Playing To Eager Crowd, Resurgent Bang On Can Delivers Winning Fare

The Bang on a Can All Stars performed at Merkin Halls annual Ecstatic Music Festival on Jan 20 Photos by Stephanie Berger

NEW YORK — By now, Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe have won enough awards and honors to have become eminences grises of this particular species of new music. Maybe they were not present at Merkin Hall’s annual Ecstatic Music Festival on Jan. 20, but their spirit hovered over the People’s Commissioning Fund concert of Bang on a Can All-Stars, who, during the silence of the pandemic, had re-orchestrated and expanded their own works, introducing them as premieres.

The evening was hosted by the cool, experienced John Schaefer of WNYC for livestream and radio broadcast on his program, New Sounds Live. This, he said, was the group’s first live performance since 2020 (“before the world changed”). Masked enthusiasts almost filled the hall, and the stage was sprinkled with microphones. Schaefer questioned each composer gently, giving them a chance to say a few words about their piece.

With nine performers instead of the usual six, this ensemble was some kind of Supreme Court of new music. The eight compositions could have been movements of a whole. Individual pieces formed a unit — loud, pushy, jazz-inflected, rhythmically simple, appealing, and harmonically familiar. They were led by Ken Thomson, composer and dual-clarinetist in orange jeans, who kept the beat by jumping, and enjoyed himself like anything. Listeners dug in for a good time.

Trombonist Jen Baker pianist David Friend and hornist David Byrd Marrow

Fred Frith’s Which It Is was bound together by percussionist David Cossin, whose formidable setup dominated stage rear. Untethered, by Tomeka Reid, had regular flute figures, rattling percussion, simple rhythm, familiar harmonies, individual licks, and sweat. The players were so into it, you wouldn’t know it was a premiere.

Santuario II, in a new version by Jeffrey Brooks, had marimba and crotales in the mix and no drum, but electric guitars made a heavy bottom. It was nothing to be described as new music. For dancing, maybe.  

Nick Dunston originally composed Fainting is Down, Whooshing is Up for solo bass. In this iteration, the instrument was front and center, but you still had to watch it to hear it as a soloist. The wild, scratchy cadenza was a different take on that format.

Ken Thomson’s Performative opened calmly but soon burst into a loud, forward, rhythmic duet, with Thomson singing with the sensitive flutist Allison Loggins-Hull. The flute followed the voice, in the spirit of “I’ll do what you say.” Their delight streamed out to the audience. A good time was had by all.

Korean composer Soo Yeon Lyuh played the two stringed haegum in her piece See You on the Other Side

A tenth instrument, the two-stringed haegum, was played by its Korean composer, Soo Yeon Lyuh. Her piece, See You on the Other Side, was inspired by footage of bodies stacked on top of each other in a COVID-19 hotspot, and it may be in the vanguard of pieces to come on that subject. Its forceful sonorities were less inviting than the program’s other works — as if the composer hadn’t grown up banging on the same cans. The effect was appropriately closer to cacophony than joy, and it ended atmospherically, with a little funeral bell.

Disconnect, by Aeryn Santillan, the group’s marketing associate, evoked her pandemic depression with snippets of phone messages from people whose calls she didn’t feel like picking up — especially relatives. Thomson, leading, clarified the beat wildly, as if ready to throw his miked bass clarinet over his shoulder.

The last piece, which could have been the final movement of a large work made up of all the compositions, was Rainbows and Butterflies, a collaboration by newmusic stalwart Trevor Weston and the group’s guitarist, Mark Stewart, who helped select the text and also sang it. Stewart is a veteran who has worked with Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Steve Reich, and on and on.

Percussionist David Cossin and bassist Robert Black

Rainbows is made from comments by the poet Maya Angelou, and the pair found it a more tempting prospect to set to music than whatever they had planned first. Although less pleasing than its title suggests, it was still grown in the same musical soil as the concert’s other works.        

Some contemporary music is hard to take, and some is really too hard to take. But Bang on a Can seems to have some sort of keyhole into the genre that draws the listener in, to feel included and unashamed. More power to them.   

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Leslie Kandell
Leslie Kandell has contributed to The New York Times, Musical America, Musical America Directory, and The Berkshire Eagle.