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.
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How did you keep a roof over your head and food on the table as a composer in the 16th century? Odds are it was through taking cloying, pandering texts in praise of your powerful employer and turning them into triumphant polyphony. “Having splendid music at court was a way of asserting status,” tenor Andrew Griffiths explained between selections of the early music vocal ensemble Stile Antico’s March 6 program at the First Congregational Church in Columbus, OH.
The concert concluded the British group’s American tour, which has featured music written for the House of Habsburg. Certainly no Western dynasty had more “status” than the Habsburgs, who ruled parts of Europe for most of the past millennium. (The assertion in Clemens non Papa’s Carole magnus eras that King Charles ruled over “all of Asia and Africa” was pure exaggeration.) In any case, being in the employ of the Habsburgs called for a certain amount of sycophancy.
However, Stile Antico is far from sycophantic. Their delivery is opulent but lean, with organic energy. No matter how prim and proper the texts, there was no trace of cassock-and-ruff, choir-stall stuffiness in the performance.
The group, which will soon celebrate its 10th anniversary, has no conductor. Still, from the first flashing notes of Cristobal de Morales’ Jubilate deo, the 12 singers consistently breathed together, started together, and ended together. Vowels were as tall and solid as the church’s walls, and consonants were audible without chopping up the phrases, as if the singers’ brains were somehow wired to a hidden central hub below the floor. (Maybe that’s why the women all wear floor-length dresses.)
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(I can post these latest reviews now because SFCV has them up.)
It takes a special sort to be able to love New York City in January. The city’s teeth are at its sharpest, suddenly stripped of December’s gingerbread and tinsel. The wind through the skyscraper canyons pierces through even the thickest of coats and hats. Perhaps not too coincidentally, there historically haven’t been many reasons to venture into the long nights of slush and salt.
This year, however, sees the Prototype Festival present seven dark, surreal opera and music-theater productions in various stages of development — two world premieres, one North American premiere, two works in progress, a cabaret night, and a staged concept album featuring rock icon Courtney Love. It may just be the reason music lovers need to pull on their warmest scarves and go outside.
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My review of Roomful of Teeth is up at SFCV!
With its name alone, Roomful of Teeth sets the mind on edge. The notion of a roomful of teeth is unsettling; no matter how you wash the blood off or put the teeth in jars or pretend they’re dinosaur teeth, it’s an undeniably visceral image, perhaps a name more suited to a metal band than a vocal ensemble.
And though the solo voice repertoire has Sprechstimmed, screeched, and swooped all the way through the 20th Century, the common mode of music for voices in harmony is still overwhelmingly pretty, excluding most other interesting ways to compose and perform. The vocal octet delivered none of that monotony: It finished up Trinity Wall Street’s Twelfth Night Festival on January 5 with a program of new works, embracing the dissonances with a grin.
Trinity Director of Music Julian Wachner introduced the program as “mostly wordless,” but Partita for 8 Voices, the first piece, began with a flurry of spoken English words. Line drawing instructions by artist Sol Lewitt combined with square dancing calls into a jumble of syllables that finally transformed into a joyfully belted American vowel that would make most choir directors’ hair stand on end. (Most choir directors are not directing Roomful of Teeth, and everyone is better off for it.)
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“If you want to get to heaven, get out of this world,” sings Lewis on this track, an elegiac cocktail of acoustic guitar, sparkly and chrome synths, and just enough string syrup. The closing track on her album this year, it keeps looking skyward even though a few lyrical clunks. Lewis’s voice is compassionate and warm, gently sailing through the stratosphere in a haze of condensation.
“Red Eyes” starts off cool and detached, with guitar only the tiniest bit fuzzy and Power, Corruption and Lies-esque strings layered on top. Adam Granduciel whoops, and suddenly we’re on the New Jersey Turnpike. (Can Bruce even hit those notes anymore?) The lyrics are fragmented, not fist pumping narrative but a stream of consciousness from a long suffering lover. When you can sing them with this much conviction, that doesn’t really matter.