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Rediscover: The Bang on a Can All-Stars: Industry

Rediscover: The Bang on a Can All-Stars: Industry

Minimalism is a regular element in the BOAC repertoire, as Gordon/Lang/Wolfe come from a generation of composers raised in the shadow of Reich and Glass and Adams.

Industry was the first album for the Bang on a Can All-Stars but not for Bang on a Can. The BOAC Marathon, a typically 12-hour festival of new and avant-garde music, first kicked off in New York in 1987. The next eight years saw little-guy CRI (Composers Recordings Inc.) release three discs of Marathon highlights, featuring a variety of composers and ensembles, before big-time Sony Classical backed Industry in 1995. The formation of the All-Stars and the release of their debut disc were savvy (and pivotal) moves in the trajectory of BOAC, the annual contemporary music festival that has slowly but surely morphed into an established multi-function organization that’s a far-reaching force for good in the creation and dissemination of contemporary classical music.

BOAC itself was founded by composers Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolfe. It’s their works featured on Industry (alongside two pieces by BOAC mainstay and musical mascot/godfather Louis Andriessen). The performers known as BOAC’s “All-Stars” were long-time fixtures at the festival. By bringing them together to form BOAC’s house band, Gordon/Lang/Wolfe succeeded in both creating a face for their then nascent organization and in commodifying something that had up to that point existed almost exclusively as a hyper-local happening to be experienced once a year, in the flesh, or not at all.

Beyond the conceptual, the music itself shows shrewd thinking, with the end result being a compact 60+ minutes of music that pushes boundaries but at the same time does whatever it can to welcome the uninitiated, not push them out. To that end, each of the album’s five pieces lends itself to easy encapsulation; they’re energetic and sonically compelling but easily described in words, often in a single sentence. This is, remarkably, an album of avant-garde classical music that is edgy and accessible.

Julia Wolfe’s “Lick” starts the disc. It’s a perfect opener, establishing the mood and setting the pace. It also serves another useful purpose by articulating one of BOAC’s core values: the melding of classical music’s complexity with the attitude and textures of rock. “Lick” spools out a stream of short musical figures – licks – occasionally joined together by collective groove or adjacent cacophony in a way that feels like an homage to the very idea of a band’s ability to make music together. As with many of the pieces that the All-Stars play, the decidedly rock ethos of “Lick” is enhanced in large part by the group’s instrumentation, which includes electric guitar (Mark Stewart), electric bass and double bass (Robert Black), drums and percussion (Steven Schick), piano and keyboards (Lisa Moore), saxophone and clarinet (Evan Ziporyn) and cello (Maya Beiser), the only instrument in the ensemble that’s not a staple of rock.

“Hout” (“Wood”), the first of two pieces by Louis Andriessen, is a much more classical sort of thing but is no less accessible because of that. It’s actually the easiest piece on the album to describe; it’s a strict canon, the parts following so closely together that it sounds not like multiple voices playing in counterpoint but rather a solo saxophone echoed by a rather odd-sounding digital delay. “Hout” is exhilarating, due in part to its pace but even more so because of the seeming impossibility of its execution.

The title of David Lang’s “Anvil Chorus” is a joke, referring both to Verdi’s well-loved operatic chorus of the same name and to the fact that his piece is written for a solo percussionist “play[ing] on resonant junk metals of the percussionist’s choosing.” (In Schick’s performance of the piece, the central “instrument” of his choosing has often been a rusty brake drum.) In a broader sense, the piece suggests BOAC’s general tendency to throw open the doors of the traditional concert hall and welcome outsid(er) elements. It’s also exemplary of a feature that’s been common in the All-Stars’ albums and live performances: virtuoso solo showpieces for the group’s individual members. (If you enjoy Industry and consider checking out other BOAC releases, their sophomore effort, Cheating, Lying, Stealing is worth a listen just to hear Evan Ziporyn play his meditative, extended technique, overtone bliss-fest for bass clarinet, “Tsmindao Ghmerto”.)

The five-movement “Hoketus,” also by Louis Andriessen, is the album’s outlier, for a few reasons. Most obviously, it subtracts cello and otherwise expands the All-Stars’ core ensemble to include two sets of panpipes, two electric pianos and one extra performer on each of the following: piano, saxophone, electric bass and percussion. Though the instrumentation is more complex, the piece itself (like “Hout”) is conceptually simple – two identical ensembles, physically separated from each other (in this case, one in each stereo speaker), playing aggressively loud and short monoliths of sound that alternate back and forth between them. This texture is known as hocketing, hence the name of the piece, and was first used in medieval music to divide a melody between two parts, one note at a time. But there’s no melody here. Instead, dissonant chords buffet the listener from left to right and back again, over and over for nearly 25 minutes, the rhythm regularly changing in such a way that the downbeat(s) and upbeat(s) shift and reposition themselves in unsettling ways.

Minimalism is a regular element in the BOAC repertoire, as Gordon/Lang/Wolfe come from a generation of composers raised in the shadow of Reich and Glass and Adams. While that minimalism typically features the sort of tonal accessibility that any listener could comfortably live in for the duration of a given piece, the minimalism of “Hoketus” is severe, and the number of listeners who would willingly submit themselves to it must be much, much smaller. But if you’re so inclined, the relentless power of “Hoketus” underscores the resonant beauty of sound itself.

The final piece on Industry is eponymous – Michael Gordon’s incantatory and transformative piece for solo cello, played with virtuosic intensity by Maya Beiser. As with the other tracks on the album, the conceit here is simple. But in this case, making it explicit would spoil the experience for anyone who has never had the pleasure of hearing it unfold in real time. Spoiler or no, there may be no other piece in the BOAC repertoire more emblematic of their aesthetic – serious contemporary classical music, heavily influenced in equal parts by the repetitive force of minimalism and the ecstatic energy of rock.

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