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Bang on a Can at the Atlas

Stalwarts of the new music scene for the past twenty years, the Bang on a Can All-Stars brought the kind of engaging, genre-bending performance they are known for to the Atlas Center on Friday. Throughout a fresh and varied program, they showed closer affinities to jazz and popular music than to the avant-garde. All the instruments, which included drum set and electric guitar, were miked as if for a jazz show, and the compositions mostly avoided the atonality and extended techniques that often challenge audiences. Unsurprisingly, they attracted what seemed like the biggest crowd of this season’s new music series at the Atlas.

The first half of the program featured pieces by David Lang, Michael Gordon, and Julia Wolfe, the three composer-leaders of Bang on a Can, the collective of which the All-Stars are a part. Lang’s minimalist Sunray obsessively reiterated a few simple, mantric motifs, seeming at first like an unsettled dream but ending up as a protracted nightmare. Even so, it evoked an enjoyable trance-like state. Gordon’s For Madeline was a poignant memorial to his mother. It presented an incessantly pulsing minor third interval, around which a series of moaning glissandi created a bleak, grief-stricken mood. Big Beautiful Dark and Scary by Wolfe depicted an ominous, gathering tumult that finally erupted, receded, and gathered again like stormy waves at sea. But beyond this excitement, it didn’t add up to much.

The second half opened with two pieces by Don Byron. Basquiat was a rich, melancholy waltz memorializing the street artist of that name. Show Him Some Lub was a stale exercise in musical identity politics. Over some spunky, oppositional rhythms, the players were called on to state their ethnicities into the microphone along with the date -- past or conjectured future -- of that ethnic group’s liberation. The tackiness of this was exacerbated by uneven amplification and by the obvious discomfort with which certain of the players mumbled their lines.

Other Reviews:

Tom Huizenga, Bang on a Can All-Stars brings a storm to D.C. (Washington Post, January 28)
The hypnotic Ridgeway was commissioned by Bang on a Can from young Australian composer Kate Moore. It was a promising contribution, at times creating a meditative atmosphere like that of David Lang’s piece. But many of its transitions were not convincingly organic; it seemed to jump from one section to another without following each one to the conclusion of its minimalist logic.

Finally, Stroking Piece #1 by Thurston Moore (of Sonic Youth), featuring a defiantly nonsensical program note, began with a simple chord progression played quietly over and over on the guitar. Then it grew into a full-throated rock ballad by the whole ensemble, seeming like it should accompany a montage showing an aged musician relearning how to rock after suffering a stroke. A quirky end to the program, it was performed with the All-Stars’ typical absorbing intensity.

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