Studies (selection, arr. Evan Ziporyn)
Bang on a Can All-Stars
Reviewed by: Timothy Ball
Reviewed: 7 October, 2002
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Bang on a Can All-Stars is an American group specialising in contemporary music which is, shall we say, off the beaten track in terms of style and instrumentation. They have been performing Andriessen’s music for some fourteen years, and offered this concert “as a gift from across the ocean, a tribute from his transatlantic friends.”
The performers on this occasion demonstrated outstanding individual virtuosity, whilst collectively there was real interaction and a true sense of chamber music-making. The concert began with transcriptions by the group’s clarinettist of four of the reclusive (now late) Conlon Nancarrow’s studies for player piano. These are extraordinary pieces that examine the possibilities and permutations of several rhythmic layers. The monochrome sound of the original versions provides for a remarkable aural experience in itself, but these transcriptions, made especially for this concert, enabled one to appreciate the inventiveness of the individual lines and strands of the music.
The ensemble consisted of clarinet, piano, cello, double bass, electric guitar and drums – all heavily amplified which made the evening rather tiring on the ear. For all the variety of timbre, however, it seemed to be wrong-footed to have underlined everything with an insistent drum-beat. Surely the point of these studies is to allow rhythms to operate independently of a regular pulse which is easy to feel and recognise. Nevertheless, the kaleidoscope of styles which Nancarrow drew upon, such as boogie-woogie, swing and blues, were brought out clearly in these transcriptions. There were even pre-echoes of Steve Reich in the use of phrases that were out of phase with each other. I thought the third of the pieces the most successful, with its hints of cool jazz, excellent interplay between piano and pizzicato double bass and the ghost of Gershwin hovering in the background. Elsewhere, some of the swooping and swooning of the clarinet, the screechy electric guitar and sheer ferocity proved quite trying, but the final number ended with a kind of frenzied dance which effectively recalled Ives in one of his wilder moments.
From the complexity of Nancarrow, we proceeded to the apparent simplicity of Reich’s Four Organs. Dating from 1970, this is one of the earliest of his pieces to have gained attention – or notoriety. Its first performance was organised in Boston by Michael Tilson Thomas, and created something of a furore that certainly ensured that Reich’s name became more widely known. Thirty-two years on, Four Organs seems rather quaint and naïve in a strange sort of way. The piece consists of one chord, constantly re-iterated, but whose note-lengths are gradually increased, so we move from a staccato opening to a sustained conclusion, the whole underpinned by the constant pulse of maracas. The concentration required for this piece is tremendous, and all credit to the players on this occasion.
It is perhaps inappropriate to quibble at the fact that four organs do not mean four synthesisers. The original instruments were Farfisa electric organs and, however carefully copied, synthesised sounds are not the same. Perhaps there needs to be an authenticity movement for contemporary pieces as well as for music from the past.
The programme note for Andriessen’s Dubbelspoor (Double Track)promised “patient, quiet sonorities” and “gentle repetitions”. Maybe other performances might have delivered these qualities, but there was nothing especially quiet on this occasion, given the use of amplified piano, celesta, harpsichord and glockenspiel – a fascinating sonority nonetheless.
The music was characterised by the sounding of one chord interspersed with phrases that seemed to want to grow into melodic shapes, but which were thwarted in their development. It was interesting to hear this idea teased out. The high pitched chords actually called to mind the conclusion of Stravinsky’s Les noces and Andriessen has often acknowledged his debt to the Russian master. Indeed, the rhythmic drive of his music would surely have been impossible without the example of Stravinsky. I would like to hear Dubbelspoor again in a more reflective performance, but the concentration and interchange between the players was impressive.
Terry Riley’s In C (1964) can perhaps now be regarded at the first ’classic’ of minimalism. 53 phrases form the basis of what might be termed ’collective improvisation’ since each player decides when to move on to the next group. The resulting changes of texture are, as with much minimalist music, quite mesmerising. It was about three-quarters of the way through this performance when I realised – or thought I did – that the constantly pulsing of the note C was, in fact, pre-recorded and I began to wonder whether other sounds were also being transmitted across the loudspeakers. Perhaps this was the hypnotic effect of the music, but whatever the case, the communication between the players – the same ensemble who had played in the Nancarrow – was spellbinding. Far from being boring or irritating, this simple-seeming music on paper was exhilarating in performance and brought this tribute to Andriessen to a stunning conclusion.