Bang on a Can first announced their first Long Play festival in late 2019, scheduling it for the first weekend of the following May. The rest was non-history of New York’s performance for most of 2020.
This original festival lineup was an extension of the old Bang on a Can marathons, featuring a mix of new classical music and non-standard non-classical bands, like Bearthoven and Matmos. Even though the lineup was a bit consolidated, honoring the past (Steve Reich, Brian Eno), it was still easy to anticipate the experience of hearing all that music live.
Two years later, the first Long Play festival is going ahead as planned, with similar values but a wider reach, musically and geographically. Centered around the Brooklyn Academy of Music Opera House, there were performances at the Mark Morris Dance Center, the Center for Fiction, Roulette Intermedium and Public Records and Littlefield in Gowanus, all of which are basically within walking distance for most New Yorkers. Long Play is an initiative of Bang on a Can, meaning the festival held concerts dedicated to the music of the founders, David Lang, Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon, and the Bang on a Can All-Stars were one central sets—and yes, they played their arrangement of Eno music for airports.
But this time around, the range has extended the reach of Bang on a Can. The old New York City Marathons laid the groundwork for everything Bang on a Can did, which was, as Lang explained, put together high-quality music, disregarding of what he called “ideology”. As a composer, for him this meant a commitment to a specific compositional technique, whether it be rows of twelve tones or repeated tonal patterns. In practice, Bang on a Can productions are almost invariably tonal and heavily focused on the repeated motifs of minimalism – this is the ideology, declared or not, of these composers. Still, it covers a wide range of possibilities, from Lang’s increasingly icy and objective scores, to Wolfe’s soulful choral works that delve into social history, and Gordon’s way of escalating things to thrash metal. thorny.
For Long Play 2022, this foundation meant bringing rock, contemporary chamber music, avant-garde, electronic music (both experimental and quasi-house), free jazz, Stockhausen and some unique and interesting niches, like sui generis cellist Zoë Keating, Marcus Rojas shredding Henry Threadgill and others on tuba, and the Banda de los Muertos bringing Sinaloan marching band music to The Plaza at 300 Ashland. There was even something of a dance performance.
And Matmos were there too, although they produced one of Long Play’s few disappointments. In Roulette, they performed “The Backyard” scene from Robert Ashley’s opera perfect lives, with Drew Daniel handling the electronic score and MC Schmidt reciting the text, with an occasional guitar stab. It was a sadly superficial take on Ashley, literal in a way that lacked the deep empathy and humanism of her work. It was selfish and flat, and showed how much skill it takes to interpret Ashley’s work, not just the technical ability to hit the phrases in the lower region between speech and song, but to interpret the character . It was like an opera libretto table read with sound effects.
Flatness was a problem in the Public Records music room. Despite the quadraphonic speakers, the sound is drier than the surface of the moon. Trumpet player Nate Wooley and composer Michael Pisaro-Liu (on laptop), performed Éliane Radigue The ringing island and OCCAM X (an electronic score) there. Wooley concentrated deeply and seemed to breathe in the quiet harmonics, but there was no resonating sound – perhaps it was all the bodies surrounding him in space. The problem with OCCAM X was not the music but the medium. It’s been a challenge for over sixty years to play electronic music on speakers in front of a live audience, with no one on stage, and make it more compelling than listening to the same music at home, and all the evidence shows that it is insurmountable.
At the Morris Center, Pisaro-Liu himself, via the Southern Oregon University Percussion Ensemble, was heard performing Pisaro-Liu’s original version of rice drop. In this piece, each percussionist stands at a station and plays the instruments he has at hand by placing grains of rice on them. It’s nice to see in person. On paper or on disc, the concept takes over, but seeing it in person feels like a kind of soft, slow-motion play, the sensual experience of hearing something close to rain, but full of details that we have never heard before. There’s a limit to the amount of rice you can have on hand, so it only lasted about 20 minutes, when 20 hours would have been welcome.
After Matmos, Roulette hosted some of the best sets of the festival. There was the excellent trio of pianist David Virelles, bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Andrew Cyrille; another fantastic trio consisting of pianist Vijay Iyer, bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Tyshawn Sorey; Michael Riesman and Jenny Lin performed piano music by Phillip Glass and Galina Ustvolskaya, respectively; and guitarist Gary Lucas and vocalist Nona Hendryx brought their band (The World of) Captain Beefheart. It was one of the most beautiful decorations of the festival.
While it’s easy to see how much of an outsider Beefheart has been in American music, it’s actually the other way around. Or, to put it another way, this country is so culturally screwed up by commercialism and capitalism that it can’t see its own authentic qualities even when they’re screaming in its face. Calling Beefheart an avant-garde rocker is only fair if you don’t know he played the blues, and the blues, from Charley Patton to Otis Taylor, has always been avant-garde music. The commercial and institutional vision has so confined musical thinking to the idea that formal and tonal music cannot be avant-garde, which is absolutely wrong. There’s little more avant-garde than Beefheart, as this band shows. Hendryx is always in full voice, with excellent phrasing, and with Lucas’ chops, they make the arrangements so fluid that the beauty of the music shines through. And songs like “Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles” are really beautiful. Like Sun Ra and Charles Ives, Beefheart is essential to American music.
There were two different projects at the Opera itself, both representing/refreshing/rethinking/reinventing more essential American music. The Bang on a Can All-Stars and dance group Sasha Waltz & Guests performed Terry Riley In C., Waltz’s choreography creating dozens of little phrases and gestures for the dancers, following the structure of the music. The dancers/musicians start with the same pattern, repeat it an indefinite number of times, then individually move on to the next one. This means that everyone shares the same material at different times, in the same order, in and out of consonant and complementary music.
To see this physically embodied was beautiful and captivating. The All-Stars played under the impetus of a rock band, while groups of dancers moved all around the stage, in different numbers, joining then separating then regrouping. With the dancers, the music went on longer than usual, which just meant a good thing. The All-Stars made it to the end of the score, the dancers finished their patterns, leaving just one to work their way through a few final moves. Center stage, she lowered her arms and let out an audible sigh, the sound of satisfaction at a wondrous achievement.
On the final Sunday night, the All-Stars were rounded out with winds and strings in an orchestra to back an Ornette Coleman revamp. The shape of jazz to come. Leading the way was a band consisting of drummer Denardo Coleman, pianist Jason Moran, guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer, bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma, alto saxophonist Lee Odom and trumpeter Wallace Roney Jr., all led by Awadagin Pratt. Yes, Ornette Coleman with a conductor – and Pratt was exceptionally fine, clear, sure and propelling without ever overdoing it.
But, Ornette Coleman played by an orchestra? When it comes together like that, absolutely. Composers Nicole Mitchell, Carman Moore, Nick Dunston, Craig Harris, David Sanford and Pamela Z each rewrote one of the tracks from the album. These were not arrangements but recompositions, starting from when Gil Evans rewrote Gershwin and Aranjuez, and heading into truly new musical territory. Each piece was filled with insight, imagination and the ability to integrate the orchestra and the group, and even to obtain from the orchestra beautiful improvisations. And what a group. The horn players were the youngest members, and Odom and Roney, Jr. were brilliant. Odom played chopping lines that were bluesy and funky, while Roney, Jr. (son of the late trumpeter, one of the first victims of the pandemic), composed phrases that were thought-provoking and incredibly beautiful. . It was more great American music, bringing Ornette Coleman into a new context and bringing these composers to the fore, being part of a group of black artists who made some of the best new music we’ve heard all along. season.