Nary A Weak Link In Concert Packed With New Music

The Bang on a Can All-Stars performed works by U.S. and Canadian composers at ‘Bang on a Canada’ in Toronto.
(Photo by Peter Serling)
By Colin Eatock

TORONTO — Way back in 1970, when high modernism ruled the earth, a young composer in New York named Steve Reich wrote “Some Optimistic Predictions About the Future of Music.” In this little manifesto, he predicted several trends, including the return of tonality and a strong rhythmic pulse in contemporary music.

John Oswald: master of  ‘plunderphonics.’

I mention this in light of a concert on May 27  at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music. Presented within the RCM’s 21C Music Festival, the program was called “Bang on a Canada,” featuring New York’s Bang on a Can All-Stars playing recent works by a dozen Canadian and American composers.

The program illustrated the many ways that Reich’s “Optimistic Predictions” have influenced contemporary music in North America. The tonality and percolating rhythms were proudly present, as were other qualities that distanced these composers from the high-modernist ethos: a sense of playfulness, an embrace of popular culture, and a rejection of the idea that new music should be “difficult” for audiences. The spirit of Reich seemed to hover in the concert hall, even if it manifested itself in many different ways.

Reich was also on the program. The Cave of Machpelah (an excerpt from his 1993 opera The Cave) evokes images of caves: dark and mysterious in sonority, beginning with long tones, and gradually building up to a complex, harmonically rich chord.

The other 11 composers were Eliot Britton, Allison Cameron, René Lussier, John Oswald, and Richard Reed Parry, from Canada; and Anna Clyne, Michael Gordon, David Lang, Christian Marclay, Caroline Shaw, and Julia Wolfe, residents of the U.S. (Clyne is British.) The All-Stars chose well: without exception, these composers were represented with inventive and engaging pieces, performed with insight, conviction, and skill. With so many composers packed into one program, it’s remarkable that this chain had no weak link.

Some of the pieces made use of video projections on a big screen above the stage. Gordon’s Gene Takes a Drink comes with a video of a walk through a garden, accompanied by pleasantly throbbing chords from the band. Marclay’s Fade to Slide features a collage of images from Hollywood films — Bruce Lee, Jack Nicholson, Janet Leigh, Maria Schneider, and even Harpo Marx made brief appearances — like a silent film with a stream-of-consciousness score. It was weird, but good-weird. And Oswald’s Fee Fie Foe Fum (in its premiere performance) gradually reveals itself — both musically and visually — as an elaborate riff on the Temptation’s 1966 song “Get Ready.” Oswald is a master of a self-invented musical genre he calls “plunderphonics,” and he has built a creative career on making music from music.

Eliot Britton makes use of electronic percussion to create a ‘super piano.’

Other pieces incorporated prerecorded voice. Wolfe’s Reeling is a jazzy mix of traditional  Celtic vocal “lilting” and emphatic rhythmic gestures from the band. In Shaw’s Really Craft When You, a woman’s voice describes quilt-making over a quasi-minimalist score, full of overlapping ascending scale motifs. In Lussier’s quirky Nocturne, prerecorded snoring is deftly coordinated with be-bop-like rhythms. And Clyne’s A Wonderful Day juxtaposes the voice of a Chicago street-singer with a harmonized accompaniment played by the live musicians.

Still other pieces were played by the All-Stars by themselves (although electronic modification or amplification was an integral part of everything they did). Britton’s Cuneiform and Glide (we heard the first movement only) is a solo piano piece, played by Vicky Chow, that makes use of electronic percussion effects to create a kind of “super-piano.” Lang’s unused swan is a simple unison melody over-layered in a tense way with the clatter of a thick metal chain. Parry’s The Brief and Neverending Blur features a simple musical phrase fed through a feedback system to create undulating modal murmurs. Similarly, Cameron’s In 3rds, 4ths & 5ths displays a comfy quietude that morphs into a pan-diatonic wash of sound.

The encore was another multi-media composition. Nick Zammuto’s Real Beauty Turns is a minimalist piece that gradually grows more animated, set against a big-screen projection of women in TV ads using beauty products: Koyaanisqatsi meets Procter & Gamble.

Colin Eatock is a Toronto-based composer and critic. He is the author of Mendelssohn and Victorian England and Remembering Glenn Gould. He has written for Toronto’s Globe and Mail, The New York Times, The Houston Chronicle, and many other publications. He also teaches at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music.