As an important adjunct to my posts on this year’s Bang on a Can marathon — this post and this one — I should add that what in the end makes the event so fabulous is the music. Without music that people want to hear, no crowds, no year after year success, no event.
Of course, just because large crowds enjoy this music, that doesn’t mean the music is necessarily good, that you’d like it, or that I’d like it. But I’ve always liked it very much. Not every piece; of course not; life doesn’t work that way.
But overall I’m happy to hear what shows up, and I get in the same head I found myself in tonight, at a National Symphony concert, which ended with a Golijov piece, Azul. I just loved that music. Abandoned myself to it, was happy to go wherever it went, had no impulse to judge it.
Same with much that I hear at Bang on a Can. In the short time I was able to be at the marathon (I’m busy with life changes in two cities at once), I heard a piece by Fred Frith, played by the Bang on a Can All-Stars, a chamber ensemble piece that lives in the same universe as a lot of new classical music (of the non-concert hall sort), and a lot of jazz and blues and improvisation.
That’s a congenial part of creation for me, and I’m sure for a lot of people in the large audience. A friend I talked to after it was over thought it didn’t hold together, but somehow I wasn’t looking for that. I was happy to follow all of its thoughts, wherever they went.
Then came the piece I mentioned in one of my posts, by Fausto Romitelli, which the composer said would last 40 minutes, and which sounded at first like an assault of noise. (From a large-ish ensemble.) I like assaults of noise, but I had to work with this one. I did what I’d always advise to me or anyone else, when we can’t get with some music we’re hearing: listen much harder.
I did that, and soon I began hearing gestures in the music that should have been clear to me earlier, gasps and spasms, the piece moving forward in shudders, often with a downward fall from one prominent note to a lower one. Now I got really caught up in what I was hearing.
When I left, two women on stage, calling themselves Buke and Gass, were crashing and wailing and sing-shouting their way in a wonderful sonic space that rock, new classical music, and pure noise have together opened up.
One thing I love about all this is that I never know what to expect. Contrast your normal symphony concert. The National Symphony quite brilliantly paired Golijov with Ravel (three familiar orchestral works), but the Ravel had no surprises. When the Golijov work began, I felt like the walls fell away. Just as at Bang on a Can, I didn’t know what to expect, and that stayed with me all through the piece.
Which is the experience, isn’t it, that we have when we go to a movie we haven’t seen, when we read a book we haven’t read, when we go to see a new play, when we listen to a new pop album. Not till classical music rejoins the real world, and lets me, day in and day out, have a musical life like that, will the classical music world seem normal, or healthy.
(And yes, sometimes I read a new book and it’s bad. Predictable. Nothing in it I haven’t read before. But I didn’t know that before I starting reading, did I? While when I look at the programs of most classical concerts, I pretty much know what to expect.)
(And yes, someone will say that classical concerts, even when the most familiar works are played, are full of surprises, because new things can happen in performances, people can play familiar phrases in a subtly different way, or even widely different way. But these are small surprises, I think, and, worse, audible mainly to initiates, people who’ve heard the standard masterworks often enough to appreciate small departures from various norms. I’m not going to put down the value of that — we’ve all seen a movie for a second or third or tenth time, and noticed things we hadn’t noticed before — but if that’s the main thing that musical art holds for you, aren’t your horizons terribly limited?)