Sadly, I am no longer actually at Bang on a Can Summer Festival at MASS MoCA. I returned to Mobtown on Sunday after an exhilarating three weeks in North Adams, Massachusetts. Therefore, these wrap-up posts are more like Dispatches “About” Bang on a Can rather than Dispatches “From” Bang on a Can.
When I started the Federal Hill Parlor Series, I knew that I did not want to present in a traditional concert hall or a church. I felt strongly that art/music should be a multi-sensory experience which is why I chose to partner with an art gallery. When I realized that Bang on a Can took place in MASS MoCA, it solidified my desire to participate in such a program that encourages the synergy of art forms. Being alongside contemporary art also fosters an environment of active cultural consumption rather than passive listening. In one of our seminars Michael, David, and Julia shared that they pursued arts circles (rather than the musical élite) as the main audience for their first marathon in 1987. Why? Because they already had a community of supporters that were interested in being challenged by art, theatre, and dance. Most of our 1:30 and 4:30 weekday recitals all took place in MASS MoCA’s Invisible Cities exhibition featuring Diana Al-Hadid Nolli’s Orders, Sopheap Pich’s Compound, Francesco Simeti’s la città d‘oro, and Miha Strukelj’s The Melting Pot. Fellows and faculty members also used other galleries/spaces to present their work to interested and engaged audiences. Here is a list of some of my favorites that I did not have a chance to cover just yet on The Sybaritic Singer.
Surround sound in the Invisible Cities exhibition:
There were a number of ensembles that used the same gallery but in entirely unique ways. A few especially memorable instances were But What About the Noise of Crumpling Paper…(John Cage), Stick Figure (David Lang), and Canon Prelude (Matt Frey). These three ensembles chose to surround the audience to achieve certain timbres and sound textures. The Brown Cage percussion quartet (Ben Phelps, Alibek Kabdurahmanov, Matt Horsley, and David Cossin) were joined by other percussionist fellows/former percussionists (Karl Larson, Matt Evans, Mike Perdue, Daniel Dehaan, Andy Miller, and Adam Groh) to present But What About… The various percussive sounds including glass bottles, ripping of paper, Tibetan prayer bowls, and more all emanating from around the gallery was a delight to the ear. They also encouraged audience members to wander about the gallery during the performance allowing them to experience the piece in various ways. Stick Figure also found percussionists staged around the viewing area. Lang writes about Stick Figure:
“A child learns to draw by drawing lines. In the hands of a child a person is a stick figure, a skeletal intersection of stark lines, stripped of flesh, without subtle details. Only later does a child learn to add things – some hair, a dress, some shoes. Watching my children go through this stage has made me realize that my music is moving in the opposite direction. With every piece a little bit of flesh is removed, a little more skeleton is uncovered.”
In this piece, the audience experiences an assault of fortissimo percussion hits while the solo cello line (avec ensemble) entices the ear to yield time and again. David Wasilko (cello) approached the piece with restraint and tenderness and the piece was all the better for his nuanced playing. Rounding out (I’m not above a pun) the surround sound experience was the cello octet (Nick Photinos, Alyson Berger, Maria Hadge, Lauren Radnofsky, Elizabeth Lee, Helen Newby, David Wasilko, and Ashley Bathgate) playing Matt Frey’s Canon Prelude. Although the introduction of the canon played pizzicato was sparse and developed incrementally around the space, the arco swells were that much more satisfying when they finally took the foreground.
Speaking of being surrounded by sound, one of the more enchanting pieces was Object in Absence by Fellow composer Daniel Dehaan. Inspired by the Boiler Plant, an early 20th century building which produced steam for heat and manufacturing processes, he requested that the performance of his piece be held there. The Boiler Plant, also the building that contains the stairway to Michael Oatman’s all utopias fell installation, has stood on the MASS MoCA grounds for nearly 100 years. The aging and rusting fixtures, tubes, and tanks are reminiscent of a pipe organ left to the elements. Dehaan’s piece was unique because the percussionists were allowed to use the building to create the accompanying sound world. The listeners were invited to walk around all three levels of the Boiler Plant during the piece while all ensemble members (except percussionists) stayed on the ground floor. Object in Absence blossomed over time from barely audible pianissimo to gestures of brilliance reminiscent of wide-open spaces. There is something extraordinary about a piece that you can never recreate the exact elements or sounds – a sort of kinship with your fellow listener that you have just shared an inimitable moment in time.
Remembering a tragedy:
Nearly eleven years from the events of 9/11, perhaps I wasn’t expecting to have such a visceral reaction to the musical mention of the time. Listening to a performance of Julia Wolfe’s Big Beautiful Dark and Scary and a recording of WTC 9/11 during Steve Reich’s lecture, I realized how moved I was by their different interpretations. Big Beautiful Dark and Scary, premiered in 2002, has a much different aural vantage point than WTC 9/11. “Wolfe, who was a witness to the 9/11 tragedy, standing with her young children two blocks from Twin Towers when the planes hit, captures the feverish post- apocalyptic feeling of living in the wake of 9/11 with an ominous wall of sound”¹ in her piece performed July 24th by Elizabeth Lee, cello; Adrian Rigopulos, bass; Travis Andrews, guitar; Adam Groh, percussion; Vicky Chow, piano; and Ashley Smith, clarinet.
While Reich’s WTC 9/11 has severe and abrasive moments such as the first violin doubling the loud warning tone (an F) a phone makes when left off the hook, the piece has many more mournful and plaintive moments. Reich writes,
“By January 2010… I realized the pre-recorded voices would be from 9/11. Specifically, they would start from the Public Domain: NORAD, FDNY, and then from interviews with friends and neighbors who lived or worked in lower Manhattan… Throughout WTC 9/11the strings double and harmonize the speech melodies and prolonged vowels or consonants of the recorded voices.”
Both were heart-breaking and all-too-true remembrances of what it was like especially for those that lived the tragedy in real-time as many of the fellows and faculty in the room had.
So it could be said, that there are many types of kinship formed through the music presented at Bang on a Can. The challenging, the uplifting, the mourning, the humorous, the overwhelming — all are moments of art and time shared in community. The act of involved listening can indeed be provocative in this multi-sensory setting. However, I will return to that table time and again to be challenged and sated.