three, while they do have their own individual characters, are touching meditations on real-world human experiences ranging from the concrete to the notional.

The smoothness with which the initial three tracks flow from one to the next is a perfect aperitif for the rest of A O R T A. Only when the second movement of Morning Tale arrives does this CD begin to deliver sequential sounds juxtaposed in a manner that obviously marks the beginning of a new track. This slight shift marks a turning point in this release; this is the point after which more surprising and disparate sounds can be expected.

 

Those disparate sounds take the shape of Molly Joyce’s Rave, and Daniel Wohl’s Limbs and Bones, all three of which explore different facets of the interaction of live piano with electronic sound. While these heady tracks are distinctly different from the first three pieces, they somehow fit together into the larger arc of this album. This continuity of artistic trajectory is further evidence of expert curation. These pieces, in this order, tell a story that is in and of itself a work of art.

Finally, A O R T A ends with Vick(i/y), by Andy Akiho. While the preceding six pieces lean toward the atmospheric, Vick(i/y) has a completely different character that trends toward immediacy. This piece was written for Vicky Chow (as well as for Vicki Ray – hence the title) and is the only piece on this release that is NOT for piano and electronics. Vick(i/y) is for prepared piano. Additionally, while the preceding pieces on A O R T A tend to individually remain within one or two sound areas, Vick(i/y) is a veritable symphony within a prepared piano. The extended range of sounds, combined with Chow’s presumed heightened intimacy with this music (which was written with her in mind), result in a piece that acts an exclamation mark. Vick(i/y) is Chow’s indelible signature at the end of an already markedly individualistic album.

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Even though A O R T A cycles through an expansive of range sounds and expressive modes, this disc never loses sight of the instrument at its center. Every bit of this music is completely focused on the piano, with all sounds either produced by or strongly referring to the instrument. Also always in sight here are the composers who inspired much of this music. Pieces on this album explicitly reference John Adams and John Cage while slightly more covertly recalling the music of Steve Reich, Erik Satie, and Thom Yorke.

A O R T A is packed with smart, fully-conscious music that is quite aware of the giants upon whose shoulders it stands. This awareness of the past, combined with bold steps toward the future and omnipresent consummate curation, results in a well-balanced and highly interesting release that is at once calming, stimulating, and invigorating.

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ALBUM REVIEW: Bang on a Can All-Stars’ “Field Recordings”

by Maggie Molloy 

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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.

(Purchase links and more information from Cantaloupe Music)

“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.