The Bang on a Can All-Stars emerged from the scruffy environs of downtown New York playing a new kind of music, with a new kind of energy, for a new kind of audience.
Fans of Bang on a Can and Philip Glass may grab "5ths" impulsively, but all others should approach this disc with caution. Music in Fifths and Two Pages may be classic Glass works, from 1969 and 1968, respectively, and their place in the development of his style of minimalist music is undeniable. However, Music in Fifths is austere and edgy, and the emphasis on tight ensemble playing in parallel fifths puts a premium on the group's physical stamina. But the music is relentless and tiring after the first few minutes. The rapid, repetitive melody in organum voicing changes slightly over the course of 24 minutes, but only the most persevering listener will be able to detect the subtle rhythmic shifting. Two Pages may offer a change of color and texture, but the relief is brief indeed, for this piece runs on its narrow pitch material for 27 minutes, without significant changes other than the shortening or elongation of cycles. These pieces are among Glass' most severe works, and come well before the comparatively lush pattern pieces of the late '70s and the neo-Romantic scores of the 1980s.
With Big Beautiful Dark and Scary, the Bang on a Can All-Stars show off their blazing speed, polyrhythmic virtuosity and all-world versatility in a return to the core Bang on a Can sound - an uncategorizable supermix of classical and electric instruments that is part classical ensemble, part rock band, and part jazz sextet. The album is the first in a decade that features the All-Stars exclusively, rather than as part of a collaborative project. Each of the pieces on the double-CD calls upon a different kind of virtuosity, demonstrating the range of musical abilities and experiences arguably unique to this ensemble. Recorded in New York City, all of the music on Big Beautiful Dark and Scary (including the arrangements of the works by Conlon Nancarrow) were written for and premiered by the Bang on a Can All-Stars.
Dutch composer Louis Andriessen turned minimalism upside down in the 1970's with his exciting and overpoweringly aggressive sounds. Earth-shattering and tribal in its elemental power, three of Andriessen's classics are now on one disc. Reissuing "Hoketus" and "Hout," plus a new blistering recording of "Workers Union," this disc is an international collaboration of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, members of London's Icebreaker ensemble, and musicians from Andriessen's own group.elp1983
Of the three Bang on a Can founder composers, David Lang’s music has always been the glassiest, the sparest, and for some listeners the most precious. In recent years, his aesthetic has become leaner still, paring down already simple material to gaunt extremes in something approaching neo-plainchant. The national anthems (note the lower case; nothing vainglorious here ) takes fragments of text from the anthems of all 193 United Nations member states and unfolds at speaking speed, with plenty of room for breaths between phrases and plenty of clarity to the words. It has the feel of sad and eerie intoning. The Los Angeles choir clinches the right sound for Lang – unflinching, spellbound – while the Calder Quartet gives sleek accompaniment. Also on the disc is a new choral version of Lang’s little match girl passion, the piece originally for four voices that won him the Pulitzer prize in 2008 and which, in the mouths of many, becomes a sort of collective prayer in the congregational tradition of Bach’s chorales.
As one-third of the composer-collective Bang on a Can, David Lang is something of a genial father figure of the indie-classical scene. Talk to any of the world's main players and you're likely to hear them tell you about their life-changing stint in Bang on a Can's summer festival, which has acted as a sort of feeder school and incubator for the group's try-anything mentality. Lang's music has undergone many stylistic shifts over the years: In the 80s, he wrote bristlier stuff, but in the last decade or so, he's shifted quietly into a more pensive register. The Little Match Girl Passion, his 2008 work that won him a Pulitzer, was written for only four voices and some hand bells. This Was Written By Hand, his most recent recording, is a collection of short solo piano works played by the British pianist Andrew Zolinsky. The album holds the same, sustained melancholy mood: thoughtful, searching, elegiac, minimalist. Lang's way with repetitive phrasing doesn't feel like that of minimalists like Glass or Reich's, though.
Haunting, poignant and relentlessly physical, Julia Wolfe’s Anthracite Fields is a lovingly detailed oratorio about turn-of-the-20th-century Pennsylvania coal miners, and a fitting recipient of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Music. NPR Music’s Tom Huizenga describes the piece as “…almost a public history project and a music project at the same time,” which hints at the work’s universal appeal.