The Avant-Garde: Like snowfall in April 

Like snowfall in late April, some things are beautiful, but become rather unappreciated in the wrong context. This was my take on the “Bang on a Can All-Stars” concert this Friday.  

In a spirit of full disclosure, I must confess: I pre-gamed before the concert. No no no, not with alcohol. Even on a Friday night, I don’t get to drink on the job (unless I would review a brewery). However, I did preview their Spotify playlist. I figured that with a name as eccentric as “Bang on a Can All-Stars,” I could expect to hear and see a cross between STOMP! and the Blue Man Group, complete with light show and pyrotechnics, all sorts of percussion and improvised instruments including trash cans, brake drums and other rattley things. Sadly, I was very disappointed. In spite of my preliminary research which shifted my expectations, there were no trash cans, smoke machines or drum solos at the concert. 

The first tune, “sunray”, depicted all the things a ray of sun can do. Seemingly reflecting, twinkling against different textures, shimmering across a windy lake. Lyrical lines were overlapping, creating waves of ostinati in perpetual movement centered around six pitches, punctuated by pizzicato string plucks. What was the instrumentation you ask? Piano/synth, clarinet/bass clarinet, guitar, upright bass, and one percussionist manning a still extensive but not overwhelming setup to me as a biased percussionist. 

The group Bang on a Can All-Stars performs the piece “sunray” by David Lang. Photo by Alana Melvin.

This concert in both setup and sound exemplified the group’s founding ideology voiced by guitarist Mark Stewart in his witty and winsome introductions between pieces. He explained that the group has been “making a home for music that didn’t have a home” since its founding. This was a rather eloquent way of saying that they play stereotypically difficult, dissonant and unpleasant music. I respect that, to have the guts to go against the grain, especially when your livelihood is dependent on people’s perception of an unpopular music genre. Despite their mostly melancholy music, a rather humorous moment occurred when Mark was trying to remember the name of the next piece, a recently commissioned work. It took him awhile, so the clarinetist shouted out the title, then Mark turned to the mike and spoke the title “Fainting is Up, Whooshing is down… [apologetically] It’s that new! [At least] I know the notes!” This was probably the lightest mood throughout the concert, as the works ranged in topic from labor unions, and socialist idealism to grief and tragedy in response to 9/11. The meaning of these various works was explained by Mark before a composition began, as there were no lyrics in the pieces themselves. 

There were a couple of other tunes, with varying textures of equal parts odd-meter grunge rock and mid-period Stravinsky, with some Phillip Glass thrown in for good measure. Each contained lots of repetitive patterns that slowly morphed and evolved over time, but not very rapidly. At times it felt like watching an ’80s horror film, where foreboding music suggests something’s about to happen, but without a screen to view and dialogue to follow. 

At the end of the day, the individual and corporate experience of music-listening still remains deeply personal and subjective. You, the audience member, set the expectations of the music you listen to, and you have the power to change them as frequently as you wish. Mark’s verbal introductions between pieces were crucial to this end, to help the audience choose to better receive the music from the lens of its intended purpose, no longer having ignorance as a cop-out for disinterest. 

Was this concert full of intrinsically valuable works of sonic art? Yes. Did I enjoy them? Meh. On a Friday night, I wasn’t ready for a concert of avant-garde repertoire, but neither am I ready for more rain in this week’s weather forecast. Maybe some dissonance is good for me though. It’s a healthy reminder that life isn’t like my Spotify recommended playlist, and more like a concert – a variety of pieces that I have to learn how to listen to and experience, even when it snows in April.