We live in a post–Bang on a Can musical world: The triumvirate of Bang on a Can founders David Lang, Michael Gordon, and Julia Wolf, with their blend of minimalism and rock, has spawned many, even too many, followers; the success of their D.I.Y approach—through both the annual Marathon concert and their Cantaloupe label—is in large part responsible for the likes of New Amsterdam Records, one of the most important organizations in contemporary music. The ensemble So Percussion, who presented their Brooklyn-centric indie-pop/classical hybrid project “Where (we) Live” at BAM Next Wave in December (a performance I missed due to a death in the family) is a mainstay of Cantaloupe and has played music from all of Bang on a Can’s founding composers.
While BoaC’s post-minimal style has become so pervasive that it’s now reached its decadent stage, the three composers continue to develop, and none more than Lang. His earlier music, exemplified by great and important pieces like “Slow Movement” and “Cheating, Lying, Stealing,” was irreverent and experimental. He played around with fractured pulses and stillness. Currently he’s something of a neo-medievalist, with his Pulitzer-winning “Little Matchgirl Passion” and the new “Love Fail,” written in collaboration with the early music vocal group Anonymous 4 and seen at BAM Next Wave. The two pieces hew to traditional, even old-fashioned, harmonic structures. Having heard both now, I can say that it’s useful and appropriate to compare Lang with Arvo Pärt.
Lang is more modern than Pärt in both technical and aesthetic ways. Pärt writes his harmonies in straight, clear rhythms, while Lang frequently combines two or three different pulses that create a shifting sense of harmonic motion, even as he concludes phrases and cadences on triads. It’s something you hear in the music of Palestrina and Josquin, elided to contemporary repetitive rhythms. Lang also prefers secular subjects and words that he can set to melodic lines that are a musical cognate to Gertrude Stein. That’s the expressive quality, and I find it off-putting.
Pärt’s music is deeply involving and expressive because he is absolutely sincere about what he’s conveying. With Lang, I’m not so sure. There’s something going on in his work that is the worst of the parochial New York expressive stance: “Love Fail,” like “Little Matchgirl Passion,” on the subject of the destructive passion of love and loyalty. The new piece is a retelling of the Tristan and Isolde myth, so the lack of expressive passion is a problem. The narrative is finely crafted, but the monotonously diffident tone ignores a sense of drama, and it’s matched by a video from Jim Findlay that pairs men and women who mostly stand still and stare into the camera. It’s all so noncommittal about what is happening with the lovers that it comes off as a legalistic narrative of an unfortunate but otherwise civilized divorce between a couple who go to all the swell parties in SoHo.
Michael Gordon has built on the success of pieces like “Industry” and Decasia by paring down his ideas to an increasingly pure core, and that inner journey has brought more external breakthroughs. When his music works best he skips over the stylistic trappings of rock and gets right to the core of the post-punk aesthetic: an anti-bourgeois, physically invigorating, even threatening sound. BAM presented his recent percussion piece “Timber” in a revelatory production—more than a concert, this was a performance that combined simple lighting and integral amplification to transform the sit-and-listen experience. On disc, “Timber” is technically interesting but ultimately dull; in person it’s gripping and mysterious, a musical magic trick. The six members of Mantra Percussion, the piece’s performers and among its original commissioners, were lit from below by Jim Findlay and Jamie McElhinney, and that visual approach was matched by the sound of the music, six men beating on non-pitched slabs of wood in cross-rhythms and producing a throbbing, shimmering texture of different tones that flowed throughout the theater. It was a musical seance, the experience of a work that not only defined the time in which it exists but reached out to physically map the limits of the space around it. It was beautiful in a truly uncanny way, and the sense that Gordon was experimenting with his musical and physical materials and accepting what might happen made the performance feel like a signpost pointing to the future. It’s superficially less elegant than “Love Fail,” but eschewing narrative and going for the psychoacoustic workings of pure sound and accepting the chance that it may not work is far more rigorous, challenging, and rewarding.
GEORGE GRELLA is the publisher of the Big City Blog and writes frequently about music for the Rail, where he covers the Brooklyn Philharmonic beat.