Defining Bang on a Can is hard. Founded in 1987 by composers David Lang, Michael Gordon, and Julia Wolfe, it is a musical collective made up of composers and musicians dedicated to performing, producing, and commissioning new music that is innovative in some way. Among their most prominent projects is the annual Bang on a Can Marathon, an eight-hour concert held each summer in New York. This year’s Marathon was held on June 22 at the Winter Garden at Brookfield Place, and featured an array of old and new works, including Caroline Shaw’s “Partita for Eight Voices,” which won last year’s Pulitzer Prize for music.
The music that Bang on a Can produces and performs is heavily indebted to the Minimalist movement of the 60s and 70s, which emphasized simplicity in everything from art and design to music. In fact, they often collaborate with well-known Minimalist composers, such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass.
Last Thursday, Bang on a Can members performed at the Jewish Museum, which is nearing the end of a five-month long exhibition on the Minimalist art of the 60s. Pianist Vicky Chow and percussionist David Cossin, two members of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, played alongside two members of Dither, a New York-based electric guitar quartet. It was a wild, riveting performance, and one of the first that Bang on a Can members will take part in at the museum over the coming year.
The night started with a rendition of “Warmth” written by David Lang in 2006. The two guitarists, Taylor Levine and James Moore, performed the piece by themselves on distortion-free electric guitars. They traded off simple, repetitive lines in extremely difficult ways – instead of settling into a discernible rhythm, Levine and Moore answered each other in seemingly impossible intervals, as if they were nanoseconds apart.
Next, Levine left the stage and Moore performed a set of solo études from John Zorn’s “The Book of Heads,” which was written in 1978 but recorded and released in 1995. Zorn’s pieces call for bizarre and humorous techniques, such as rubbing balloons across the guitar strings and tapping the strings with a pencil to create strange harmonics. Moore broke into a sweat switching between guitar effects pedals on the floor in front of him to produce the wacky and original set of sounds.
Chow and Cossin then joined the group onstage at the piano and percussion set respectively. Chow informed me afterwards that the group had formed for this particular performance and had only rehearsed together twice – which is remarkable considering the rhythmic complexities of the pieces they played.
The full ensemble started with “City Walk,” a pulsing work written by Michael Gordon, before moving on to Philip Glass’ “Music in Fifths” (1969) and Louis Andriessen’s “Worker’s Union” (1975). “Music In Fifths” is simultaneously brilliant and maddeningly repetitive, built on a simple ascending and descending structure that stretches out into seemingly infinite patterns. Andriessen’s “Worker’s Union” was a pioneering work that abandoned specific tones altogether and encouraged improvisation. The sheet music only gives the performers a set of complicated rhythms that oscillates around a central line.
“There is no real musical staff in the music,” Moore explained.