Rock Meets Classical, Part 2: Bang on a Can

Bang on a Can All Stars

In part 1 of this blog entry, I discussed Milton Babbitt and Evan Ziporyn’s conflicting ideas of the future of music and discussed some of the ways that art music composers Evan Ziporyn and Steve Reich have combined rock music, world music, and the classical tradition into new, forward-thinking forms of music. Both of these composers are associated with contemporary classical organization Bang on a Can, who are at the center of this type of musical exploration.


Bang on a Can holds a yearly marathon in New York every summer, featuring 12 straight hours of free music from all over the world. I have been lucky enough to attend this marathon twice, and the first time was in 2010, at the only marathon the group has ever held in Philadelphia. The marathon opened with a hypnotic performance of the first movement of Steve Reich's "Drumming" by So Percussion. The second piece was a large orchestral work called "Shelter", performed by Bradley Lubman's SIGNAL ensemble and composed by the three founders of Bang on a Can - David Lang, Michael Gordon, and Julia Wolfe.


The first two movements of "Shelter" are some of the most compelling music I've heard in the past decade. The second movement, 'Is the Wind', highly influenced the writing of my debut album, Interior City by The Gabriel Construct. The movement features a distorted electric guitar playing octaves and a pulsing, diatonic, 4/4 bass line, forming a rock-derived foundation for some truly chilling music created by polytonal strings and three sopranos singing glissandi in dissonant intervals. These elements combine to create one of the most thorough and satisfying integrations of classical and rock ideas that I’ve ever heard. Listen to the piece below:


This was followed by a set from Spoken Hand Percussion Orchestra, a group combining North Indian, Brazilian, Afro-Cuban and West African percussion traditions. In between sets, another one of Bang On a Can's subgroups, the marching band Asphalt Orchestra, would invade the audience and perform a tune or two by Frank Zappa, Charles Mingus, Björk, David Byrne, and even Meshuggah. They recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the recording of their arrangement of The Pixies' entire 'Surfer Rosa' album. View their rendition of Meshuggah's "Electric Red" below:


The Bang on a Can All-Stars also played many sets throughout the night, including excerpts from Ziporyn’s theater piece "Shadowbang" (inspired by Balinese shadow plays), a piece by Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, Louis Andriessen’s "Workers Union" (a piece in which only rhythms and melodic contours are notated, and all pitches are left up to the performer), and a collaboration with Kyaw Kyaw Niang, who played the only pat waing that exists in America. The pat waing is a Burmese instrument consisting of 21 pitched tabla drums:


pat waing


The rest of the marathon included a wide diversity of acts, including a dark ambient/free jazz crossover set by Uri Caine (a jazz pianist who frequently creates jazz renditions of Mahler and plays as a sideman with John Zorn), a costume-laden free jazz set from the Sun Ra Arkestra, a funk set from the Keepers of the Chaos, and an ambient set from Matmos. To me, the marathon was a kind of utopia. I strongly believe that this sort of musical inclusiveness and crossover is the future of music. As listeners, we should seek to absorb as many different types of music as we possibly can. As composers, we should seek to combine them in novel ways. Not only does this approach have a positive, forward-looking musical outcome, but it also positively affects our interactions with each other. By trying to understand and absorb the musical cultures of others, we learn something about them and gain insight into their worldview. By embracing new musical traditions, we become more accepting of the people who create that music. In a rapidly globalizing world, music can act as a catalyst.


In part 3 of this series, I will demonstrate how many progressive rock songs are actually covert covers of classical pieces.


Purchase links:

So Percussion - Steve Reich’s ‘Drumming’

Bang on a Can - Shelter

Asphalt Orchestra

Spoken Hand Percussion Orchestra

Matmos and So Percussion - Treasure State

Bang on a Can Meets Kyaw Kyaw Naing


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