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Bang on a Can Marathon

by Paul Rapp on August 3, 2011

MASS MoCA, North Adams, Mass., July 30

Celebrating its 10th summer residency at MASS MoCA, Bang on a Can pulled out all the stops for this year’s joyous and heady six-hour, 16-piece celebration of sound. As always, the uber-casual concert featured the BOAC faculty, a bunch of the finest new-music composers and performers on the planet, and a couple dozen students who came from all over the world to North Adams to hang, learn, and perform with the masters.

The show started at a full sprint with Christine Southworth’s “Super Collider,” featuring an electric gamelan—a creature of MIT’s Media Lab—played by eight musicians. The kinetic and gorgeous piece also featured a Todd Reynolds-led string quartet, a couple tabla players, and Southworth demurely controlling the gamelan from her MacBook. Not something you see everyday.

This was followed by “Return of the Nine Foot Banjo,” a tribute to Bennington College’s legendary Gunnar Schonbeck, who for decades constructed huge instruments and then enlisted musical novices to play them. This piece involved all of the students, most of the BOAC faculty, and Schonbeck’s “Original Instruments,” including a gigantic marimba, congas, guitar, and banjo. And a lot of hoses. Goofy and awesome.

Soprano Jaime Jordan seemed to be everywhere, with a crystalline voice that defined beauty. Evan Zipthorn led a six-piece band through his arrangements of four pieces composed in the late 1940s by obscure eccentric composer Conlon Nancarrow. The works, rooted in ragtime and the dance music of the time, were so complex and difficult that Nancarrow couldn’t find musicians to play them and instead built custom player-pianos to perform the works from paper-rolls that he’d punch out by hand. Zipthorn’s band rocked the impossible, showing that Nancarrow presaged prog-rock, fusion, and post-bop by decades. If you’re a Zappa or Captain Beefheart freak, you’ll want to get with Conlon Nancarrow.

Three young folk musicians from Uzbekistan were featured throughout the program, singing and playing bulbous string instruments with unpronounceable names. They dazzled whether jamming on some avant-funk blues or playing elegant Uzbek folk songs; they got standing ovations every time they finished a piece.

I could go on (and on and on). Suffice it to say that the Bang on a Can Marathon is the most fun, accessible and friendly “serious” music event you’ll ever attend. Each piece was introduced and explained by one of the BOAC faculty, who were mostly dressed in T-shirts and jeans. Each work was less then 15 minutes long, and the six hours went by in a flash. The stage crew miraculously whipped the change-overs of the wildly varying ensembles in five minutes or less, and the sound was perfect all day. The musicians and composers all hung out in the courtyard, and were super eager to chat about their works. As I was leaving I stopped to thank the Uzbek dudes for their stunning performances. “Thank you, thank you!” they all said, beaming. I think that was all the English they knew, and it was all they really needed. They communicated plenty in the universal language.