Bang on a Can All-Stars: Field Recordings

Upon parking on Georgia Tech’s campus, I was greeted with the sound of dance music being blasted from a nearby quad so loudly that the sound was distorted until I was nearly in front of the Ferst Center. When I finally took my seat, I could hear the bass from it very clearly inside the auditorium. It was so loud that I actually went back outside and asked the person in charge of whatever the event was if they could turn it down. He merely said that he had police permission and I could file a complaint if I want. I spoke with someone in admin at the Ferst Center and she said that they’d already tried but that the police wouldn’t do anything and that there really wasn’t anyone else whom she could contact. The whole this is absurd because, as I said, the music was too loud for the event itself and it would not have harmed a thing to turn it down enough that it wouldn’t have penetrated the Ferst Center’s auditorium. Since he told me to file a complaint, though, I probably will and I recommend anyone else who was there to do the same. It’s not the Ferst’s fault, so I’d reach out to the university’s division of administration and finance.

The sound outside did get quieter as we got closer to show time and it turned out that most of this concert was pretty loud and the only silence in the pieces on the program tended to be at the very end. And, of course, they play amplified music, so they can be heard over noisy things. I actually felt that they were a bit over-amplified for this performance, but I suspect that was to compensate for the noisy neighbors so I’m not really holding it against them.

The concert opened with Julia Wolfe’s “Reeling,” featuring a recording of a French Canadian folk singer singing what sounded to me a lot like a banjo or fiddle part sung as a kind of simple scat. The musicians snapped along with his rhythms and the instruments were brought in to flesh out the piece into a rather jumpy, repetitive jig. It would have been fun to get up and dance to this one.

After the opening work, Ken Thomson, the clarinetist, introduced the first few pieces. The printed program we were given listed the composers and the performers but said nothing of the pieces included. Thomson just kind of gave us a list every so often throughout the concert.

This was followed by Florent Ghys’ piece, “An Open Cage.” This was set to John Cage reading an excerpt from his memoirs. It sounded like a pretty groovy blend of jazz and minimalism with an occasional rockish back beat, with the music accentuating his reading in a way that made it sound almost as though he were singing when he really wasn’t. I couldn’t tell for sure if the rhythms were from the true cadence of his voice or if the recording was manipulated, but I suspect that it wasn’t and that it was just Ghys rather cleverly playing with our perceptions of his voice through the accompanying instrumentation. At one point some of the musicians sang along with what Cage was saying, making it a kind of chorus.

The first of several pieces present with video was Michael Gordon’s “Gene Takes a Drink.” This was a rhythmically driven piece with lots of repeated, fading arpeggios set to a video of a cat or a dog playing out in a garden. The music was clearly meant to accompany the video but I think that I enjoyed it more when I looked away from the screen.

Next up was Christian Marclay’s “Fade to Slide,” which also had a video with it. It was a cacophony of clips from various movies set to a cacophony of sounds. I think that I’d have enjoyed it more – and remembered more of what the music was like – were I not distracted by trying to figure out what all the movie clips were from. Not that I didn’t enjoy it, just that I was too easily distracted by the video.I made no notes and have zero recollection of this piece. I can’t even tell you if I liked it or not. That’s unfortunate. I’ll have to look it up later.

The next piece was David Lang’s “Unused Swan.” This was a really cool piece that was excerpted from a new ballet written for a production of “Swan Lake” that ended up not being used. It made really interesting use of chains of various sizes interacting in various ways with a metal table that was miked and the sound digitally manipulated. They didn’t announce what the piece was until after it was over and I was racking my brain trying to figure out what parts of the story were represented by the bit that we heard but I couldn’t think of anything at all. I’d be interested to hear the full ballet and I’d be even more interested in seeing choreography set to it.

Next was “Casino Trem” by Tyondai Braxton, which was set to sounds from a Casino. For the life of me, all I can remember of this piece is that it sounded like a big, disorienting game and that it used synthesizer that sounded almost like 8bit music. Every time I try to conjure up any of it from my memory I just keep thinking of “Frogger.” I’ve never been to a casino, so I have no idea if they sound like a giant cacophony of Frogger games.

I really liked Jóhann Jóhannsson’s “Hz,” which was inspired by recordings taken around a hydroelectric plant. This one also had accompanying film and was the only one where the film felt like a complement to the music rather than the other way around. It was kind of like a smooth, industrial dream, starting pretty chill but building tension as it went along.

Todd Reynolds’ “Seven Sundays” was set to a recording of Black Baptist preaching. It played off of the cadences and musicality of the sermons, with the instrumentation kind of bouncing off of the preachers’ voices at times or pushing them forward with driving rhythms at others. It was pretty interesting how it worked so well without at all sounding like anything related to a spiritual or gospel, which is what would naturally be called to mind for me. It was almost like some kind of contemporary subtextual analysis of the traditional sound of the preaching.

This was followed by, what I think we were told was, act II, scene 8 of Steve Reich’s “The Cave,” which is an opera about the cave of Machpelah. I just looked it up and act II only has six scenes, so I’m not sure if I misheard or Thomson misspoke or if there’s something more sinister going on (which is likely given that Thomson is a clarinetist). This is a dark and rich piece of music with a wonderful sense of mystery. It’s almost like one long, drawn out pulse. It was almost out of place on this program that didn’t really go in for subtlety, but it worked well enough in this context and I enjoyed it a lot.

The next work to use video was Bryce Dessner’s “Letter 27.” This was set against Charles Olson’s poem, “Maximus to Cloucester, Letter 27 [withheld],” which was read in the video by the poet himself. It was a peppy accompaniment to the reading with a sort of bouncy dreaminess to it.

The final work on the program was Anna Clyne’s “A Wonderful Day.” The story we were given was that Clyne sat with a homeless man on the street and recorded him. I looked up the composers notes to get the man’s name, which is Willie Barbee, and she described him as an old man walking down the street and singing. I’m not saying that you can’t trust a clarinetist, but Thomson may be trying to teach us that it’s best not to. This was gorgeous: Clyne’s music was soft and beautiful and Barbee’s voice was rough but incredibly sweet.

After the ovation, there was a pseudo-encore in the form of Nick Zammuto’s “Real Beauty Turns.” I say that this was a pseudo-encore because, even though Zammuto wasn’t listed on the program and the musicians left the stage and came back on, it had a video to go with it and it just seems odd that they’d have it ready for an encore if it weren’t really programmed ahead of time. I guess that it’s not that hard to handle given that these were all digital videos and they were probably all on the same DVD, but it’s just one of those devious tricks that you might expect from a clarinetist trying to convince the audience that they were getting more than they paid for. Anyway, this was a funky piece set to a bunch of clips of old beauty sales videos and was a lot of fun and a pretty decent way to end the evening.

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