What good fortune! How many of us – whatever kind of music we listen to – ever get the chance to hear two of our favourite recent albums performed in their entirety, live, on the same evening, in a single venue? And this as just part of a two-day event with plenty more wonderful music, from brand-new pieces to beloved classics. Bang on a Can came to Dublin, and the weather improved too.
“What?… Wow” was, in festival curator David Lang’s program note, “made by putting together some of the children and grandchildren and maybe by now even great-grandchildren of composers who happen to live down the street from me, and who changed the world.” So he brought along his Bang on a Can friends Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon, and the Bang on a Can All-Stars, and So Percussion, and for good measure WNYC Radio’s John Schaefer, and they met up with a whole bunch of Irish musicians in Dublin’s National Concert Hall, and the result was… well, here’s David Lang again, in an interview with the Irish Times last week: “I’m going to feel disappointed if somebody comes to this concert and likes everything”.
Hmm. There were 19 pieces of music performed over the two days; I heard all but one, and I really hate to disappoint Mr. Lang but… Maybe if I’d been able to get to the first performance, Tom Johnson’s minimalist classic Nine Bells done by percussionist Olaf Pyras, I might not have liked it, but what are the chances?
So the festival for me kicked off with my initial reason for going, Julia Wolfe’s incredible “art-ballad” Steel Hammer,performed, as on the album, by Trio Medieval and the Bang on a Can All-Stars. Seeing it live made me realise I’d not given much thought to how some of the sounds on the album were produced: that sound evoking a piston engine coming to life? That’s the band rubbing sheets of sandpaper together. That foot-tapping noise throughout the whole “Characteristics” section? That’s guitarist Mark Stewart’s actual feet. And so forth. It was a magnificent performance of a brilliant piece, by superb musicians… Lord, Lord. I was pleased to be able to thank Julia Wolfe in person. All this went on at the hall’s Engineering Library (the building was once owned by a university), which I’d never been in before and which I assumed would be an elegant Victorian room, its walls still lined with ceiling-height bookshelves, a few tall windows allowing the setting sun to cast a warm glow… well, it did have walls, I’ll grant you that. The NCH really needs to construct better performance spaces. Or at least get some lads in with a few tins of paint.
Anyway. The other main reason I was there was the European premiere of John Luther Adams’s big and beautiful orchestral piece Become Ocean, a work that seems to have a better chance than most of making its way into the repertoire. In the main auditorium, the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra was led by young (23!) English conductor Jamie Phillips, who showed a fine command of proceedings. It’s a paradoxical piece in a way, because it’s very carefully structured and symmetrical, yet it relies for its effect on seeming random, like the waves of the ocean. If you had a stopwatch you could easily track the various large and small climaxes, but it’s so much better to sit back and let these gorgeous swells wash over you. I could have listened all night.
In the interest of brevity, let’s quickly mention the three other works in that concert: David Lang’s man made (with So Percussion; satisfying), Irene Buckley’s Stórr (inspired by Hebridean church singing; lovely), and Anna Clyne’s <<Rewind<< (evoking a videotape skipping backwards; amusing).
But I must talk properly about Michael Gordon’s new piece, which was so new that it was listed on the festival program as “new work” and we were only told its title when the composer spoke just before the Dublin Guitar Quartet gave its premiere. Amplified is what it is, by name and nature. If you’ve heard last year’s release of Gordon’s bassoon piece Rushes then let me simply describe the general feel of it as “like Rushes but with four amplified guitars”. I admit he had to win me over on this one. It was 10.30, the close of a busy day, there was still an hour-long midnight bus journey ahead, and after about a minute of rather harsh-sounding pulses of loud reverb, each player picking out single notes, I feared an hour of noisy tedium. But I closed my eyes and something wonderful happened as I realised that those pulses were travelling from left to right (I was on the right-hand side of the audience) in a continuous wash; that harshness was now something more soothing, though still not an easy ride. It was hypnotic, and I lost track of time; when abruptly the pulses changed – the guitarists were now in synch and the sound was tumbling forward from them rather than across the performance area – I reckoned maybe 20 minutes had passed but in hindsight it was probably more like 45. After a while more the reverb began to fall away, and soon we were down to bare picked notes and then… nothing. For me, Amplified was a valuable lesson in how the impact of a minimalist work can often come from stepping back and appreciating the whole work, rather than (as we usually do with classical) listening from one moment to the next. And also a vivid demonstration of how sometimes it’s not the actual notes but the sound around the notes that becomes interesting.
And that was just the first day.
Day two began with a Bang on a Can Brunch, which is like a regular brunch but with the founders of a ground-breaking contemporary music organisation sitting in the corner being interviewed. The burger was delicious; the conversation was entertaining. John Schaeffer took the trio through the history of Bang on a Can, and there was time for one question from the audience (I’m paraphrasing: “Michael Gordon, do you agree with me that Amplified is just a butt-ugly stepchild of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians?”). Favourite anecdote: John Cage came to the first Bang on a Can show but left before they played the piece of his they’d programmed, because “it was past his bedtime”.
So day two was a Bang on a Can Marathon, but David Lang told us we were getting off lightly: just four hours in the afternoon and two that night. Ten works were performed in the first session, the idea being that the audience could come and go as it pleased; I imagine that most of us heard everything, though. Why would you not? So Percussion opened the Marathon with Music for Wood & Strings by Bryce Dessner, who’s becoming well-enough established as a composer that he soon won’t need to have “of The National” after his name all the time. The work uses four specially designed instruments resembling hammered dulcimers, and the ultimate sonic effect is that the percussionists sound a lot more like guitarists than you might reasonably expect. It’s a bitty sort of piece but falls easy on the ear. Chamber Choir Ireland gave us a short and lovely piece for sopranos and altos by the Dane Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, whose “new simplicity” style fitted well with the festival vibe. The RTÉ ConTempo Quartet (RTÉ is the state broadcaster) were next, with Garrett Sholdice’s Das Blaue Licht, a nice piece whose first part was entirely pizzicato; the quartet later played George Crumb’s grotesque/beautiful Black Angels from 1970 – another work that really benefits from seeing the performance. Bang on a Can All-Stars brought us two strong pieces: Kate Moore’s Ridgeway, a reflection on home and memory that sounded to me like a ghost parade, and Donnacha Dennehy’s characteristically punchy Streetwalker.
What else? The Crash Ensemble, of course. We heard Seán Clancy’s 14 minutes of music on the subject of greeting cards (a melancholic birth-to-death journey, for piano, violin and flute) and Linda Buckley’s brand-new Torann (Irish for “noise”, inspired by the sea, an Icelandic volcano, and milking machines), but before those there was Andrew Hamilton’s Music for people who like art, described a few years ago by an Irish critic as “20 minutes of my life that I will never get back” and by me right now as 20 minutes of something like advertising jingles chopped up and repeated in a hard-driven and unpredictable way for a hilariously unconscionable amount of time, topped with a female voice quoting Ad Reinhardt’s “Art is Art” statement while also occasionaly screeching, choking and throwing up, that eventually and for no apparent reason transmogrifies into something like a horribly distorted half-remembered version of the Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack”. I have no idea what the composer intended, but I laughed all the way through.
Oh, and Crash’s pianist Andrew Zolinsky played Meredith Monk’s St. Petersburg Waltz.
Which leaves us with the final concert. Okay, I admit that with Brian Eno’s Music for Airports (in its Bang on a Can arrangement, of course) I came the closest to not liking, but it wasn’t the music itself that was the issue – it’s just that seeing as the whole point of the music is that it’s background, it felt at times too incongruous to be sitting in a packed concert hall listening carefully as if this were Brahms. But the All-Stars were great, the first part is a gorgeous thing, and the last featured some wonderful clarinetting from Ken Thomson; Evan Ziporyn’s contribution to the arrangement takes the music out of the “merely” ambient and turns it into a bona fide concert piece.
And, to cap it all, Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. You don’t need me to tell you the significance of this work, or what it sounds like. All I want to say about the performance is this: imagine Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians performed by So Percussion and various members of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, Chamber Choir Ireland, and the Crash Ensemble. That’s how good it was. A triumphant end to a wonderful two days of music-making.