Bang on a Can Marathon

Composer Neil O’Connor, who recently moved to New York, reports on the recent Bang on a Can Marathon which took place on 17 June 2012.

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The annual Bang on a Can Marathon is one of the highlights of the summer music events here in New York City. Held in the Winter Garden at the World Trade Center, I am familiar with the space as I was part of concert held there on St. Patrick’s Day 2008 as part of a presentation of ‘New Music from Ireland’, organized by Daniel Figgis. The annual 12-hour marathon presents a diverse, open and exciting range of music from the US and around the world, and best of all, it’s free. “Imagine Lollapalooza advised by the ghost of John Cage,” Vanity Fair wrote.

The day started off at 12pm with a piece by Lois V Vierk entitled Dither, performed by So Guitars. It was a great start to the day, as the guitar ensemble set up a wall of guitars that modulated and resonated throughout the glass structure. By the early afternoon the pieces become more ‘Pop’ orientated with a piece by a familiar composer, Newspeak by Ruby Fulton (together we were both composers at the Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival at the Massachusetts Museum of Modern Art back in 2008). Together with a saw and ukulele, it reminded me of an old Broadway tune, but played by contemporary music ensemble.

My mind was completely blown by the sonorities that Pauline Oliveros and her Deep listening Band produced in From Now On. For this piece, seashells and Tibetan drone pipes were processed electronically, producing some absolutely astounding tones, ones that had a huge impact on my ears for the rest of the evening. Julia Wolfe’s piece for six pianos, Grand Band, featured the Irish pianist Isabelle O’Connell. This piece employed piano clusters and phasing that were utilised to produce ebb and flow like effects. Into the late evening, David Lang and Michael Harrison provided luscious string arrangements that kept with the minimalist attitude of the day. Reich’s Six Pianos (one of the few Reich pieces I have not seen live) was a real joy. As I stood close to the pianist, I paid close attention to the in and out points, following the phase techniques with both ear and eye.

Save the best piece until last. Indeed! Gerard Grisey’s Le Noir de L’etolie, performed by the NYC percussion group Talujon was really worth staying for (I was now on my 10th hour of music). In this piece six percussion ensembles surrounded the hall. The evolution of timbres played by instruments, and of sound colors as they expand, explore the great complexities of what our ears can hear, and take the audience on a journey inside the sound of music. Not only is the space “out there” brought into the Concert Hall, the hall itself is made part of the experience by placing the performers, instruments, and loudspeakers around the audience.

Twelve hours of contemporary music may be trying to some, but Bang on a Can’s inventive and aggressive approach to programming and presentation has created a large and vibrant international audience of people of all ages who are rediscovering the value of contemporary music. It was great to catch up with fellow composers, talk shop and listen to music. (I even got a very nice introduction to Mr Reich himself!). I hope, now that I have relocated here, that perhaps someday (if I am lucky) I may become artistically involved in this superb day of events. Here’s hoping …

Neil O’Connor’s latest work for String Quartet and Electronics, ‘Sommus’ is available as a digital release on Bandcamp

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