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While the highlight of Sunday’s Bang on a Can Marathon at the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center came early, the rest of the program offered plenty to enjoy as well, even if the culminating performance was somewhat dubious. Just after the Bang on a Can All-Stars completed their innovative arrangement of Brian Eno‘s Music For Airports, a rather more scattershot program called kicked off in CSPAC’s Gildenhorn Recital Hall, in which members of the Bay Players Experimental Music Collective and the University of Maryland Percussion Ensemble played a series of short pieces for small ensembles. Finally, a 6pm event featuring Glenn Kotche and Terry Riley closed things out.
My impressions of the day, after the jump.
Of the Gildenhorn performances, my favorites were two solo pieces. Robert Black performed a solo upright bass piece in which he managed to play beautiful, fractured melodies while simultaneously bowing a hypnotic drone. Halfway through, some moments of straightforward drama crept in, but I frankly enjoyed a few bars of what could glibly de described as Apocalyptica-style bombast underpinned by that ever-present drone. The other highlight was a solo clarinet performance by Bang on a Can member Evan Ziporyn (pictured above) that he introduced by saying, “I had this crazy idea to play chords on a bass clarinet…” which he appeared to do by singing into his instrument while overblowing. Far from a crass demonstration of extended technique, Ziporyn made his unusual sound into something strange and alluring.
Most of the small-ensemble Gildenhorn pieces deconstructed the relationship between composition and improvisation, the role of the performance space, the role of the performers’ physical presences, and so on. Some of these were more interesting in theory than in practice, of course, but Michael Boyd’s “Hand Leg Suit” was an entertaining highlight in which the three performers (including Boyd himself) played a kind of musical Twister. The score for this piece had the performers following “simple graphic images and charts that list actions, parts of body and parts of the instrument,” the result of which was a fragmented clattering of sounds interspersed with what came off as physical comedy: Boyd hiding underneath the piano saying “this is really weird”; the percussionist taking his drum apart and obsessive-compulsively arranging the pieces along the front of the stage; Boyd meandering out into the crowd and greeting bemused audience members; lots of performing on hands and knees or wandering aimlessly across the stage.
The main event, which was ticketed and kicked off at 6pm in the CSPAC’s 1,100-seat Dekelboum Theatre, began with Glenn Kotche performing solo. He started with a piece familiar to anyone who saw him and Nels Cline at the Black Cat in 2006 (when they played solo sets, then together as a duo, opening for Lambchop – a weird bill if there ever was one), “Monkey Chant” off of his 2006 album Mobile. This piece mixes rock-and-roll drum solo bombast with judiciously applied extended techniques, backgrounded by the amplified chirping of live crickets. As at the Black Cat, Kotche actually had an array of small boxes on stage with crickets inside them, which he opened at the beginning of the piece and then closed, one by one, at the end, their sound fading out gracefully.
A pair of duet interpretations of Steve Reich pieces, with Bang on a Can All-Stars percussionist David Cossin, followed, and then the full All-Stars lineup came out and performed what were the most enjoyable pieces of the evening for me: a relatively new commissioned piece called “Snap,” and a rearrangement of the titular composition from Mobile for the full ensemble. These were energetic, engaging pieces, very well-received by the crowd, and Kotche once again showed himself to be much more than just “the drummer from Wilco.”
After a brief intermission, Terry Riley’s “Autodreamographical Tales/Science Fiction” capped off the marathon. A radio station commissioned Riley to write down his dreams and set them to music, and as one might expect, the results are trippy, psychedelic, a pleasant journey through a surreal landscape. Riley recited frank descriptions of his dreams as the Bang on a Can All-Stars flitted easily between styles (here a psych-rock guitar riff, there a a bit of raga; here a few moments of electronic haze, there an energetic, boppy jazz passage). The pastiche of musical styles was entertaining and evocative; unfortunately, I could have done with less of (or even none of) Riley’s storytelling. While mostly narrating, he occasionally sang, and his earnest voice took all subtlety out of the performance, especially when singing lines like “Cannabis is a wonderful drug/Sometimes you’re like a cat on a rug.” Not exactly poetry at its finest.
“Autodreamographical Tales” received polite applause and a general feeling of bewilderment, which I suppose was probably the point. Still, I couldn’t help but feel a little let down by Riley’s piece. Thankfully, all the great stuff earlier in the day more than made up for any disappointment I felt at the conclusion.