Bang on a Can: A 10-hour trip around the world

Philadelphia's world-music group the Spoken Hand Percussion Orchestra was on the marathon bill at World Cafe Live, along with a Burmese drummer, a local choir singing Turkish minimalism, the Sun Ra Arkestra - and many more.
Philadelphia's world-music group the Spoken Hand Percussion Orchestra was on the marathon bill at World Cafe Live, along with a Burmese drummer, a local choir singing Turkish minimalism, the Sun Ra Arkestra - and many more.
Posted: September 14, 2010

Bang on a Can Marathon. In the time it takes to fly to Istanbul, the Bang on a Can Marathon, which made its Philadelphia debut Sunday as part of the Live Arts Festival, went around the world of cutting-edge music with stopovers in Burma and Turkey, plus a side excursion into outer space.

Explanation: The 10-hour one-day music fest at World Cafe Live featured Burmese artist Kyaw Kyaw Naing playing a set of 21 tuned drums, Philadelphia choir The Crossing singing the Turkish minimalism of Kamran Ince with Gloria (Everywhere), and the Sun Ra Arkestra fitting in just fine with repertoire standards like Discipline 27-B. Yes, flying BOAC (Bang on a Can's acronym) has an Around the World in 80 Days element: Every conceivable contraption took you for a ride, even the Arkestra's Electronic Valve Instrument (sort of an electric flute).

The fact that so many odd elements coexisted says a lot about the marathon's up-for-anything nature. The Philadelphia indie rock band Normal Love and the Arkestra both feature individual members going in many different musical directions simultaneously but still producing an overall piece that somehow hangs together. Sun Ra comes from the virtuosic world of bebop jazz (with improvisations that take you at least as far as Mars) and Normal Love from the fringier realms of no-wave rock (does anyone remember the New York band 8-Eyed Spy?) in which vocal contributions lie somewhere between wailing and oration. Would such connections be revealed in any other context? That's one reason the marathon was one of the festival's most important events.

The day began, smartly, with Steve Reich's basic minimalist manifesto Drumming Part I - a great Square One for all that came later - followed by the hour-long oratorio Shelter (about concepts of home) jointly written by BOAC founders David Lang, Julia Wolfe, and Michael Gordon with visuals by the team that created the film Decasia.

Unlike the experimental work that one expects in such marathons, this piece for female vocal trio and diverse instruments was a deeply considered, thoroughly mature artistic statement in which the three composers' personalities formed a stimulating complement. One Lang section was a wistfully measured litany of what one does when arriving home - assuming it still exists, since some of the film footage was of flooded cities that fit in particularly well with the sighing, downward vocal glissandos of the Gordon-authored sections.

Some of the more ear-drilling dissonances came from the ever-fearless Uri Caine, while Annie Gosfield's Lost Signals and Drifting Satellites had Brahms-like writing for solo violin with electronic accompaniment spinning off into ever more inconceivable places. Periodically, the Asphalt Orchestra - BOAC's version of a marching band - invaded the auditorium playing Björk and Frank Zappa with a solidity that was all the more remarkable for the members having tongues planted in cheek, sometimes with music that suggested Sousa on Quaaludes.

The 10 hours were mostly justified. Baltimore's Matmos - which consists of a narrator/guitarist and people to operate several laptops - gave a memorable excerpt from the Robert Ashley opera Perfect Lives but overstayed its welcome with a Laurie Anderson monologue that failed to maintain the absurdity-sans-condescension delivery of its original author.

As great as it was to hear the tuned Burmese drums, the adaptations of popular music by composers such as Sein Chit Tee didn't hold up past the midnight hour when the marathon ended. Also, I took a break amid the minimalist severity of Louis Andriessen's Workers Union, a piece that tends to drive me out of my skull.

If anything was clear at the end, it was that BOAC wants to be in Philadelphia. The marathon wasn't simply a New York import, but a collaboration that consciously embraced locally based groups. The only conspicuous absence was Philadelphia's like-minded Relache ensemble. . . .

- David Patrick Stearns


Read additional coverage of the Live Arts Festival/Philly Fringe at . Follow Inquirer critics on Twitter at #philastage.


No further performances.

This Art Burning. . . . And, perhaps, Ellen Fishman-Johnson, one of Philadelphia's lower-key composers, who neverthless left quite a mark on the Philly Fringe Saturday at the Performance Garage with 90 polished minutes of music/video pieces created in collaboration with poet Michael Heller. All possible combinations of words and music were explored.

The video screen was sometimes atmospheric, other times spelled out the words in large print, and finally showed the author reading his own work. Fishman-Johnson's music was sometimes demure but effective dramatic support - and drama was definitely present in excerpts from Benjamin, an opera about Jewish intellectual Walter Benjamin, who died in 1940 while fleeing the Nazis. At other times, a chamber choir delivered underlying drones to sung or recited words. Best of all was a haunting violin solo that might've been written by Ernest Bloch or Sergei Prokofiev but was authentically Fishman-Johnson's and left you wanting lots more.

- David Patrick Stearns


No further performances.

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