Years ago, I caught the avant-garde music collective Bang on a Can at The Egg. Throughout the show, I kept trying to classify the music. At times, it was jazzy, but it wasn’t quite jazz. And it seemed to contain elements of rock. And classical. There were two separate sets, one featuring the Czech violinist Iva Bittova, whose shrieks, yowls, chirps and cackles gave the show a wild, unhinged feel, and one featuring the superb clarinetist Don Byron, whose jazzy performance included a lovely tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen. Both sets were exciting, dynamic and unpredictable — I felt like I was watching something totally unique and unforgettable. The music was cutting-edge, but also really fun to listen to, and I got the impression that my experience and impressions were fairly typical.
On Saturday I headed out to the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center to catch the world premiere of “Rushes,” a new piece for seven bassoons by composer and Bang on a Can founder Michael Gordon. I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but I’ve seen enough musical performances at EMPAC to know that the venue prides itself on showcasing music that pushes both boundaries and buttons, and I’ve listened to enough Bang on a Can to know that the composers affiliate with the group have an experimental, adventurous sensibility. But this knowledge did little to prepare me for “Rushes,” perhaps because I was expecting something edgy and strange in the Iva Bittova mode. Instead, I got 60 minutes of surprisingly gentle bassoon music, music that rolled and undulated, creating a swirling landscape of murmurs and nature sounds.
At first, I wasn’t sure I could tolerate a full performance of “Rushes.” The bassoons were creating repetitive waves of music, and it sounded pretty, but I wasn’t sure I could listen to it for a full hour if the music didn’t change in some significant way. But eventually I settled in, and although the music never underwent any major changes, I found it increasingly absorbing, with the rolling layers of sound creating a calming and relaxing atmosphere, and the subtle shifts within evoking the feel of being outside on a summer day — sometimes you felt like you were in a bog, sometimes in a grassy field. I wasn’t thinking of jazz or classical as I listened to this music, but of the more ambient, droning textures in certain electronic music, such as Oneohtrix Point Never’s 2011 album “Replica.”
Watching and listening to this sort of music was interesting, and I’d really like to hear it again, because I think I would pick up on things I didn’t pick up on the first time, since I was simply trying to figure out where the piece was going and what it was trying to do. I also think “Rushes” would be a really soothing piece of music to listen to, for when my nerves are frazzled or I don’t feel like being distracted by lyrics or catchy beats. I could see how some people might find “Rushes” boring, but I hope that someday I have the chance to see it performed again.
Also, how can you not be charmed by a composition written for seven bassoons?
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