The Agony and the Ecstasy of “Bang on a Can”, a Socioeconomic History of Major New Music Innovators


William Robin is a musicologist whose credentials (nicely enumerated on his web site) are more than adequate to the task at hand. This is a socioeconomic and political perspective on the seminal Bang on a Can organization. At its core, Bang on a Can is the foundational work of three people now recognized as major American composers: Julia Wolfe, David Lang, and Michael Gordon, all of whom met as students at Yale University.

Julia Wolfe, image from composer’s web site

This is the (much needed) first book on the history of the collaboration of these composers and how their work helped transform and move ahead the new music scene. First in New York, then nationally, and now internationally these individuals experimented and embraced innovative ideas while navigating the labyrinth of of social, political and economic hurdles involved in the production and promotion of non-pop new music. Therein lies the “agony” referenced in my title. This essential background information makes for some slow going reading but also serves to demonstrate how daunting their task has been.

David Lang, image from composer’s web site

The book documents the early efforts both to define their concepts and to learn the politics of the new music economy. But, painful as they are, these efforts are ultimately instructive for anyone involved in the production of new music. This reader comes away with a new found respect for those who wrangle with the varied and complex elements behind the production of concerts in general, and new music in particular. It is “how the sausage is made” so to speak. And it is a useful perspective for the average listener to better understand the incredible complexity of new music production and promotion.

Michael Gordon, image from the composer’s web site

The book is divided into 7 chapters and an epilogue which focuses not just on the trials and tribulations of the gestation of Bang on a Can but also its context among several other new music initiatives that preceded BOC. Meet the Composer, New Music America, and the New York Philharmonic’s New Horizons Festival loomed large in their time and the “downtown” loft scene which nurtured the likes of Philip Glass, Meredith Monk, Rhys Chatham, etc. contributed to the promotion of new music during their respective eras.

Robin identifies the innovative efforts by BOC in their use of marathon open air concerts to showcase their innovative programming which effectively blurred the lines of genres like jazz, free jazz, classical, pop, rock, etc. But their challenges were essentially the some, the politics of concert production, funding, advertising, etc. They characterized their efforts in contrast to the economically dominant Lincoln Center. The evolution of BOC from its beginnings through the establishment of the Bang on a Can All Stars touring ensemble, the establishment of a record label (Cantaloupe) and their later performances at Lincoln Center, the stodgy institution against which they railed dubbing their music as “downtown” as an alternative to the “uptown” mainstream. There is the beginnings of a history of new music in recordings that remains to be written but the point here is context and the socioeconomic and political motivations involved.

Author William Robin does his work well in this academic tome which is richly annotated and referenced with a bibliography to take the interested reader to a wealth of information on new music and its production. And while this is more about “how the sausage is made” so to speak, it is a necessary exposition which provides both history and context, something to think about the next time you buy a ticket to hear new music. Admittedly its not a pretty picture but it certainly illuminates the side of new music virtually unknown to the average listener.

While this reader had hoped for more information on the music performed (which deserves a book unto itself) this book takes its place alongside Tom Johnson”s “The Voice of New Music”, Kyle Gann’s “Downtown Music”, Renee Levine Packer’s wonderful history of the Buffalo New Music scene, “This Life of Sounds”, Benjamin Piekut’s “Experimentalism Otherwise”, George Lewis’ “A Power Stronger than Itself”, Luciano Chessa’s “Luigi Russolo, Futurist”, and David Bernstein’s “The San Francisco Tape Music Center” (to name a few) as an essential history of new music.

Mariel Roberts’ Cartography: New Cello Music


This is another of those releases that is functionally a business card if you will. By that I mean that I’m finding a fair amount of solo instrumental discs (some with electronics, like this one, some not) in which the artist demonstrates their skill with their instrument but, more importantly, their familiarity and facility with the segment of the repertoire they embrace.  Actually this is the second such album from this artist, the previous (yet unheard by this listener) having been released in 2012.

Mariel Roberts is one of those New York based musicians whose milieu puts her in contact with the cutting edge (at least in New York) of modern composition.  Roberts has appeared as a soloist and chamber musician across four continents, most notably as a member of the Mivos Quartet, Wet Ink Ensemble, International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), Bang on a Can All Stars, and Ensemble Signal. Her skills and her talent seem boundless.

Here she features four rather large works for cello, solo, with piano, and/or with electronics.  The composers featured include: George Lewis, Eric Wubbels, David Brynjar Franzson, and a collaborative work she wrote with Cenk Ergun.  Not the usual suspects but a panoply of interesting and creative composers.

Rather than attempt any analysis of the works presented here let me just say that all require a high level of virtuosity. An essential aspect of this virtuosity is whatever coordination is required of the soloist interacting with electronics. The lack of detailed liner notes make it difficult to know the nature of this interaction but one can certainly enjoy the resulting performance even without those details.

This is NOT easy listening by any means but it is a tasty sampling of some truly creative music for the right ears. Multiple listenings will be needed but the listener will be rewarded for their effort.

 

Philip Gelb’s Gourmet Vegan with Joelle Leandre in the East Bay


The door is open to the underground restaurant.

The door is open to the underground restaurant.

On Sunday February 15th I had the pleasure of attending one of my favorite underground restaurant/performance venues in West Oakland.  In a nondescript neighborhood of light industry, warehouses and loft spaces Philip Gelb has been running “In the Mood for Food” (a take of the title of one of his favorite films, “In the Mood for Love”) his occasional dinner/concert series since 2005.

Philip Gelb with Joelle Leandre

Philip Gelb with Joelle Leandre

Philip is an amazing vegan chef as well as a shakuhachi player/teacher whose cuisine is known to a fortunate group of people which includes this writer.  Combining incredibly creative dishes sometimes at the behest of a given artist (Amy X Neuberg requested a “purple” theme and got it when she appeared ) with his wide network of artist friends, many of whom he has performed with.  Phil has been doing these occasional events with a maximum audience of about 20 people (including the featured performer) at a rate of at least once every month or two.

Potato Sorrel Soup

Potato Sorrel Soup

First let me say that I am not a vegan but if vegan fare always tasted this good I could easily make the transition (OK, I would have a hard time giving up pizza) to vegan fare.  Phil’s fresh locally shopped ingredients are transformed by his gustatory alchemy into a variety of delectable dishes in a wide range of cuisines.  His network in gourmet vegan food practitioners is rivaled only by his musical network.  Japanese is one of his specialties but I have personally partaken of various middle eastern and Caribbean cuisines with equal satisfaction.

Mushroom Pate, Carrot Walnut Pate and Rosemary Bread, didn't get a picture of the fresh salad greens.

Mushroom Pate, Carrot Walnut Pate and Rosemary Bread, didn’t get a picture of the fresh salad greens.

This night’s selection featured a creamy Potato Sorrel Soup followed by a salad plate consisting of rich Mushroom Pate, Carrot Walnut Pate, a freshly baked Homemade Rosemary Bread with Salad Greens and a tart Citrus Dressing. The main course consisted of Cassoulet, Oat Pilaf and Herbed Collards, all very tasty and very filling.

The main course of Cassoulet, Oat Pilaf and Herbed Collards.  It tastes even better than it looks in Phil's characteristically beautiful presentations, trust me.

The main course of Cassoulet, Oat Pilaf and Herbed Collards. It tastes even better than it looks in Phil’s characteristically beautiful presentations, trust me.

A feast such as this could not easily be upstaged but, in the little break before the dessert course, we were treated to a wonderful performance by Joëlle Léandre, the French Double Bass virtuoso, singer and composer whose work traverses a wide range of musical genre from John Cage to free jazz and categories that defy easy classification.  She has amassed a discography of over 100 albums to date and has performed with artists including Pierre Boulez, John Cage, Giacinto Scelsi, Derek Bailey, Barre Phillips (who appeared at this series a couple of years ago), Anthony Braxton, George Lewis, India Cooke (also one of Phil’s previous guest artists), Evan Parker, Irene Schweizer, Steve Lacy, Maggie Nicols, Fred Frith, Carlos Zingaro, John Zorn, Susie Ibarra, J.D. Parran, Kevin Norton, Sylvie Courvoisier and Pauline Oliveros (another recently appearing artist at this series).  Oh, and she has also performed and recorded with Mr. Gelb.

Leandre is a friendly and engaging person both in her playing and in conversation and we all had opportunities to speak with her and experience her charming personality as she related various observations and anecdotes.  These dinner/concerts are a uniquely intimate experience which you cannot get in the average concert setting.

Leandre embraced and nearly danced with her instrument.

Leandre embraced and nearly danced with her instrument.

Ms. Léandre treated us with three separate improvisations in which she demonstrated her facility with a wide range of double bass techniques including various bowing techniques, pizzicati, percussive techniques and wordless vocals that mixed seamlessly with her very intense and passionate performances.  Unfortunately it is nearly impossible to really describe with any accuracy the music we experienced this night.  But suffice it to say that it was played in a manner that communicated very effectively with the very appreciative audience.  I asked her if she always plays with such passion and she rather matter of factly simply said, “yes”.

Her command of a wide variety of playing techniques blended together with her voice in an almost orchestral sound  tapestry driven by Joelle's passionate playing.

Her command of a wide variety of playing techniques blended together with her voice in an almost orchestral sound tapestry driven by Joelle’s passionate playing.

I was so taken with the performances that I failed to get a photo of the delicious dessert course which consisted of a Waffle Sundae comprised of a very fresh chocolate-buckwheat waffle covered with chocolate pistachio ice cream, maple walnuts and chocolate port sauce.  An amazing vegan sweet treat enjoyed by all.

The clearly happy audience lingered to talk with each other, with Phil and sous chef Cori as well as with Ms. Leandre who had a great selection of recent CDs and a couple of books available for purchase which she graciously signed.  Overall this was an extremely satisfying evening, certainly for this blogger and clearly for the other guests but also for our wonderful performer who left to get some sleep before her scheduled performances tomorrow at the Berkeley Arts Festival.

The performer pauses looking wistfully as the muse descends upon her.

The performer pauses looking wistfully as the muse descends upon her.

 

 

Black Classical Part Four


As promised in a previous blog I am here continuing a little personal survey of recordings of music by black classical composers in honor of Black History Month. I suppose it is worth adding that I pursue these recordings because they present interesting and exciting repertoire that has not gotten the circulation it deserves. Sadly this is most likely the result of the failure of producers, performers audiences and investors to look at the value of the art itself, looking instead through the lens of racial prejudice. I hope that readers of these blogs will avail themselves of this music, these performers, these recordings and maybe come to realize that those old prejudices serve only to limit one’s world view and prevent a rewarding artistic experience. Art, like people, must come to be valued by its own merits, not limited on the basis of skin color. MLK definitely phrased that more elegantly.

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And further proof of such valuable art can be found in a series of recordings on the Chicago-based label Cedille. In fact their website cedillerecords.org contains a link to the six albums of music by black composers they have thus far issued.

Building on the work he had begun with the Black Composers series for Columbia in the 1970s conductor Paul Freeman released three CDs in the Cedille series called ‘African Heritage Symphonic Series’. With the orchestra he founded Freeman presents music by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Fela Sowande, William Grant Still, Ulysses Kay, George Walker, Roque Cordero, Adolphus Hailstork, Hale Smith, David Abel’s, David Baker, William Banfield and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson. Freeman released a CD dedicated exclusively to the music of Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson as well.

Violinist Rachel Barton-Pine released a disc of violin concertos by 18th and19th century black composers on Cedille and there is a disc of choral music which includes music by black composers.

Let’s turn now to the Albany www.albanyrecords.com label where you can find more of the artistry of Paul Freeman in 18 albums where he presents neglected music of the 20th century by a wide variety of composers black and white. Most of it is by American composers and much of that in styles related to the mid-century styles of the likes of William Schuman, Aaron Copland and their students. While these discs include music by many of the previously mentioned black composers there are no duplications of works or performances. I have heard but a few of these discs but what I have heard is enough to convince me to plan to purchase the others. Freeman, in addition to bringing the music of black composers to the listening audience has done a fine job of documenting many whose work has been little heard until now.

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Another composer who fits more or less into the context of the conventions of the western concert traditions whose work has informed my listening is that of Anthony Davis (1951- ). While he has played with musicians from more experimental traditions the influence of the western concert traditions is more easily heard.

His study of jazz as well as western classical and eastern gamelan are all evident in his work (though not necessarily all at the same time). The New York City Opera produced his, ‘X, the Life and Times of Malcolm X’ in 1986 and the Lyric Opera of Chicago produced ‘Amistad’ in 1997. He has written concertos for piano and for violin as well as music for orchestra and smaller ensembles. At the time of this writing he is professor of music at the University of California San Diego.

So far the music we have discussed has been of the sort more commonly heard in concert halls these days. Freeman’s efforts have seemingly jump-started the recording industry to pay some attention to the music of black and other neglected composers. Certainly there is much more gold to be mined there. But we have yet to address the contemporary scene, the new and creative artists who are bringing innovative ideas and sounds and advancing the musical arts for subsequent generations. Following on the innovations of great jazz artists such as Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman (among many) there was increasing focus on techniques being used by contemporary “classical” composers

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To these ends there is no better place to start than with the AACM, the American Association of Creative Musicians. Founded in Chicago in 1965 this collective has strived to bring various elements of black culture in an incredibly eclectic and experimental milieu which has had and continues to have an influence on music, musicians and audiences. This collective was finally given a proper overview in George Lewis’ book, ‘A Power Stronger Than Itself’. Lewis, a trombonist, composer and currently professor of music at Columbia University in New York was a member of the AACM.

The AACM was not the only such collective but it was one of the most visible, at least to me. And it continues to develop and evolve bringing the complex and innovative musical ideas evolving from the black roots of jazz to a level of recognition and respect formerly accorded pretty much exclusively to European academic models. The AACM, dubbed “Great Black Music” also strives to retain the identity of black music by black peoples of the world looking to non-western models that predate European colonialism marrying them to the best of European models as absorbed by the diaspora. Many of their members now hold academic positions including Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith and Nicole Mitchell.

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Perhaps the best known ensemble to come out of the AACM is the flexibly-membered Art Ensemble of Chicago. Their album ‘Third Decade’ released in 1984 is representative of their work and also marks a sort of end to one creative era for this flexibly-membered group. Most listeners will hear this as progressive jazz and it certainly has those elements. But repeated listenings reveal many layers to this work. And this is but one of a large catalog of albums as diverse as they are numerous (about 50 albums and still counting). More on their work at their website www.artensembleofchicago.com.

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Another prominent figure that was a member of AACM is Anthony Braxton, saxophonist, composer, chess master who dislikes the term ‘jazz’ in reference to his music. He is currently professor of music at Wesleyan University. And indeed his music which ranges from solo saxophone work to small ensemble and orchestral music and opera are difficult to classify. His experimentalism is related to but not derivative of the work of John Cage. It would be impossible to represent his musical output in a single album but the solo saxophone ‘For Alto’ (1968) and ‘Creative Orchestra Music’ (1976) are good places to start in his discography of well over 100 albums. His website tricentricfoundatio.org offers many of his recordings for sale and even offers free downloads of bootleg recordings.

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For the sake of brevity I will discuss only one more artist in this blog entry, Julius Eastman (1940-1990). He was a composer, vocalist, pianist and dancer. As a vocalist he sang and recorded the music of Meredith Monk, Peter Gordon, Morton Feldman, Arthur Russell and Peter Maxwell-Davies. He was very much a part of the avant garde downtown scene in New York of the 1970s.

At the time of his sad death from a heart attack at the age of 49 there were but a few recordings of his work (collected in a nice 3 CD set on the New World label). And many of his scores were lost when he was unceremoniously evicted from his apartment. The composer Mary Jane Leach is attempting to collect and preserve his legacy and has made many of his extant scores on her website http://www.mjleach.com/eastman.htm.

Without a doubt there are many more black classical and avant-garde artists I have yet to discover. I welcome suggestions and I hope that the preceding ideas will stimulate and encourage others to explore these artists and works.