Notes from the underground

This last month has seen a lot of tumult in this column. Hopefully, this week will restore some order to the situation. Just to be on the safe side, I’ve signed a contract with the Free Press in case the Record gig doesn’t work out – that column would have a rather different bent, focusing on what music readers should not listen to.

In any event, I’m here for now, and I’ve decided to go back to reviewing CDs. This week’s selection is a rather intriguing one, coming straight from my hometown of New York City. It’s a group called Bang on a Can, and they actually follow the model of pop groups and name their album – it’s called Industry (CD B196 4). Bang on a Can is an offbeat group of composers who are unashamedly influenced by pop music but are also well-versed in classical music history. The resulting sound world is very influenced by minimalism, a term you may remember from the column featuring Philip Glass. Minimalism generally refers to slowly-developing patterns, often using familiar harmonies, which evolve throughout a high number of repetitions. The selections on this disc are all what one might call “post-minimalist,” if one were pretentious, which I am.

Calling myself pretentious was actually a nice segue into my next point. You see, Industry includes some of the most irritating program notes I’ve ever read. In their “mission statement,” the members of Bang on a Can say that, when forming the group, they “didn’t want to be restricted by boundaries, and we didn’t want the listener to be restricted either.” Sounds nice, but they later go on to discuss composer Louis Andriessen, who was a major source of inspiration to the group. Describing his musical philosophy, they say, “There is something about his personality that is like a call to battle. Are you for him or against him? Do you want to join the defenders of true originality and art? Or go to the other side where everyone is entrenched in old, superstitious ideas? He makes people feel part of a movement. An entire generation of young composers has been drawn to Louis Andriessen’s rigorous radicalism. Refining rebellion with discipline is an important idea for our time. It’s the kind of idea we like at Bang on a Can.”

Now that, my friends, is pretension and hypocrisy. Bang on a Can was formed to avoid the “uptown crowd,” which was too academic, and the “downtown crowd,” which was too artsy-intellectual and pretentious. But it seems to me that they have simply created a new crowd to avoid – the “midtown crowd,” or whatever name you want to give them (the “Banging crowd” sounds too dirty). I suppose my music is influenced by pop music and minimalism to some extent, but what if it isn’t? Or what if they can’t hear the influence? Does that mean that I’m against “the defenders of true originality and art”? I like the idea of not being restricted by boundaries, but it seems that they are just creating new boundaries.

After all of this bashing, I have to say that the music itself is quite good. Represented here are the three composers of Bang on a Can, namely Julia Wolfe, David Lang and Michael Gordon, as well as Louis Andriessen. The best piece on here is Gordon’s title track, “Industry,” which is written for cello with some strange distortion. It starts off softly and innocently with a simple chord progression that changes slowly, with glissandos (slides) and heavier distortion effects added on bit by bit as the cello gets louder. It sounds amazingly like an electric guitar, in fact. Eventually, the intensity becomes overwhelming as a lower cello sound is somehow introduced simultaneously with the upper string wailing. The rhythm becomes much more intense and fast, and the piece marches to its conclusion like a gigantic machine.

I had the opportunity to sit in on a class with David Lang, one of the members of Bang on a Can, and he was very enthusiastic, engaging and made some good points. He played for us the piece of his which is represented on this album, “The Anvil Chorus.” The piece consists of a lot of banging on metal, chosen by the performer, and evoking the idea that in the Middle Ages, the loudest sound on Earth was that of blacksmiths pounding away. They would develop rhythms to keep themselves from striking the metal at the same time, and so here is the sound of many “anvils” being hit at various points in time. Lang uses foot pedals and such to create a larger sound world than one might imagine is possible from just one percussionist, and the resulting piece, while not overwhelmingly great, is nevertheless quite effective. The rhythms seem to fall in line with one another over time, and by the end it, too, feels like a giant machine, though more primitive and driven by men.

Julia Wolfe, the third member of Bang on a Can, gets the honor of opening up the CD with her energetic work “Lick.” This piece has very clear roots in pop music, but is very complicated and well thought out. I described a CD by the composer Todd Levin as an awful mix of techno and classical music. Well, Wolfe’s piece is a very funky, exciting mix of written form and pop feel. It’s very punchy, with “hits” of sound and an insistent beat that you can really move to. And “Lick” takes you somewhere, something that most pop music fails to do as the songs revel in their stasis.

Wolfe calls her piece “over the top,” but I would instead apply that term to a different piece on the album, Louis Andriessen’s “Hoketus.” These are four pieces played by two identical groups of instruments, consisting of short fragments alternating between the two groups in slightly changed fashion. My suitemates closed my door on two separate playings of these pieces – the songs are really irritating on a certain level. I find it difficult to write with this work playing in the background right now, so disorienting is the stop-and-go action of these insistent motives. But there is also something strangely satisfying about the work as a whole; have a listen and see what you think.

Andriessen is also represented with a fast, energetic piece called “Hout,” meaning “wood,” in reference to the marimba and (unheard) woodblocks, according to the composer. The piece consists of a series of phrases played by all of the instruments successively, right behind one another, so that everything sounds echoed by everything else. It’s a really cool effect, and the piece holds together nicely. There is constant motion throughout the entire piece except for a very few spots where the motion simply stops – those moments are striking because of the activity of the rest of the piece.

This disc is a really worthwhile collection of interesting pieces. I just wish that the composers weren’t so pretentious and hypocritical – read David Lang’s program notes for more of the same. Still, it’s definitely worth listening to. Join the Banging crowd!