As early as last June, curious posters began to appear, popping up around Duke's campus. Some musical group called "Bang On A Can All-Stars" was going to present a concert on November 8. Described as "part classical ensemble, part rock band, part jazz band...," this unique group was to be part of a weekend of new music presented by Duke University's Department of Music. The department has a strong commitment to presenting contemporary music of both well known and student composers, including the "Encounters With Music of Our Time" series and an annual mini-festival. Contemporary/modern/"new" music (even when it is fifty years old) has always been a hard sell to the general public, and Duke should be commended for being both open-minded and willing to accept inevitable financial losses for these concerts.
The November 8 concert in Reynolds Theatre was a microcosm of both the strengths and the weaknesses that are present in much of modern music. (I will continue to use this imprecise term for lack of a better one.) Much of modern music for years was dominated by overly complex, academic exercises that had an overwhelming majority of the listening public confused, annoyed and mostly apathetic. In 1964, a composition appeared named "In C" that was like a window opening up and clearing out all the stuffy, pedantic scholarly treatises that claimed to be musical compositions. The composer of that work, and the special guest for this performance, was Terry Riley. It was performed after intermission, following a varied and uneven first half.
The stage did in fact have more of the appearance of a rock concert than a "classical" recital. There were six musicians, playing electric guitar, bass, cello, piano, percussion, and clarinets. There were also mammoth columns of speakers on either side of the stage. This was definitely not going to be an intimate, pastoral evening. I expected the entire group to come out, but one person walked onto the stage, and I thought he was a stagehand. This was the group's percussionist, Steven Schick, a phenomenal musician and performer who played a work called "Anvil Chorus." It was written by David Lang, one of the founders of "Bang on a Can All-Stars," and, as the title suggests, it is about blacksmithing. This involved different lengths of anvil-sounding metals along with other percussive effects and was fascinating. Schick displayed an incredible gift of controlling many different patterns using arms and legs, and he also demonstrated an effective but not overbearing theatrical flair.
After the blacksmith shop was removed from the stage, the entire group came out and launched into a work by Julia Wolfe, another co-founder, entitled "Big, Beautiful, Dark, and Scary." The entire program note concerning this says: "This is how life feels right now." Well, that may be, but that's no reason to subject the public to your misery. There was a performance the previous night of another work by Wolfe that my colleagues Joe and Elizabeth Kahn describe in their review, "Big, Beautiful..." was equally bereft of any musical merit, only much louder.
Fortunately, Brazilian composer Hermeto Pascoal's "Arapua" was nothing like the previous assault. The title suggests the sound of a bee, yet this work was far from a one-trick effect. It was lyrical, with a wonderful rhythmic punch, and in retrospect it was the most enjoyable offering of the evening. Modern music doesn't have to be like bad-tasting medicine.
The first half ended with a virtuosic score by the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen. "Workers Union" is described as a "symphonic movement for any loud sounding group of instruments." With freedom there is structure, and the effective playing of this indeterminate work owed much to the incredible ability of all the players to improvise their own parts within the framework of the whole.
If a little is good, then more must be better - right? WRONG! Knowing when to stop and when enough is enough is not peculiar to modern music, or even music at all. This was the only problem I found with the performance of "In C," in the second half. However, this is not insignificant because despite the great attributes of this composition and the performance, this is what you are ultimately left with - there is simply too much of it. Greatly simplified, the style known as minimalism involves taking small cells of musical ideas and repeating them in varying rhythmic permutations, with very little, if any, modulation or harmonic movement of any kind. Taking harmony out of the equation immediately throws one huge element of Western music out of the mix. Riley's Indian raga influences are apparent in this and subsequent works, so repeated patterns going on for long periods are common features. When the work started, I was captivated by the sound, energy, rhythmic drive, and tight ensemble playing. The artists' ability to continually transform these small musical ideas was captivating and hypnotic. Then after a while you were able to anticipate what was coming, the repetition got repetitive, and you wished for the end. The fact that all of the instruments played almost all the time added to the sameness of the orchestration, as it were. This lasted for about one hour. What is fresh, creative, and engaging for thirty minutes eventually degenerates into something you just want to get away from. Like that commercial says: "know when to say when."