For almost two decades, Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia
Wolfe’s Bang on a Can has remained committed to presenting
new music. In the vein of contemporaries like the Kronos Quartet,
Bang on a Can continues to play and record adventurous projects
that maintain a degree of accessibility. Two new additions on their
own Cantaloupe label add to their wealthy catalogue.

Music Reviews

The first, Philip Glass: Music in Fifths, remembers the
revolutionary musical landscape of the 1960s, when minimalism was
emerging as a viable movement. Philip Glass, alongside Terry Riley,
LaMonte Young and other minimalists, stripped modernism to its most
basic musical elements. The basis of composition became an inherit
simplicity of rhythm and harmony, a far cry from the atonal
hyper-intellectual modernism of the day. On Philip Glass: Music
in Fifths
, Bang on a Can transcribes two early Glass works for
the ensemble.

“Music in Fifths” unfolds as its title implies,
taking five notes and repeating them in different order and
rhythmic variations over twenty-four-and-a-half minutes. This is
Glass at his most intense, insistently poking his listener, a far
cry from the recent harmonic lushness that defines his
compositions. The other piece, “Two Pages,” is less
severe, adding the lightness of a marimba to the mix. The
composition examines the deconstruction of a musical five-note
phrase, a 27-minute response to Glass’s early exposure to the
ragas of Ravi Shankar.

For Glass aficionados, this recording is a chance to hear a
skilled ensemble reinterpret Glass’s early minimalist
origins. For the average listener, the relentless pacing makes
Philip Glass: Music in Fifths a difficult listen.

The other release, Bang on a Can Meets Kyaw Kyaw Naing,
introduces a collaboration between the ensemble and Burmese
percussionist/composer Kyaw Kyaw Naing. Naing is a master of the
pat waing, a traditional instrument made of 21 surrounding,
separately tuned drums. His mastery of the instrument and
compositional prowess has made him famous throughout Southeast
Asia.

Meets Kyaw Kyaw Naing mixes improvisation with
through-composed song. The tracks generally sound like Western
musicians playing Asian music; the sound is harmonically grounded
in non-Western pentatonics. The rhythm and tempo frequently
encounter drastic transformations, bridging ideas and focusing the
attention on the call-and-response nature of Naing’s
compositions. Naing, no doubt, displays stunning dexterity and
harmonic proficiency. Too often, however, the call-and-response on
improvisatory passages isn’t interesting enough to sustain
attention. The collaboration works best when Naing and the ensemble
are most compositionally confined.

At a time when contemporary music is needy of proponents, these
recordings come as a blessing. Bang on the Can creates music
that’s both challenging and accessible and reminds
contemporary music enthusiasts that innovation is alive and
present. There still is much terrain left unexplored.

 

Philip Glass: 4 out of 5 stars.

Meets Kyaw Kyaw Naing: 3 out of 5
stars.

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