Bang on a Can first announced their inaugural Long Play festival in late 2019, scheduling it for the first weekend the following May. The rest was the non-history of New York City performances for most of 2020.
That original festival programming was an extension of the old Bang on a Can marathons, with a mix of new classical music and non-standard non-classical groups, like Bearthoven and Matmos. Even if the lineup was a little bit on the consolidated side, honoring the past (Steve Reich, Brian Eno), it was still easy to anticipate the experience of hearing all this music live.
Two years later, the first Long Play festival went on as scheduled, with similar values but a broader reach, musically and geographically. Centered around the Brooklyn Academy of Music Opera House, there were performances at the Mark Morris Dance Center, the Center for Fiction, Roulette Intermedium, and Public Records and Littlefield in Gowanus, all essentially within walking distance for most New Yorkers. Long Play is a Bang on a Can initiative, so that means the festival had concerts dedicated to music by the founders, David Lang, Julia Wolfe, and Michael Gordon, and the Bang on a Can All-Stars were one of the central ensembles—and yes, they played their arrangement of Eno’s Music for Airports.
But this time around, the lineup extended the Bang on a Can reach. The old New York City marathons laid a foundation for everything Bang on a Can has done, which is, as Lang has explained it, put together music that has high quality, disregarding what he called “ideology.” Speaking as a composer, that meant, for him, commitment to a specific compositional technique, whether it was twelve-tone rows or repeated tonal patterns. In practice, Bang on a Can productions are almost invariably tonal and heavily weighted toward the repeated patterns of minimalism—that is the ideology, stated or not, of these composers. Still, that covers a wide range of possibilities, from Lang’s increasingly icy and objective scores, to Wolfe’s moving choral works that dig into social history, and Gordon’s way of edging things toward spiky thrash metal.
For Long Play 2022, that foundation meant bringing in rock, contemporary chamber music, avant-gardism, electronic music (both experimental and quasi-house), free jazz, Stockhausen, and some unique and worthwhile niches, like sui generis cellist Zoë Keating, Marcus Rojas shredding Henry Threadgill and others on the tuba, and the Banda de los Muertos bringing Sinaloan brass band music to the Plaza at 300 Ashland. There was even something of a dance performance.
And Matmos was there too, although they produced one of the few disappointments of Long Play. At Roulette, they performed “The Backyard” scene from Robert Ashley’s opera Perfect Lives, with Drew Daniel managing the electronic score and M.C. Schmidt reciting the text, with an occasional guitar pluck. This was a sadly shallow take on Ashley, literal in a way that missed the deep empathy and humanism in his work. It was self-regarding and flat, and showed how much skill it takes to perform Ashley’s work, not just the technical ability to hit the phrases in the nether region between speech and song, but to perform in character. This was like an opera libretto table read with sound effects.
Flatness was a problem in the music room at Public Records. Despite the quadraphonic speakers, the sound is dryer than the surface of the moon. Trumpeter Nate Wooley and composer Michael Pisaro-Liu (on laptop), played Éliane Radigue’s L’ile re-sonante and OCCAM X (an electronic score) there. Wooley concentrated deeply and seemed to breathe the quiet harmonics in and out, but there was no resonant sound—maybe it was all the bodies surrounding him in the space. The problem with OCCAM X wasn’t the music but the medium. It’s been a challenge for over sixty years to play electronic music over speakers in front of a live audience, with no one on stage, and make it more compelling than listening to the same music at home, and all evidence shows it’s an insurmountable one.
At the Morris Center, one heard Pisaro-Liu himself, via the Southern Oregon University Percussion Ensemble performing Pisaro-Liu’s original version of Ricefall. In this piece, each percussionist stands at a station and plays the instruments they have at hand by dropping grains of rice on them. It is lovely to see in person. On paper, or record, the concept comes to the fore, but seeing this in person, the impression is of a kind of slow-motion, gentle play, the sensual experience of hearing something close to rain, but full of details one has never heard before. There is a limit to how much rice can be at hand, and so this lasted only about twenty minutes, when twenty hours of it would have been welcome.
After Matmos, Roulette did host some of the best sets of the festival. There was the excellent trio of pianist David Virelles, bassist Reggie Workman, and drummer Andrew Cyrille; another fantastic trio of pianist Vijay Iyer, bassist Linda May Han Oh, and drummer Tyshawn Sorey; Michael Riesman and Jenny Lin played piano music from Phillip Glass and Galina Ustvolskaya, respectively; and guitarist Gary Lucas and vocalist Nona Hendryx brought their (The World of) Captain Beefheart band. That was one of the finest sets of the festival.
While it’s easy to see how Beefheart has been an outsider in American music, it’s really the reverse. Or, to put it another way, this country is so culturally fucked up by commercialism and capitalism that it can’t see it’s own genuine qualities even when they’re shouting in their face. Calling Beefheart an avant-garde rocker is right only if you ignore that he was playing the blues, and that the blues, from Charley Patton to Otis Taylor, has always been an avant-garde music. The commercial and institutional view has so confined musical thinking to the idea that formal, tonal music can’t be avant-garde, which is plain wrong. There’s little more avant-garde than Beefheart, as this band shows. Hendryx is still in full voice, with great phrasing, and with Lucas’s chops, they make the arrangements so fluid that the beauty in the music comes out. And songs like “Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles” are genuinely beautiful. Like Sun Ra and Charles Ives, Beefheart is essential to American music.
There were two different projects in the Opera House itself, both representing/refreshing/rethinking/reimaging some more essential American music. The Bang on a Can All-Stars and the dance group Sasha Waltz & Guests performed Terry Riley’s In C., Waltz’s choreography creating dozens of small phrases and gestures for the dancers, following the structure of the music. The dancers/musicians start with the same pattern, repeat it an indeterminate number of times, then individually move to the next. That means everyone shares the same material at different times, while in the same order, moving in and out of consonant and complementary music.
Seeing that physically embodied was gorgeous and riveting. The All-Stars played with the drive of a rock band, while groups of dancers moved all around the stage, in different numbers, coming together then apart then together again. With the dancers, the music went on longer than is usual, which just meant more of a great thing. The All-Stars made their way to the end of the score, the dancers finished their patterns, leaving just one left to work her way through a few final gestures. Upstage center, she put her arms down and let out an audible sigh, the sound of satisfaction over a marvelous feat.
The final Sunday night, the All-Stars were augmented with winds and strings into an orchestra to support a rethinking of Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come. In front was a band of drummer Denardo Coleman, pianist Jason Moran, guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer, bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma, alto saxophonist Lee Odom, and trumpeter Wallace Roney Jr., all led by Awadagin Pratt. Yes, Ornette Coleman with a conductor—and Pratt was exceptionally fine, clear, certain, and propulsive without ever doing too much.
But, Ornette Coleman played by an orchestra? When it comes together like this, absolutely. Composers Nicole Mitchell, Carman Moore, Nick Dunston, Craig Harris, David Sanford, and Pamela Z each rewrote one of the tracks on the album. These weren’t arrangements but recompositions, starting from the point where Gil Evans rewrote Gershwin and Aranjuez, and heading out into true new music territory. Each piece was packed with insight, imagination, and the skill to incorporate the orchestra and band, and even get some fine improvising out of the orchestra. And what a band. The horn players were the youngest members, and both Odom and Roney, Jr. were brilliant. Odom played slicing lines that were bluesy and funky, while Roney, Jr. (son of the late trumpeter, one of the early pandemic casualties), put together phrases that carried out deep thinking and incredible beauty. This was more great American music, bringing Ornette Coleman into a new context and bringing these composers to the fore, part of a group of Black artists who have made the finest new music one has heard all season.