Those unfamiliar with Bang On a Can All-Stars would not have been able to tell what they were about to hear from the cornucopia of instruments strewn around the stage of Oberlin College’s Finney Chapel on February 28. A cello and bass lay on their sides, an electric guitar sat on a stand, and a playground of percussion occupied more space than your average New York studio apartment. Is the All-Stars really a “contemporary classical” (those dreaded two words) group? Is it a rock band? Will guitarist Mark Stewart ever lose his long mane of formerly red, now grey, hair? After over 20 years, these questions remain unanswered.
One certainty: Bang on a Can All-Stars is a group of musicians with an electrifying stage presence. They have a self-possessed but rarely complacent vibe about them, confidently skipping through time signatures and harmonies, always conveying the joy they take in sharing their bright, colorful music with their audience.
The group has gone through numerous personnel changes (only Stewart and bassist Robert Black remain of the original lineup), performed countless concerts, premiered bucketfuls of new works, and even transformed into cartoon characters for an appearance on PBS’s Arthur. Their brand of post-minimalism sometimes seems as set in stone as sonata form, but just as there are very good sonatas, there is very good post-minimalism.