Descriptions seemed to defy last night’s refreshing discourse in modern composition, courtesy of the Bang on a Can All-Stars and guest drummer Glenn Kotche at the Singletary Center for the Arts. That was especially true when the ensemble attempted to label itself.
For instance, Bang on a Can clarinetist and compere Evan Ziporyn tagged Snap, an immensely animated piece penned for the ensemble by Kotche, as “the hidden connection between Shaft and Tchaikovsky.” That was because the work was supposedly inspired – indirectly, at least – by the Memphis soul music popularized in the ‘60s on the Stax label.
But the piece curiously (and more literally) recalled at least two editions of the long-running prog band King Crimson. An early section revolved around an intriguing collage of strings (specifically, the lean orchestration of cellist Ashley Bathgate and bassist Robert Black), reeds (specifically, Ziporyn’s lone punctuations on bass clarinet) and dizzying piano (the work of Vicky Chow) that danced giddily around the music in a way that brought to mind the music the great British avant gardist Keith Tippett created with Crimson in the early ‘70s.
Then the piece shifted with Kotche and Bang on a Can drummer Ian Ding peppering the music with potent duel drum exchanges. That’s when an attractive theme was repeated in rounds with the dynamics increasing each time through. Crimson came to mind again, only more so in the guitar and drum-dominate version the band favored between 1972 and 1974.
And that was just one piece. Kotche, a rightly celebrated University of Kentucky alumnus and drummer for the equally decorated Wilco, teamed earlier in the set with Ding for two Steve Reich-inspired works. Clapping Hands Variations took the two from drum kits on opposite sides of the stages to hammering out Eastern-shaded tones on a series of cymbals, gongs and metal dishes that sat face down on the centerstage floor. A modified arrangement of Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood for the two kits was a more elemental, though no less intriguing, big beat exhibition.
Bang on a Can tackled the concert’s first set on their own with a tense ensemble recitation of Louis Andriessen’s Workers Union and the more varied For Madeline, a eulogy by Bang on a Can founder Michael Gordon for his mother that brought out lighter textures within the ensemble. Among them was the unexpectedly harmonious pairing of slide guitar and vibraphone.
Words failed the group again, though, on an exquisite arrangement of the first section of Brian Eno’s vanguard ambient piece, Music for Airports. Ziporyn described the piece as “cold.” A listen to the wonderfully remastered edition of Eno’s original Airports recording released in 2004 reveals the piece to be anything but.
Ditto for the ensemble’s arrangement and performance of the piece last night. With a purposely glacial melodic pace and a sleek theme on piano, chimes and synthesizer that was repeated like a mantra, the tune possessed an intimate, inviting glow. Pretty cozy listening for a winter’s evening it was, too.