Special to The Eagle
Last season saw the 10th anniversary of Bang on a Can’s summer music institute and performance festival, but there’s still some residual celebration embedded in the 2012 edition. This past winter marked the 25th anniversary of the New York City-based music collective itself, and as part of that milestone it commissioned a brand new series of compositions forming a project called "Field Recordings."
The multimedia opus, consisting of pieces by nine contemporary composers who were asked to find an existing sound recording and write something new that integrates and responds to it, will be performed at Mass MoCA on Saturday. It made its world premiere this spring in New York, and the program has toured in the United States and U.K.
Added to "Field Recordings" for this performance is a composition by longtime Bang on a Can collaborator Todd Reynolds, whose "Seven Sundays" will make its world premiere as part of the program.
A violinist known for his use of digital effects and looping techniques, Reynolds structured his piece around a record of preachers from the 1930s through 1950s found in the encyclopedic record collection of Paul de Jong, of the now-retired acoustic/electric duo The Books.
(The other half of The Books, Nick Zammuto, will be on hand Saturday to perform his own contribution to "Field Recordings," which includes video clips of beauty tips for women.)
Reynolds, who says he grew up with a "very religious" background, explains that the period recordings spoke to him right away.
"It turns into music more than anything else," he says of the passionate exhortations of the preachers, "and it was terribly appealing to me. All those preachers are there to inspire. And they still inspire, even on the recording."
Other portions of "Field Recordings" integrate bits of video or samples of the human voice; Bang on a Can ar tistic directors Michael Gor don, David Lang and Ju lia Wolfe are among the other composers represented. The Bang on a Can All-Stars will perform the piece.
While Reynolds started working with Bang on a Can 29 years ago, cellist Ashley Bathgate is a much newer addition, joining the All-Stars in 2009 after finishing her graduate music studies at Yale.
The ensemble’s need for a cellist happened to coincide with the arrival on the scene of Bathgate, a native of Saratoga Springs, N.Y. But though she received some exposure to the world of what might be called contemporary classical music -- known among practitioners and fans by the less-than-descriptive genre tag "new music" -- she had no idea her classically honed cello chops would find their fullest flowering in the world of contemporary composers.
"I’ve played a lot of classical music but what I fell in love with was working with living composers," she says. "I just discovered within myself that I really loved playing new music and I loved developing pieces with these new composers, as opposed to playing things and wondering what they might have wanted -- in these cases you have someone who comes in and tells you. And sometimes it’s a discovery process together."
The New York new music scene seems to have many intertwining branches, and Bathgate earlier this year formed a well-reviewed duo group, TwoSense, with Lisa Moore, Bang on a Can’s original pianist; she’s also in the trio Typical Music alongside the ensemble’s current pian ist, Vicky Chow, and Rey nolds. (An incarnation of Typical Music this year played at one of the afternoon gallery recitals that are a near-daily feature of the festival.)
Besides the eye-opening possibilities discovered by diving head-first into this musical community at the outset of her professional career, Bath gate credits the specific influence of Reynolds.
"I never knew that a cello was OK to put it through a distortion pedal," she says. After discovering Reynolds’ work, she explains, she "started playing with pedals and processing and all of these programs that I wasn’t aware of in school. That just further whet my appetite for this stuff."
Their collaboration continues with "Field Recordings."
Reynolds says the exercise caused him to develop "a different way of listening" as he worked out ways for he and other musicians to play alongside the source material without becoming mere accompanists.
It’s likely to involve his usual penchant for amplified violin accompanied by Mac book Pro. Since he’s played violin since the age of 4, he says, the integration of new technologies is something to keep him busy.
"Playing the violin is something that comes very naturally and easy to me," he says, "so I do the other things that take me to the edge, where I need to be aware of several different things at one time."