Mass MoCA's Bang on a Can Marathon: Modern music festival stages its last hurrah


NORTH ADAMS -- This just in: The annual six-hour Bang on a Can Marathon at Mass MoCA is now seven hours.

Seven hours, 12 minutes, was the exact running time, and although auditors wandered in and out of the Hunter Center throughout Saturday evening, a sizeable number was on hand to cheer the final segment -- a series of four pieces by Aphex Twin, the pseudonymously named composer who deals in what is known in new music as electronica.

The marathon each year is the last hurrah for the Bang on a Can Festival, a three-week gathering that beckons young musicians from throughout the world to train with outstanding faculty members - musicians and composers and perform with them as well.

Saturday's marathon repertory moved in several directions, sometimes wondrously, ranging from compositions on which the ink on the staved paper was barely dry, to other pieces that have become monuments in the lore of contemporary music.

Several performances continue to resonate in the memory, among them, Bang on a Can's co-founder Julia Wolfe's essay of shimmering strings, "Fuel," with its textures thick as oil and an adroit inner fugue; Bill Ryan's "Drive," set in short, punchy phrases in a kind of broken mambo atmosphere, with Chuck Furlong's deep-throated bass clarinet and David Cossin on drums providing a solid foundation, and original instrument inventor Mark Stewart and his step son Gabriel Gomez' curious "What, and if so, why?" involving an exchange between Stewart's video instrument, on which various strings are plucked to trigger scenes and movem''.

The other two Bang on a Can godfathers, David Lang and Michael Gordon, also provided notable works for inspection: Lang's piece for six instruments, "these broken wings," moves from chopping chords into minimalist territory accented by musicians dropping chains and other articles on the floor, augmenting efforts by its active percussionist, Joe Tucker.

In "The Sad Park," a controversial work recalling 9/11, Michael Gordon stretched out tapes of pre-school children reacting to the catastrophe, until their comments become wails leading and accompanying an assertive minimalist score performed by a fine string quartet, with Todd Reynolds in the first chair.

Two composers associated with Bang on a Can who passed away this past year were remembered: Steve Martland, described as strong-willed and opinionated, was characteristically represented by "The Horses of Instruction," an aggressive 15 minutes of punishing music dominated by heavy piano, marimba, electric guitar and drums, and among the evening's loudest works.

The softest was the late Eleanor Hovda's delicate "Onyx," in which the composer explored the sounds, or barely sounds, beneath the notes, with players lightly brushing across strings, winds and brass emitting nearly inaudible peeps, the seven instruments seeming to strain for release. Eventually they escape for a few measures, only to recede back to virtual taciturnity.

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Stewart led his fabled Orchestra of Original Instruments in "Bellows, Rhythms, Whirls and Hums," and the complete complement of 35 fellows proceeded to follow the title's instructions. It was fun, and instructive, to watch Charles Magnone, one of this year's especially fine pianists, first blow into a mouthpiece attached to a hose, then whirl the hose above his head with the same alacrity displayed in his keyboard activities. Stewart's piece vied with Martland's for the evening's volume award.

Lina Andonovska, an Australian, who distinguished herself throughout the evening doubling on flute and piccolo, explored manifold possibilities of the piccolo, from top to bottom, and drew smart lyrical conversation from the fine oboist from Nashville, Daniel Cutchen, in Bun-Ching Lam's appealing Piccolo Concertino.

Among programmatic works, Ken Thompson joined and led three fellow saxophonists in a sharp reading of his vivid "Music for Trains," and Gregg August's paean to Cuban rumba, "A Humble Tribute to Guaguancó," brought a collaboration of three other double bassists who rumbled and tapped, bowed and plucked the familiar rhythms, occasionally even softening the instrument's barking voice.

In the company of other marathon composers, Jacob Druckman's "Come Round," his cyclical collection of six variations, probably appears not as ominous as it might have sounded when first heard in 1992. With especially fine work from Meerenai Shim, an able flutist from California; Jacob Abela, an Australian pianist, and David Abraham, a percussionist from Oregon, the work, in fact, fit comfortably with the more recent compositions, a testament to Druckman's prescience and his durability.


Aphex Twin, né Richard David James, has affirmed his belief that "music and electronics (go) hand in hand." Led by Alan Pierson, artistic director of the contemporary music ensemble Alarm Will Sound, a 16-piece orchestra, along with two vocalists, performed four of Aphex Twin's most popular pieces from four arrangers who had re-orchestrated for acoustic ensemble what the composer originally had produced electronically.

Some of the scores have rather innocent lyrical lines running through them -- among their antecedents are DJ dance music and other pop fare of the composer -- with frequent adornments distracting from any patent lyricism and often heavy bass lines serving as anchors. The vocalists Min Park and Philippa Thompson emitted staccato nasal twang sounds into microphones, producing what might be regarded as electronic scat singing.

Believed by some to represent the future of music, electronica from Aphex Twin and others may need considerably more exposure to inspire comfort in all listeners.


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