Bang on a Can All-Stars, the masters of fusion, to perform at NYUAD
It is not all that surprising to see an electric guitar as part of a classical-music ensemble these days, or to sit in a concert hall and hear works composed by a rock star.
Just two decades ago, the musical landscape was very different. Even in trailblazing New York City, music circles were divided between the academic, compositional inventions of the “uptown” concert halls, while noisier, improvised experiments found a home in “downtown” Manhattan’s scruffy club scene. This stark, social divide was replicated in cities around the globe.
A key ingredient in the cosmopolitan blending of highbrow and lowbrow are Bang on a Can All-Stars, a small-group ensemble that combine the formal rigour of contemporary classical music with the improvisational daring of jazz, and the in-your-face visceral energy of rock.
They think nothing of performing works by Terry Riley, Brian Eno, Ornette Coleman and Thurston Moore in the same evening – and the ensemble will make their UAE debut tonight on Thursday, February 2, at New York University Abu Dhabi.
Clarinettist Ken Thomson describes Bang on a Can’s contribution to this shift in attitudes as “huge” – and can do so without fear of accusations of hubris.
A recent addition, who joined the 25-year-old ensemble four years ago, Thomson grew up watching barriers fall around him – fuelled in no small way by the brazen approach of founders Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolfe.
“A lot of the groundbreaking work they were doing doesn’t seem that groundbreaking any more,” says Thomson.
The “All Stars” ensemble is the touring offshoot of the larger Bang on a Can organisation, which was founded in 1987 for a one-off marathon concert that has become an annual NYC institution. Since 2002, the group’s annual, educational Summer Institute of Music – nicknamed “Banglewood” – has proved to be a fertile breeding ground for forward-thinking modern composers.
“The division of musical communities, the splinters that existed, have really gone,” says Thomson. “That all comes out of Bang on a Can’s efforts.”
This barrier-less approach will be on display at the first of three Abu Dhabi concerts from the sextet, who paint bright and thrilling sonic colours with a line-up featuring clarinet, cello, electric guitar, keyboards, percussion and double bass.
Thursday’s programme will showcase this patented crossover approach, with one piece composed by each of the group’s three founders.More tonal flavours are expected at the show in the world premiere of a new work by Emirati-American composer Mohammed Fairouz, commissioned for the occasion by the university and Abu Dhabi Festival.
The second-half of the evening’s entertainment will delve into the All Stars’ most recent release, Field Recordings, an anniversary project inspired by the seminal recorded archives of American ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, and the transcriptions of European folk music by Leoš Janácek and Béla Bartók.
Transplanting the concept into the 21st century, Bang on a Can commissioned contemporary composers to make their own audio and video “field recordings”, and produce an accompanying score to be performed live alongside them, creating “a real-time juxtaposition between the recording and the composer reacting to it”, says Thomson.
Several of the six selections that will be performed in Abu Dhabi highlight the group’s cool, cultish, crossover credentials. Contributions come from Bryce Dessner – best known as guitarist with alt-rock band The National – Oscar-nominated Icelandic film composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, and Tyondai Braxton, formally of experiment-rock group Battles.
Braxton recorded ambient audio from a casino, a decadent din littered with the “goofy sounds” from slot machines.
“In some ways we’re being playful, but I always think that there’s a darker undertone of people losing money and becoming destitute,” says Thomson.
From the classical world, minimalist master Steve Reich contributed a segment from his multimedia opera, The Cave, with the ensemble employed to create a drone harmonising with accompanying crowd noise.
With A Wonderful Day, meanwhile, British composer Anna Clyne recorded a homeless man singing on the streets of Chicago, and composed a “beautiful soundscape” around the song.
These works will feature in tonight’s show, hosted by the university Arts Center’s new 700-capacity Red Theater.
The ensemble will return next Thursday (February 9) for two performances of Steel Hammer, a crossover theatre collaboration with New York’s SITI Company.
Inspired by African-American folk hero John Henry, it features four plays – by Kia Corthron, Will Power, Carl Hancock Rux and Regina Taylor – that creatively explore the subject of human versus machine, with music and lyrics by Wolfe. It debuted in 2014, and the Abu Dhabi performances are the first outside of the United States.
“It was described as a blind date when the two companies met for the first time,” says Thomson. “It’s one that worked out.”
• Bang on a Can All-Stars perform at Red Theater, The Arts Center, NYUAD, Thursday, February 2 at 8pm. Steel Hammer is at the same venue next Thursday at 2pm and 8pm. Register at www.nyuad-artscenter.org for free tickets
Updated: February 1, 2017 04:00 AM