The Bang on a Can Festival in New York will be, next year, 15 years old. That is a long time to be banging on a can. But one of the charming things about this organization--which has spawned the performing group Bang on a Can All-Stars and just this month a new record label, Cantaloupe Music--is its refusal to grow up and stop all that banging. With annual all-day (and much of the night) marathons, the festival calls forth a wealth of music of all sorts--from grating rock to ethereal ambient, from academically multifaceted to the sonically simplistic. Irrepressible bangers that they are, they seem to love it all, even if the audience will inevitably be divided.
Those elements certainly were on display with the tour program for the latest local appearance by the All-Stars in Schoenberg Hall, UCLA, on Friday night. The ensemble was founded in 1992 by six players who were regulars at the festival, and it was an unusual collection of instruments--clarinet and saxophone (Evan Ziporyn), keyboards (Lisa Moore), electric guitar (Mark Stewart), cello (Wendy Sutter here replacing Maya Beiser), bass (Robert Black) and percussion (Steven Schick). But it is unusual no more, now that some 40 pieces have been written for the All-Stars.
The concert began with one of the more striking composers that the Bang-on-a-Canners have give relatively wide exposure to. Phil Kline first made an impression through his pieces for harmonica and boom boxes that with single-minded obsession turn simple musical materials into arrestingly elaborate sonic experiences. His "Exquisite Corpses" sounds more traditional, but its sensibility is still the overlaying of bits of musical matter into a fetching musical mess.
Tan Dun's "Concerto for Six" is another happy, endearing celebration of multiplicity. Tan creates the effect of a joyful Chinese village ritual--the players chant Chinese numbers at the beginning and the end; in between, they riff. And by giving the players just enough material upon which to improvise, he manages to bring out the personality in these six highly accomplished and individual soloists yet make them sound as though they are all at the same party. It is music that exactly captures the spirit and pleasure of Bang on a Can, and the performance, which ended the program, left a listener feeling very good.
The other inventive recent piece was by the jazz clarinetist, Don Byron. The ensemble played excerpts from "Dark Room," music meant to accompany a 20-minute silent skit from Ernie Kovacs' television show in the '50s. The bouncy style was tantalizing but frustrating, as well, without the video.
The Bang on a Can All-Stars does, of course, like to live up to its name. In Arnold Dreyblatt's "Escalator," senseless banging is all it does, and the fact that the composer has the instrumentalists tune microtonally doesn't mean a slight haze of peculiar harmonics makes it any less numbing. David Lang's "Anvil Chorus," on the other hand, is a solo percussion piece from 1991 (played by Schick) with its constant banging made rhythmically arresting. Michael Gordon's "I Buried Paul," is a one-liner, a continuation of the psychedelic electronic music ending in the Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever." The ensemble also included the section Gordon arranged of Brian Eno's ambient "Music for Airports"--static, beautiful music, exquisitely orchestrated and played.
But Bang on a Can stands for more than this program, likable though much of it was, represented. The festival was founded by Lang, Gordon and Julia Wolfe, just after they graduated college; and all have grown into substantial composers over the last 15 years. The All-Stars is not exactly their band, but the association is closer and more important than this somewhat casual tour program might indicate.