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This Year’s Bang on a Can Marathon Focuses on Its Core Talent

What better to jar a sleepy crowd out of a pre-noon summer torpor than a steel pan orchestra? Kendall Williams’ arrangement of a Lord Nelson calypso hit, with its exubertant resemblance to a ballpark organ version of Take Me Out to the Ballgame, made an apt kickoff to this year’s Bang on a Can Marathon. The 2015 edition of the annual avant garde festival differentiated itself from previous concerts with its emphasis on larger-scale works, circling the wagons with a somewhat abbreviated list of performers. Past years featured an often exhilarating mix of global acts, frequently going on til almost dawn. This one was somewhat shorter, focusing more on a rotating cast of characters from the Bang on a Can organization and its triumvirate, composers David Lang, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe. The live stream is here; much of the concert will air eventually on John Schaefer’s New Sounds program on WNYC.

Pianist Vicky Chow tackled the challenge of an hour’s worth of staccato, motorik minimalism by Tristan Perich while variously processed electronic echoes rose and fell, sometimes subsuming Chow’s literally marathon performance. Echoing Brian Eno, the piece gave the rapidly growing financial district winter garden crowd a chance to sink back into a Sunday reverie before it unexpectly rose to a long series of demandingly energetic ripples. Chow probably welcomed several opportunies to pause and breathe when the machines took over completely. There was a clever false ending and a resonantly minimalist return to stillness and calm. Later in the day, bassist Florent Ghys followed a similar trajectory with a slinky noir groove and increasingly dancing, cinematic variations over kinetic, higher-register loops: a trippy, lively instrumental karaoke performance, essentially.

The Dither Guitar Quartet delivered a deliciously gritty, bitingly chromatic Lainie Fefferman Velvet Underground homage evoking Daydream Nation-era Sonic Youth. Thanks to a few judicious kicks of a boot into a loop pedal, they had a stomping beat behind their savagely crescendoing forest of overtones and blistering roar.

Mighty six-piano ensemble Grand Band hit a similar peak a bit later on with Lang’s Face So Pale, a substantially slower reworking of a Guillaume du Fay renaissance composition that did double duty as a mass and a “pop song,” as Lang put it. The group meticulously synchronized its pointillistically hypnotic, staccato incisions with the same precision that the sheet music on each player’s tablet flipped from page to page. What a treat it was to be in the second row for a dreamy surround-sound experience of that one.

Asphalt Orchestra played three joyous reinventions of Pixies favorites, reaffirming how well that band’s output translates to brass band. Sousaphone player John Altieri anchored the music, alto saxophonist Ken Thomson and trumpeter Stephanie Richards providing some of the afternoon’s most unselfconsiously adrenalizing moments. Then the Crossfire Steel Orchestra returned for a dancing but bracing Kendall Williams composition, rising and falling insistently.

Within minutes, Thomson was back onstage, this time on clarinet with the house art-rock band the Bang on a Can All-Stars, playing material from their latest album Field Recordings. They did Wolfe’s lilting, Acadian-flavored Reeling to accompany a recording of Canadian “mouth music.” Arguably the high point of the festival, Johann Johannsson‘s Hz built a vast, ominously looming horizontal expanse punctuated by David Cossin’s creepily twinkling vibraphone and Mark Stewart’s mighty washes of distorted guitar chords. Anna Clyne‘s A Wonderful Day grounded a sunny African-flavored melody in the dark textures of Robert Black’s bass, Thomson’s bass clarinet and Ashley Bathgate’s cello. Composer Todd Reynolds introduced his gospel choir mashup Seven Sundays witih a shout-out to the victims of the past week’s South Carolina massacre. Fueled by Bathgate’s sinewy lines, it turned out to be a characteristically jaunty dance with stadium rock heft and trippy hip-hop tinges.

The group’s final performance of the night, written by the BOAC three in collaboration with composer Lao Luo, was backing Chinese theatre chanteuse Gong Linna, pulling out all the stops for a dramatic triptych based on ancient shamanic songs.. The first invoked a fertility god, rising from rustic bluesiness to a towering vocal crescendo. The second, directed in English to a destructive river god, built from shivery low-string menace to a big, looping gallop, eventually coming full circle wih a visceral menace. The finale was a tonguetwistingly rapidfire polysyllabic love song to the mountain spirit – “Everybody in China knows this one,” grinned Linna – the mighty goddess ultimately spurning the shaman’s entreaties. You could call it kabuki rock.

Pianist Tomoko Mukaiyama made her way energetically through a creepy, Philip Glass-esque series of cellular motives from Somei Satoh‘s Ostinato Variations and then his alternately neoromantic and resonantly minimalistic, dynamically shifing Incarnations.  Third Angle New Music tackled Julian Day’s electroacoustic cut-and-paste Quartz, veering from sputtery to atmospheric as the piece ostensibly incorporated passages from two famous unfinished works, Haydn’s String Quartet in D and Schumann’s Quartettsatz. As it went on, it echoed Wolfe’s ominous adventures in string music, notably her chilling Cruel Sister suite.

Playing in the center of the atrium, Asphalt Orchestra’s versions of a trio of tunes by the pyrotechnic magician of Bulgarian clarinet music, Ivo Papasov swirled and blended into the space’s echoey sonics to the point where it wasn’t possible to tell if the band was actually playing his signature, machinegunning volleys note for note, or whether they were just holding them. But either way, what a way to send the energy to redline in a split second. Wisely, they returned to the more hospitable sonics of the stage for the final barn-burner.

Grand Band returned for their bandmate Paul Kerekes‘ Wither and Bloom, a diptych illustrating decay and rebirth. The first section’s flitting motives shifting elegantly into more minimal terrain, the second going in the opposite direction. Their final performance was a sardonic commissioned work from Gordon informed by childhood piano lesson trauma, a percussive, polyrhythmic roller-coaster ride punctuated by the occasional etude-like cascade.

So Percussion, with guitarist Nels Cline, did Bobby Previte’s Terminal 3 and 4, the composer on drums. Cline’s reverb roar, skronky Keith Levene-esque whistles and wails and white noise on the first number, outdoing the Dither guys for sheer volume, echoed out over staccato drum volleys like the Grateful Dead’s Space on crack. The second was a shticky but mercilessly funny portrait of the kind of torture drummers suffer, as well as the ones they inflict on the rest of us.

Brazilian percussionist/showman Cyro Baptista, leading a trio with Brian Marsella on multikeys and Tim Keiper on second drumkit, got a loud, jungly drone going and then launched into an animated shuffle, using a thicket of offbeat instruments from a big gong to a jawharp. Spacy, frantic hardbop gave way to vaudevillian audience-response antics, lots of pummeling and a return to dissociative disco.

Glenn Branca wound up the marathon, conducting a band with four guitars – two Fenders, an Ibanez Fender copy  and something else – plus minimal bass and pounding drums. It’s not the first time he’s done it and it probably won’t be the last. Branca still air-conducts with a very physical, Jimmy Page-style presence, in contrast to the group’s low-key focus. They opened with German Expressionism, a slowly swaying exchange of disquieting tritone-laced riffs; Jazzmaster player Arad Evans played the solo part on Branca’s looming Smoke guitar concerto, a turbocharged look back at a time when New York acts like Live Skull pulverized audiences. The group wound up with a trio of the composer’s signature more-or-less one-chord jams, part no wave orchestra, My Bloody Valentine and Also Sprach Zarathustra. Although this year’s marathon was about as abbreviated – relatively speaking – as other recent ones have been, it felt even shorter. Maybe that’s because there were so few lulls, the music and performances being consistently strong almost all the way through.

Some random observations: a painfully precious spoken-word component ruined an intriguingly swoopy and spiky LJ White piece for violin and cello played agilely by a subset of Third Angle New Music. The upstairs food court drew all the rugrats and their parents, leaving the downstairs mostly to concertgoers. Joy! The grounds crew shut off that obnoxious alarm on the elevator at the rear of the area: double joy! The roof leaking rain, not so joyful – the pianos got it good but this blog’s laptop escaped undamaged.

Another marathon, this one on the Upper West Side begininng on Saturday and ending this morning, offered a more improvisational kind of fun based on Erik Satie’s Vexations. A creepy, loopy piece designed to be played over and over a total of 840 times, it inspired composers Randall Woolf and Art Jarvinen to come up with their own variations.  A relay team of pianists assembled by Jed Distler began the performance at 8 AM and were planning on finishing up 24 hours later: a stop in on them late Saturday morning found both a pianist and electronic keyboardist blending textures over a loop of the Satie, occasionally embellished by both players, including a droll quote from one of the Gymnopedies. It would have been fun to have been able to stick around for more.

Halloween Thrills and Chills from the American Modern Ensemble

At Merkin Concert Hall last night, American Modern Ensemble director and virtuoso percussionist Robert Paterson explained to the sold-out crowd that the show had been eight years in the making. And he made it worth everyone’s while. It might or might not have been a rather brazen attempt to upstage works by George Crumb and David Del Tredici with a trio of his own compositions, but that was the ultimate result. Whatever the intention, it made for a great night of music.

The ensemble began as a sextet and by the time they hit the intermission, they’d grown to a nineteen-piece chamber orchestra, heavy on the percussion as you would expect from a composer like Paterson. He’s one of the most cinematic around: it’s a shock that his work hasn’t appeared in more films than it has. He credited both other composers on the bill as being major influences, and while there were echoes of Crumb’s flitting, ghostly motives as well as Del Tredici’s edgy, carnivalesque tunefulness throughout these works, there was as much ghoulish narrative, comparable with Bernard Herrmann – or Danny Elfman on steroids. Which made sense, this being a Halloween show.

The first number, Hell’s Kitchen, included everything AND a kitchen sink (ripped from its frame and hanging over the marimba). Methodically and with not a little gleeful intensity, the group made their way through a chuffing steam-train theme, a lively chase scene and horror-stricken tritones punctuated by brief moments of relatively less unease. Paterson’s second work, Closet Full of Demons, was more of a longform horror theme and variations, veering between cartoonish drollery and moments of sheer terrror. The concluding work, Ghost Theater took the wry ghoul-humor to a logical conclusion, sort of a 21st century update on Raymond Scott.

Crumb’s Music for a Summer Evening (from his Makrokosmos IIII suite) had a creepy aspect, and a nocturnal one, but also a big, agitated twin-piano cadenza from Blair McMillen and Stephen Gosling early on, not to mention plenty of anticipated autoharp-like figures emanating from inside the piano as the two went under their respective lids to brush the strings. The two percussionists, Paterson and Matt Ward, really got a workout, shifting in a split second between many, many objects, building vivid contrasts between murk and momentary, marionettish motives. As the piece went on, there were persistent references to dreamy Asian-tinged folk themes – and also occasionally maddeningly weird, awkward, seemingly random vocal shouts and mumbles that under different circumstances might have cleared the room. A work with so many other interesting things going on deserves to have those parts discreetly omitted.

Del Tredici’s Dracula came across as the kind of piece that would have been staged at Tonic ten years ago, part Vera Beren avant garde horror tableau, part nimbly macabre theme and variations. Soprano Nancy Allen Lundy sang the daylights out of it when presented with a few opportunities to do that. Otherwise, she was relegated to narration, which was luridly fun as the story took shape but quickly became a distraction from what is in every sense of the word a fantastic piece of music. Echoes of Roaring 20s swing, disquieting circus rock and Weimar cabaret juxtaposed with the clenched-teeth intensity from the winds, brass, percussion and strings – violist Jessica Meyer and cellist Dave Eggar getting some of the juiciest parts. Looking back, you could see the twistedly funny ending coming a mile away.

This was it for 2014 for this group, other than a couple of characteristically eclectic trio performances led by Gosling coming up at 5 PM on December 5 and 6 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art balcony bar. But 2015 promises to be especially ambitious for an already ambitious ensemble: a weeklong festival of new music from American composers staged at a reputedly amazing new complex in Danbury, Connecticut, in late summer, and the creation of a fullsize American Modern Ensemble symphony orchestra.

The Week’s Creepiest Halloween Show Is Thursday at Merkin Concert Hall

There are some ominously intriguing Halloween shows coming up toward the end of the week. On Halloween, there’s a doublebill with doom-obsessed, gale-force singer Jessi Robertson and murder ballad purveyor Kelley Swindall at the American Folk Art Museum at 5. Trumpeter Pam Fleming’s Dead Zombie Band are doing their creepy big band jazz at a street fair in Ft. Greene starting around 6; pianist Michael Riesman is playing Philip Glass’ score to the remake of Dracula to accompany a screening of the original 1931 film at the Morgan Library at 7; and the Jalopy is putting on an all-murder ballad night at 8 with a cast of familiar Americana faces. But the creepiest show of the week might well be the night before, Oct 30 at 8 PM at Merkin Concert Hall where the American Modern Ensemble, with guest conductor David Alan Miller, play George Crumb’s disquieting Music for a Summer Evening, David Del Tredici’s Dracula and a trio of macabre Robert Paterson pieces about dead soldiers, poltergeists and a full-blown nightmare. And the concert is free, but you need to rsvp to info@chambermusicny.org

Paterson, the world-class marimbist who directs the AME, has great talent for creepy cinematics. His most recent album, Winter Songs – streaming at Spotify – has a somewhat more subtle, muted unease. Although the album has impassioned performances by a crew of well-known singers, the star here turns out to be pianist Blair McMillen, who anchors the songs with a gravitas and a nimbly insistent attack to counterbalance the surrealism of several of the pieces. For example, baritone Jesse Blumberg sings a brief cycle of songs with lyrics taken completely from captchas: he and McMillen manage to keep everything dead serious even as the text gets stranger and sillier.

Wispy winter winds from the strings and woodwind section filter through McMillen’s icicle piano and Paterson’s own marimba in a theme and variations utilizing six texts by Wallace Stevens and others, sung by with an apt austerity by bass-baritone David Neal. Baritone Robert Gardner sings the viciously hilarious Eating Variations, a parody of food fixations and fads, with lyrics by Ron Singer. Like the captcha cycle, it’s all the more funny for the completely deadpan vocals even as the music grows more cartoonish.

The comedy hits a peak as soprano Nancy Allan Lundy gives voice to voicemail messages with varying degrees of absurdity and mischegas. The album winds up with tenor Dimitri Pittas singing Paterson’s cycle Batter’s Box, which imagines a rather trying day on the ballfield as experienced by former Mets allstar catcher Mike Piazza. Try and guess the pitcher and batter – one can’t find the plate with his breaking ball and the other can’t hit it – that Paterson alludes to!