The little ensemble that could
The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASSMoCA) in North Adams, Mass., is presenting the last week of festival concerts by the feisty music ensemble Bang on a Can.
Part rock band and part amplified chamber group, it was hatched in New York's East Village in 1987.
Its reputation for composing, winning awards and commissioning -- from Steve Reich, Terry Riley and John Adams, no less -- grew till it was received uptown (in both senses of "uptown") at Lincoln Center. Its famed marathons now take place at the World Financial Center and as of 2002, it's had a summer institute at MASSMoCA--complete with six-hour marathon, which this year starts Saturday at 4 p.m.
Last Monday's free concert -- there are two such every afternoon -- featured wet-ink premieres by composers from the United States plus six countries in Europe and South America, who came to work with Bang on a Can faculty. That sounds so august! It's hard to recognize the scrappy downtown types who founded the group, but they're here: the much-decorated Julia Wolfe who hosts, clarinetist/saxist Evan Ziporyn who leads the new works while performing in them and Michael Gordon, whose "Yo Shakespeare" opens Saturday's marathon. (Wolfe's "Fuel" will also be heard, and Ziporyn's "Music from ShadowBang.")
The new composers have all learned driving rhythmic patterns, appealing tone frames and, signature orchestration with strings, electric guitar, clarinet/sax of course, and immense varied percussion sections -- often five players, each on several instruments. Not to mention catchy titles, among them "Why Are You Not Answering?", "Human Kindness is Overflowing" and the Icelandic volcano whose name we dare not pronounce.
Composers introduced their own pieces. Violinist Sophie Cash-Goldwasser might have summed up the program when she described her "Turbo Grind" as "about factories, revolving wheels and dancing."