A Note: I am no longer actually at Bang on a Can Summer Festival at MASS MoCA. I returned to The Land of Pleasant Living 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.
The marathon concert is at the core of Bang on a Can’s mission as an organization and probably the epitome of the summer festival. “When we started Bang on a Can in 1987, in an art gallery in SoHo, we never imagined that our one-day, 12-hour marathon festival of mostly unknown music would morph into a giant international organization dedicated to the support of experimental music, wherever we would find it,” write Bang on a Can Co-Founders Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolfe.¹ Unlike their 12-hour NYC marathons, the summer festival culminates with a 6-hour concert featuring a wide array of pieces that the fellows and faculty members have been preparing during their three weeks at MASS MoCA. The idea of the marathon, as David Lang explains it, is to group music by innovation rather than style, compositional school, or venue. Furthermore, presenting the works over such a long period of time removes the possibility of a “winner”, he says. The entire event is an invitation for dialogue rather than a definite decision of each individual piece’s worth.
Seth Godin often uses Roger Bannister to help illustrate his points about tenacity. After Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile in 1954, the record was broken again and again in the following year. Godin explains that up to that point, everyone thought it was impossible and yet, in two years the record had been broken repeatedly. Saturday night while celebrating at the Mohawk, I asked David Lang if the summer festival marathon ever felt like that; impossible at first but each time more fantastic than the last. He replied, “Yes and no. However, I will tell you that this year’s marathon is probably the most ambitious we have ever programmed at the summer festival.” In fact, by looking at the schedule I am sure you will agree:
JULY 28 MARATHON SCHEDULE
- George Crumb – Ancient Voices of Children
- Steve Reich – Cello Counterpoint
- Dan Becker – S.T.I.C
- Lou Harrison – Violin Concerto
- David Crowell – Waiting in the Rain for Snow
- Ken Thomson – Incoming (World Premiere)
- Hans Abrahamsen – Schnee, Canon 2B
- Giacinto Scelsi – Okanagon
- Pauline Oliveros – Sonic Meditation
- David Lang – sunray
- Missy Mazzoli – Shy Girl Shouting Music
- Jeffrey Brooks – After the Treewatcher (World Premiere)
- Steve Reich – Eight Lines
- Julia Wolfe – Lick
- Michael Gordon – Four Kings Fight Five
- Steve Reich – Clapping Music
- Steve Reich – 2×5
In what seems like an interesting way to start the whole program, our ensemble was first to take the stage with George Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children. My excitement about singing this piece never once waned from the moment I received my score in the mail. Crumb often used Federico García Lorca‘s poetry when writing for the voice. In Ancient Voices he chose the Lorca texts bearing toward the most primary things: “life, death, love, the smell of the earth, the sounds of the wind and the sea.” Knowing that Crumb had Jan DeGaetani‘s impeccable voice in mind while writing the piece gave me certain pause. Therefore, I knew that I could not “just sing it”. I would really have to connect with this piece beyond technical decisions. Crumb writes in the programme notes:
The vocal style in the cycle ranges from the virtuosic to the intimately lyrical… Perhaps the most characteristic vocal effect in Ancient Voices is produced by the mezzo-soprano singing a kind of fantastic vocalise (based on purely phonetic sounds) into an amplified piano, thereby producing a shimmering aura of echoes…
In composing Ancient Voices of Children I was conscious of an urge to fuse various unrelated stylistic elements. I was intrigued with the idea of juxtaposing the seemingly incongruous: a suggestion of Flamenco with a Baroque quotation (Bist du bei mir, from the “Notebook of Anna Magdalena Bach”), or a reminiscence of Mahler with a breath of the Orient. It later occurred to me that both Bach and Mahler drew upon many disparate sources in their own music without sacrificing “stylistic purity”.
It is sometimes of interest to a composer to recall the original impulse — the “creative germ” — of a compositional project. In the case of Ancient Voices I felt this impulse to be the climactic final words of the last song: “… and I will go very far … to ask Christ the lord to give me back my ancient soul of a child.”²
I was incredibly happy with the performance we produced as an ensemble. Brad Lubman was a terrific conductor who truly ushered us to a genuine interpretation of the work. I also must include a heart-felt thank you to the sound engineers and production team (Especially Andrew Cotton! as well as Eric, Keith, Curt, Matt, Mike, Tim, Zach, Mary Rose, and Danny) that helped us make Crumb sound like Crumb in a hall the size of the Hunter Center at MASS MoCA.
In a total juxtaposition of vocal styles, I also performed Missy Mazzoli’s piece Shy Girl Shouting Music. Entrusting the narrative of the piece to the singer, Missy does not use a text. The singer begins and ends the piece with soft, scratchy vocal fry (“a loose glottal closure which will permit air to bubble through slowly with a popping or rattling sound of a very low-frequency”³). After listening to this piece it may not surprise anyone that one of Mazzoli’s earlier mentors was Meredith Monk. The vocal line emerges from the croaking of the vocal fry arching to full-out, open vowel wail while being emboldened by the amplified piano, electric guitar, and amplified bass. It could be the closest I’ll ever feel to being a rockstar…
It was incredible to be a part of the ethos of a Bang on a Can Marathon concert – even a mountaintop experience. Think of all the elements that must come together to make something like this happen. Yet, to the success that it does each and every time and you realize that the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts.
Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave…
Let us then be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.”
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