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Banglewood’s 10th Year of Musical Chairs is Something to Celebrate

Maximum Performance

At multi-stage festivals like New Orleans Jazz Fest or Bonnaroo, we do our music genre hopping by darting from stage to stage. At Bang on a Can's Music Marathon, the finale of their annual three-week Summer Festival in the Berkshires, the stage does all the style jumping for us. And as as I settle into the Hunter Center for the latest Bangfest of six-plus uninterrupted hours of rare, ear-expanding, boundary-smacking new music, I'm not too proud to say I'm excited to sit back and enjoy the ride. Again.

As with New Orleans' Jazz Fest, it's gratifying to watch some of the regulars of BOAC's festival grow from year to year. Like Christine Southworth, who opens the marathon with "Super Collider," which has been performed previously, among other places, at Lincoln Center with Kronos Quartet and Gamelan Galak Tika. Here, a string quartet of summer residents and the 10-piece Gamelan Elektrika take on Southworth's digital hybrid. Elektrika are playing traditional Indonesian gamelan instruments that are wired up to act as MIDI controllers, essentially making all beats and sounds bendable electronically by Southworth as she "conducts" from her laptop. It is up to Southworth to choose from a blend of samples that include strings, tabla and Balinese vocals to mix with the live instruments. 

The "Super Collider" that result has that eerily attractive, chime-y primitiveness of traditional gamelan with the added touch of richly bowed strings and adventurous electronics. This modernized traditionalism is a theme that will be explored several more times throughout the marathon night by the BOAC and this summer's residents.

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Perhaps this would be a good place to explain a little more about Bang on a Can and their Summer Festival, now in it's tenth year of residency at the the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA), to the uninitiated. First, it is not  like "Stomp" or "Blue Man Group" or other clever franchised troupes of drum and dance that one might catch on Broadway or in Vegas. Bang on a Can is a moveable Brooklyn-based music ensemble akin to Kronos Quartet but with an even more, shall we say, "downtown" sensibility, playing, commissioning and promoting contemporary and under-heard music.

Bang on a Can's unconventional "contemporary" is pretty far from the Lady Gaga wing of pop, but that hardly means it's inaccessible. BOAC's presentations may sometimes take a little more effort and a broadened scope to appreciate, but the musical rewards aren't as fleeting, they stick with you longer. BOAC also curates a great, progressive little record label, Cantaloupe, and is featured in Rock Band 2. And its Music Marathons have been likened to a Woodstock for serious music lovers.

BOAC's Summer Music Festival is a three-week program in which international composers, conductors and performers immerse themselves in music, from ambient, jazz and experimental rock to global music and modern classical. Since it's just up the road from the Boston Symphony Orchestra's storied retreat Tanglewood, the summer fest has earned the nickname "Banglewood."

Up next at this year's Banglewood, it's "Whirlies, Balloon Horns and the Return of the 9 Foot Banjol," an Orchestra of Original Instruments paying tribute to Vermont musical inventor Gunnar Schonbeck, a long-time hero of homemade instruments. The amusements are quite a contrast to what follows: avant garde composer Peter Adriaansz's "20c," a work for seven musicians that's part of "9 through 99," which Adriaansz intends as a sort of a translation of Pascal's "Triangle."

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Uh oh, I can see some readers' eyes glazing over as they consider even that short description. But that's another great thing about the BOAC Marathon; you really don't have to know anything about Adriaansz beforehand to like, or not like, "20c." And BOAC's stagings usually cut through the pretense that an average audience member might find off-putting about such "strange" music while offering enough of a taste of a work's density to take home the excitement of adding a different flavor to one's listening repertoire.

During the dozen minutes or so of "No. 20," the musicians (marimba, vibraphone, saxes, strings, piano, Chinese cymbal) enter at varying spots to transform a piano meditation into a fully animated race of notes that builds momentum to leave me feeling like I've taken a frenetic subway ride on a train without brakes.

I'm not quite in the mood for the grandly challenging "Circles" by Luciano Berio that closes out the first two hours. So after a few uncomfortable attempts to warm up to the stark, otherworldly vocal-and-harp duet over percussion, I decide it's time to end my squirming and check out the MASS MoCA galleries and gift shop (I'll need this year's t-shirt after all) as well as the giant art installation of black plastic balls outside the front entrance.

Refreshed, it's time to take in BOAC All-Star Evan Ziporyn's gently gorgeous "Breathing Space" for three violins and cello. "Space" is nuanced but edgy enough to keep its quiet, sultry dynamics floating above the audience. And when errant chirps from birds and crickets add some nice unexpected touches, I think of suggesting to Ziporyn, if I ever meet him, that he consider permanently working them into the arrangement.

The energy picks up again with "Traditional" and an ensemble that sounds anything but traditional, featuring Bangfest's three musicians from Uzbekistan. Together they're illustrating another of the musical joys explored here: The results of putting players in a room and finding out what they have in common. And that old music can be new music. 

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I can almost hear the combination of strings, wood, air and metal breathe as they morph into something of a Nick Cave-ish Wailing Wall / murder blues. Led by BOAC All-Stars David Cossin on drums and Mark Stewart on electric bass and various instruments, "Traditional" builds from Stewart's scraped-string solo into an energized, nicely warped faux-polka that sneaks in the theme to "The Sting" on its way to a "Who's Next"-style ending. A standing-O highlight, to be sure.

The soft vocal and strings of Osvaldo Golijov's "Tenebrae," tinged with brooding melancholy, make it feel like an interplanetary hymn, while David Dramm's "Baton Rouge Massacre" follows with a more grating dare that mirrors life's more irritating moments.

Ziporyn's arrangement of "4 Studies for Player Piano" is an ear-opener. The piece was written by Conlon Nancarrow, a 20th century composer renown for authoring music too hard for humans to play who therefore spent much of his life punching out holes on rolls for player pianos. Ziporyn humanized the four studies for a six-piece band, which retain some of the rolls' mechanical qualities while drawing out the swing of the blues, polka, Dixieland other American musical roots ingrained in Nancarrow's pieces.

During the "Four Studies," I'm taken from some wild counterpoint on a 100 mph boogie woogie to a jazzy stroll down a nonlinear rhythmic path before zigging out totally for the finale. During a few moments I imagine I'm in the middle of several rehearsal studios taking in the sonic overflow of the rooms of four or five different bands, enjoying a one-of-a-kind mashup. 

Some of the modern compositions featured at this Bangfest marathon are as much musical electricity (Dan Becker's energized "Gridlock") as compositional elegance (Varese's "Octandre," a compact, brassy foreshadowing of electronic music's dynamic extremes) or graceful performance (Nick Baertsch's hypnotic "Modul(s)"). All these elements have appeal on their own, but obviously it's most rewarding when they converge, as they do for a sharp recital of Michael Gordon's "The Light of the Dark."

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A piece that BOAC's Gordon wrote for the young group Eighth Blackbird (whose Nick Photinos is tonight contributing cello lines that swoop darkly, continuously, like a hawk hunting for prey), "The Light of the Dark" is brilliant fun, mischievous and eternally percolating with vibes, piccolo, percussion, strings and a clarinetist that points his axe under the grand piano's lid  for extra resonance.

Meanwhile the sextet is playing a rambunctious round of musical chairs, like prodigies running from instrument to instrument in an impressive show of their chops. At one point, there are six hands on the piano keyboard while two more strum its sounding board like a harp and another player stands above all of them on a bench with his diminutive accordion.

"The Light" could have put a perfectly satisfying cap on Bangfest's July festivities at MASS  MoCA. But wait, there's more! The trio of musicians that form this year's Uzbekistan connection get the spotlight for a three-song set that highlights the mysterioso tones of their homeland's (real) traditional music. Yearning vocals backed by complex rhythms beaten on simple percussion instruments produce exotic tonalities, and the austere beauty that trails behind the threesomes' harmonies sets the stage for the lushness that will follow from the 16-piece orchestral ensemble congregating for the two co-finales.

First is "Increase," written by BOAC's David Lang as a wedding present for friends, with a title that is "a demand, not a description." It has sweeps and tickles of notes that bristle about each other in textural layers, exploding from trancelike repetitions of modern minimalism with the pounding of timpani. It's the most symphonic piece of the evening and, accordingly, one of your reporter's favorites.

The "final" finale is "Tell Me Everything" by BOAC composer Julia Wolfe, a dramatic work with anger and stress issues - and I mean that only in the best way. Loosely described by Wolfe as a Mexican samba group imitating a US brass band, the work's bickering instruments and grinding, evil, tight-wire tensions hit me as suitable for the soundtrack of the big-boom chaos of some summer blockbuster.

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As it plays out like a treatise on the complications of being complicated, I can only envision that the discordant flourishes of Wolfe's swaggering piece are in fact helping to stomp out the demons and bombast, clearing the way for a genteel post-show champagne toast to be shared by performers and audience alike in the courtyard. It's the toast which turns out to be the perfect finale for this year's Bangfest... as well as a hard-to-turn-down invitation to return to the Marathon next year.


CREDITS: All-Stars: Pascal Perich, Julien_Jourdes; Stewart-Lang-Wolfe: Peter Serling; phone pics by the author.

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