NORTH ADAMS, Mass. – Venturing back to live performances and finding a classical music institution in rude health can be like putting on old jeans and discovering a light fit with relief.
This is what it felt like to attend the Bang on a Can’s LOUD Weekend festival, held here on Friday and Saturday throughout the Mass MoCA complex.
With over 20 hours of performance, one could see one familiar look after another – all trademarks of the legendary, free Bang on a Can Marathons in New York City. But here, in a two-day environment with paid tickets, there was more time for each musician’s set to take on an individual character. And although some artists got nervous on the first day, most of the appearances unfolded with a crisp, defiant touch – as if they hadn’t spent time without the audience.
This was especially true for the pianist Lisa Moore’s show on Friday with pieces by Philip Glass, Don Byron, Martin Bresnick – and a world premiere by Frederic Rzewski, who died in June. The set confirmed the interpretative knowledge that she brought to her recordings with works by these composers. And the Rzewski premiere – “Amoramaro”, with the subtitle “Love Has No Laws” – was bittersweet: an alternately seductive and prickly memory of all his music that can no longer be written.
“Amoramaro,” commissioned by her husband for Moore, is nonetheless something to be cherished (and certainly included). Its occasionally lush chords – half remembered and half transformed from the American Songbook – mingle with austere, rocky runs that create trapezoidal vibrations between distant registers. And its climatic, pounding clusters may have been inspired by Rzewski’s experience with Stockhausen’s “piano pieces”. The fact that everything stuck together for over 15 minutes was proof of both Rzewski’s peculiar and personal palette and Moore’s fine instinct for it.
Elsewhere the festival gave names in bold: It is significant that the audience this weekend asked each other: “Which Kronos Quartet concert was better?” For me it was on Friday evening, a dark but intense set that included Jlin’s “Little Black Book” began and ended with Jacob Garchik’s “Storyteller”. This performance was coherent than the one that followed on Saturday, which was well played but more diffuse, including the premiere of Terry Riley’s “This Assortment of Atoms – One Time Only!” – an attractive but modest addition to the composer’s significant work for Kronos.
As with the previous Bang on a Can Marathons, contemporary and modernist trends from all over the world were also present and taken into account at the LOUD Weekend. These included French spectralism (in the music of Gérard Grisey); Minimalism (Riley, Glass, and their descendants); and collective improvisation (by Banda de los Muertos, a jazz ensemble inspired by the music of Sinaloa, Mexico).
And there were solo acts throughout. The violinist, improviser and composer Mazz Swift brought the Saturday evening to an early climax with a presentation of her “Sankofa project”, which she described as “new interpretations of so-called slave songs as well as freedom songs and my own versions” of what I call modern protest songs. ” When Swift used subtle electronic processing to boost a few notes of the chest voice – or when she looped a striped violin passage to create a hazy cloud that supported Spitfire solo lines – her range of effects proved as protean as they were powerful.
In addition to the starry headliners, there were also students from the summer institute Bang on a Can, who were given moments to shine. Some of them seemed ready to build their own ensembles and maybe return for future festivals. The saxophonist Julian Velasco shone on Friday in a mixed professional and student ensemble in Julius Eastman’s “Femenine” and on Saturday in a duo with Shelley Washington’s “BIG Talk”.
Ken Thomson, Velasco’s seasoned pro from a partner in Washington, was practically omnipresent on both days, including as a member of the organization’s house group, the Bang on a Can All-Stars.
Thomson and his all-star colleagues made the most of their nickname on Friday with a rousing version of “Workers Union” – a minimalist-influenced classic by Louis Andriessen, who died in July. And while the band’s keystone set on Saturday evening – which also served as the finale of the festival – was played crisply and energetically, the program was mixed.
At this concert, a new arrangement of Terry Riley’s “Autodreamographical Tales” (soon to be on an All-Stars recording) was released, a work that seems to be considered a curiosity in the legendary composer’s oeuvre. Or a curiosity on a curiosity, because that version has its roots in an obscure piece that Riley recorded in the 1990s.
The text comes from a dream journal that Riley kept for a while. There are moments of reserved humor, and the “tales” impale the musical ego in a winning way; we get a feeling for how often in Riley’s dreams other musicians complement his work. But the piece also wanders and is not always as clever as the subconscious would have hoped – as telling dreams tend to be.
“Tales” still offers stray joys, especially when Riley comes up with a vampy blues or rock number – here happily arranged by his son Gyan Riley. Guitarist Mark Stewart took on vocal duties as Riley has been in Japan since the beginning of the pandemic. (He made a brief appearance in the form of a live, light-hearted video introduction.)
In the last hours of the line-up on Saturday, listeners were able to move from a short set by rising star Nathalie Joachim (sings and plays the flute on excerpts from her acclaimed album “Fanm d’Ayiti”) to a concert of Pandemic Solos, that of Bang. was commissioned to sprint on a can for his virtual marathons during the pandemic.
I couldn’t stand hearing these live streamed marathons right now. I tried, but the cluttered audio – inevitable with artists streaming from so many places – was recorded as microtragedies that distracted from the works themselves. I told myself I would hear some of these in the future; and i have on saturday.
A series of works for all-star bassist Robert Black opened the day, including Maria Huld Markan Sigfusdottir’s haunted, creepy “pending”. And after Joachim’s set, I heard a trio of burning and distinctive pieces by Aeryn Santillan, Rudresh Mahanthappa and Anna Clyne, all written for Thomson.
This is a secret strength of Bang on a Can. It attracts audiences with big names. But when the Legends disappoint in any given hour, as Riley did, there’s always the next set – and the next generation – to save the day.