Bang a gong

This summer’s free music pickings seem unusually slim, but two downtown shows this weekend drew large, eclectic, enthusiastic crowds.

Friday night the rain held off long enough for Animal Collective to squeeze out their set at the South Street Seaport. Setting their tribal-o-meter somewhere between Navajo night chant and Dub, Avey and Panda and friends put on what was undoubtedly the weirdest show ever to grace the schedule of the seaport’s free summer music festival. And one of the most popular. Every dirty bearded indie hippie kid from Brooklyn crossed the river and packed the pier.

and people said the fish market smelled.

(photo courtesy some dude’s flickr page)

Not that I have anything against dirty bearded indie kids. I aim to be one myself half the time, but damn if I didn’t feel my age at this show. I’m used to being at shows with my newly bearded students, but this was the first time I felt like I was at a show with my daughter and her friends in about two years — with the indie peach fuzz mustache crowd. Loads of 15-to-17-year-olds made up little trains and wiggled their way closer to the front, offering rounds of apologies as they went. To get back out, some of them feigned fainting and were carried. I suspect they were faking because I remember doing similar things when I was a kid.

Because the music was unremarkable (more on that in a minute) I found myself musing on the phenomenon of the rock crowd wiggle room. For the longest time, especially as I started getting older, I’d enter a venue and then stand at the back of the crowd, however large or small it happened to be, however near to or far from the stage. But at some point I realized that rock kids these days are inordinately polite. Either that or they’re selfish little brats. They’re either leaving lots of space around them for the comfort of their fellow concertgoers or they mark out excess personal space and resent it when someone steps into their territory.

What this means is that you can almost always find a little path of empty space thrown into relief and wiggle your way up as close as you need to be. Sometimes it’s for a better view; but it’s also, crucially, to modify the sound in the venue and find the place for optimal audio enjoyment. And so we latched on to the back of a little indie kid train and wiggled our way closer to the stage where we were actually enveloped in the sound, not just catching its echo off the buildings behind us. Yes, we bothered some people as we went, and once or twice may even have pulled the “I have to find my friend” line (though I prefer nowadays to wiggle without apology), but I feel like age has to extend some privilege, right? Shouldn’t we be able to show up late and still get seats with the kids who’ve been camped out all afternoon?

What we ran into closer to the stage was something like this, except for the fact that this was one of the few recognizable songs:

If you’re an Animal Collective fan (and I’ve been a regular listener if not a fan fan since the infectious Sung Tongs structured the soundscape of my summer of 2004) you might argue that the venue just wasn’t ideal for their freak-psych feedback-and-reverb noodlings or that they should have waited to debut as many new songs as they apparently played that night. But my primary thought was that they were in an inbetween place, simultaneously moving in a new direction — one more Caribbean than Native American — and laying bare something they’ve been all along: a band with too much time on its hands writing songs for kids who have too much time on their hands, and who use most of it to smoke weed. They also reminded me that reggae and dub are tribal genres — just slowed down to accommodate the ganja.

And yet, watching AC yelp and bang on things and prance around like rock stars all the while (and in front of a massive crowd!), you had to hand it to them. This is revenge of the band nerds, big time — the kids who sat around in the back of the bandroom after class, playing with feedback and footpedals and improvising freaky little songs. It’s bedroom rock turned into party music. And it channels, defines, or perhaps simply abstracts almost every indie rock cliche of the moment: think of all the other bands who identify as collectives; think of all the bands named after wild animals. There’s something here that wants to be as wild — and sociable — as a, well, as a Panda, for crying out loud. Even if it stinks, it’s kind of cute.

BANG!

There’s something continuous from the spirit of Animal Collective — not to mention its penchant for percussion — and the semi-collective of composers and musicians known as Bang on a Can, which celebrated its 20th anniversary this weekend by extending its annual 12-hour music marathon to a full 26! Beginning Saturday night and extending to around 11 pm Sunday, Bang on a Can hosted a variety of musicians peforming a wide range of new music, composed by everyone from Brian Eno (the Bang on a Can All-Stars played selections from Music for Airports) to Thurston Moore (Stroking Piece #1) to Franco Donatoni (eighth blackbird performed Arpege). The continuous element, I think, is the sheer, somewhat democratic willingness to invent sound that Animal Collective shares with so much contemporary composition. Bang on a Can is, after all, an imperative statement to the audience: Make something!

Watching performances in the World Financial Center’s Wintergarden (with its over-air-conditioned, mall-like, faux LA vibe) leaves you hoping the new WTC does, in the end, wind up with a world class performance space. That said, the tail end of the Sunday set proved worth getting out in the rain. I saw the Talujon Percussion Quartet — four guys, each pounding the living shit out of his individual drum set — play a piece by Julia Wolfe, one of Bang on a Can’s founding composers. Then the All-Stars premiered a soft and sensous piece called Canon by Alvin Lucier, which sounded like each musician taking his or her time to tune against one another but never quite hitting the same pitch. Then Yo La Tengo (with a beefed up crew, including two extra percussionists and a string bass player) performed an original instrumental piece, which began a lot like the Lucier, soft, minimal, seemingly even without a time signature, before it eventually erupted into Ira wailing on a piano like Morton Feldman on steroids doing a Jerry Lee Lewis impersonation.

The crowd wasn’t as densely packed as it had been at the seaport, but I did notice folks standing up, moving around the room, looking for a better seat — often not for sight, but for sound. I love watching people who care that much about what they’re listening to.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t there at 4 a.m. on Sunday to catch the Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble (from Allendale, Michigan) perform one of the true masterpieces of late-20c music, Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. Eventually it will show up on YouTube, I imagine. For now, satisfy yourselves with their rehearsal:


Bang on a Can, which was founded by a trio of maverick Yale-trained composers in the late-80s, obviously has an agenda to bridge rock or pop sensibilities with the world of high contemporary composition. (Their label, Cantaloupe, for example, is responsible for Alarm Will Sound’s Aphex Twin orchestral “covers” album, which I reviewed way back when on this site.) Drawing on folks like Yo La Tengo and Thurston Moore — or, this year, Juana Molina — suggests a desire to attract some of the unwashed energy that flooded the seaport the other night and train it to recognize affinities in the kind of contemporary composition that usually doesn’t set foot outside the uptown concert halls. It’s an admirable goal, one that younger classical music critics like Alex Ross have been pushing both sides toward for years; maybe it’s time to move past old warhorses like Sonic Youth and YLT and get the 15-year-olds out with Brooklyn’s newer bands. Would Animal Collective be up to the challenge?

The final piece of the night made the awkward Battery Park City location (on the trainless side of the WTC site) worth the while. David Lang, another of BoaC’s founding composers, had a 45-minute piece called men performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble, featuring a trombone solo by Mike Svoboda and paired with a film called Elevated by Matt Mullican. Lang’s piece, at once lyrical and brooding, lumbering forward over deep woodwinds, cello, and an enormous bass drum that pulse in unison on irregular beats, was commissioned by a German orchestra and and partially conceptualized prior to 9/11 but completed in its wake. Lang’s somewhat humorous original idea was to compose a song that could only be performed by men for all-male audiences, playing ironically on the idea of a shared secret knowledge of masculinity. The planes flown into buildings by by an all-male group of religious extremists, hoping for their reward of so many virgins, left him thinking about the ways in which that secret male something had warped the planet, and the funeral dirge called men is the result. (A little reductive, but hey, weren’t we all in the immediate aftermath?)

What was so striking about the performance we saw was the pairing of Lang’s piece with the film by Mullican, which was cobbled together from several reels of 35mm footage shot in and around Manhattan in 1935. Thirty seconds into the piece I went and purchased the DVD. The footage itself is mesmerizing, but the juxtaposition with Lang’s music renders both visuals and sound more haunting than they would be alone. The blinding flashes that open and close nearly every shot; the swarms of people crowding city streets and parks; the popular entertainments, ranging from burlesque shows to football games; even the kids playing on Coney Island beaches and riding the Cyclone — all take on an ominous, funereal cast, and not just because the images (so many recognizable buildings!) suggest the mortality of these 1930s New Yorkers. Rather, they suggest the ways in which their entertainment rituals, designed (like ours) to stave off the fear of death, overlap so forcefully, though often in unacknowledged ways, with an undercurrent of violence that seems to be shuttling us toward death’s door faster than we should wish.

Is that what the 15-year-olds were thinking about at the Animal Collective show? Probably not. I’m fine if they want to leave such morbid thoughts to the untrustworthy over-30s. But the folks — whatever their age or their hygienic inclinations — who stake out too much personal space at what’s ostensibly a rock and roll show and then begrudge their neighbors some wiggle room are, unfortunately, letting the terrorists win. Bush included.

10 responses to “Bang a gong”

  1. Dave says:

    I have to admit, I was kinda bored by the Animal Collective show — I went and had a bite to eat in the middle of it, and when I finished they were still playing. And kinda bored by the David Lang piece, too. I wasn’t up to the endurance it required. (As I recall, it was basically just two chords, alternated for 40 minutes or so.)

  2. stephanie wells says:

    I am mesmerized by the 18 Musicians rehearsal clip. what a jewel.

  3. The Lang piece sounds much better on CD. I think that venue had some serious sound problems.

    What did you think of the 35mm images?

    swells — oh yesss. i love that piece, but have never seen it live. i should have got out of bed early and biked down there.

  4. DJA says:

    Hi Bryan,

    Great thoughts on AC, BAOC, and their commonalities. If you’re curious, I liveblogged the entire 27-hour marathon over at my place. You can read the gory results here.

  5. jeremy says:

    i hadn’t really thought about it up ’til now, but i’m actually intrigued by a tangential comment you make here about the many bands named after wild animals. that, in itself, is a post worth writing…

    and, i hate to admit it, but i’m one of those people who dislike shows in general, but especially big shows, when i have to give up too much of my personal space (though i don’t necessarily begrudge others their wiggle room). speaking of which, on friday i went to LA’s natural history museum to see autolux and (the appropriately named, given the venue) deerhoof, who played right there in a packed “habitat hall” amidst the dioramas of, yes, wild animals.

  6. Timo says:

    Hey from an internet cafe in on Eldridge, just below Delancey.

    I’m sad I missed the film at the end of the night last night, but I was just knackered. Looks like it was great. A couple other highlights for me were the BoaC performance of Eno’s Music for Airports and the Youth Choir’s version of Meredith Monk’s “Three Heavens and Hells.”

    I found a link to more photos of the Bang on a Can marathon at Pitchfork.

  7. Dave says:

    Funny that Pitchfork only has pictures of “bands”. Ignores most of what went on.

  8. DJA — Thanks for your link. Your account of the Reich now has me *really* kicking myself that I didn’t wake up early and head down there.

  9. Miller says:

    This is such a cool post, Bryan. And thanks for the visuals. I’ll add another factor to the personal space conversation: being short. It’s rather intimidating to have to wiggle your way through a crowd, not for a better view, but for a view at all. Then there’s the 6’5” guy who will, without fail, stand directly in front of me after I have just wiggled into a decent spot.

    And Jeremy, I was at First Fridays at LA NHM too. The juxtaposition of dinosaurs, wild animals, and live music is an odd experience. It’s kinda creepy, but fun.

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