Reminder: I am no longer actually at Bang on a Can Summer Festival at MASS MoCA. I returned to Charm City on Sunday after an exhilarating three weeks in North Adams, Massachusetts. Therefore, these wrap-up posts are more like Dispatches “About” Bang on a Can rather than Dispatches “From” Bang on a Can.
While at Bang on a Can I had the pleasure of performing Phillip Glass’ Music in Similar Motion for an all Glass concert. A singer in Music in Similar Motion? Why yes, strange but true. Thanks to this piece I think I have finally learned how to yodel… Some of you regular readers may remember that the ensemble decided we would have extra time so we added more pieces to our repertoire. Our fearless leader, Nicholas Photinos of eighth blackbird fame, approached the Fellow composers to write miniatures for the ensemble to perform during the final week. We all joked that it was somewhat like those cooking shows because the composers had to abide by certain guidelines. They could only pick up to five people for each ensemble and no one ensemble member could be used more than three times. To say that we may not have fully realized the ambition of the Fellow composers would be an understatement. Each one of them turned in intelligent, carefully crafted compositions in just a few days time. Then it was up to our ensembles to make it work, as they say.
The composers presented me with three extremely diverse pieces to prepare for the concert on the 25th. I kicked off the concert with John Supko’s I asked for names of all this is. Continuing the tradition of singer/percussionist, the score calls for amplified mezzo-soprano playing two high wood blocks (one slightly higher than the other) and kick drum in ensemble with electric guitar and two electric basses. John’s piece is a setting of a poem that he compiled from the results of feeding six different science fiction and theosophical texts through a Markov chain.
I asked for names of all that is:
the lips of youth,
the secret language, flowers or animals,
the approximate time,
the eagerness of unpracticed pride,
the astral part of Magna Graecia,
the body of desire,
the subjects we should want to paint,
the picture represented,
the organs of an incident,
an Orient steamer sailing from Ceylon to Naples,
grapes, palm fruit,
reward or repose.
I asked for names of all that is:
the visible things which are either exemplary
or deserving of sympathetic contemplation,
the heavy clouds,
a made-up story,
a condition of health,
the white of foaming water,
The Seven Principles of Man,
social and political virtues,
photographs of landscape.
And invisible things:
discussions which have determinate form,
the assault and capture of schools of color,
the idea of the Divine,
the operation of gravity on ponderous and viscous materials,
this enclosing line,
brevity and amplification
the capacity for sinning,
the cloud-like prime of life,
the difficulty of getting faint in aerial distance,
the power of the forming of the birds,
the help of architecture,
the poles of Being,
the school of light.
John also used a computer to generate the two bass lines which we ended up performing with tape (and a click track for the performers.) I turned over my percussion parts to one of the bassists (Sorry!) so to focus on the intricate rhythms and text. My colleagues Brendan Randall-Myers on electric guitar and Patrick Swoboda, the bassist who took over my percussion, were excellent ensemble members that truly demonstrated their masterful musicianship during the learning and performing of John’s piece.
Sam Crawford also chose to compose for me again for Colony (In Memoriam Ray Bradbury). He was inspired by one of the two books he brought with him to the festival, The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. He felt that the text spoke to the fellows experience attending Bang on a Can. Funny enough, Sam decided that I should literally bang on a can during a section of the piece and usually extolled me to “bang louder!”
They came because they were afraid or unafraid,
happy or unhappy.
There was a reason for each man.
they were coming to find something or get something,
to dig up something or bury something.
They were coming with small dreams or big dreams or none at all…
the first men were few
but the numbers grew steadily.
There was comfort in numbers.
But the first Lonely Ones had to stand alone…
There was a real cabaret-style feeling to the vocal line which is a duet with the oboe for much of the piece. However, it is not such a straight-forward duet because the voice and oboe are often in close dissonance. Stuart Breczinski was a stellar duet partner on the oboe while Gregg August and Charlie Magnone held down the the bass and piano lines respectively.
Finally, when Loren Loiacono told me the text she had chosen for her piece, Sonnet III (Torch Song) I was sold. The Edna St. Vincent Millay text from “Eight Sonnets” is one of my favorites and I find a true depth of emotion inherent in the language. Loren’s piece, like art song, was a golden opportunity to sing lyrically again during the festival. She sets up the lilting, descending lines in such a way that the text truly comes through.
I know I am but summer to your heart,
And not the full four seasons of the year;
And you must welcome from another part
Such noble moods as are not mine, my dear.
No gracious weight of golden fruits to sell
Have I, nor any wise and wintry thing;
And I have loved you all too long and well
To carry still the high sweet breast of spring.
Wherefore I say: O love, as summer goes,
I must be gone, steal forth with silent drums,
That you may hail anew the bird and rose
When I come back to you, as summer comes.
Else will you seek, at some not distant time,
Even your summer in another clime.
The instrumentation was light enough to let the vocal line soar and yet rhythmic to convey a sense of underlying emotion and forward motion. My fellow ensemble members including: Brendan Randall-Myers (electric guitar), Nick Photinos (cello), Patrick Swoboda (bass), and Jennifer Ellis (harp), played deftly. Their innate sense for the emotional character of the piece was inspiring.
With the ink barely dry on each piece, all the musicians in our Glass ensemble were able to flesh out the character of each piece and give it the best performance possible. Although adding these three extra pieces to the week’s performances was incredibly stressful at times, I am overall grateful to Nick Photinos for suggesting the project. Plus, I was honored to première these new works by John Supko, Sam Crawford, and Loren Loiacono.