Bang On A Can All-Stars: Field Recordings
Due in part to the existence of labels such as 3LEAVES and Gruenrekorder, the field recordings genre has become more established in recent years. But though the Bang On A Can All-Stars' latest recording is titled Field Recordings, the set puts a slightly different spin on the genre. Rather than sound portraits being built up around recorded real-world sounds, the group instead, as text on the fold-out package's inner sleeve clarifies, asked composers to “go into the field of recorded sound itself—to find something old or record something new, and to respond with their own music, in dialogue with what they found.” In this case, in keeping with the releases's CD-DVD presentation both audio and video sources were involved in the project's production (five pieces are presented in video form on the DVD).
Though the Bang on a Can All-Stars has existed since 1992, the sextet has experienced a number of personnel changes, a development that has probably helped keep the group invigorated and its playing fresh. In addition to founding members Mark Stewart on guitar and bassist Robert Black, the group currently includes cellist Ashley Bathgate, pianist Vicky Chow, percussionist David Cossin, and Ken Thomson on saxophone and clarinet. These days, it's not unusual for a group to be new music specialists who range freely across classical, jazz, rock, world, and experimental forms, but it was less common in the early ‘90s when the group started; it thus wouldn't be off-the-mark to describe the Bang on a Can All-Stars as trailblazers.
While the performances by the group on Field Recordings are, as per usual, first-rate, the group is only as good as the material it's been given to work with, and in this particular case some pieces impress more than others. It certainly opens strongly with the rollicking “Reeling,” an infectious folk-inflected setting by Julia Wolfe that sees the All-Stars rallying around a vocal sample of French Canadian singer Benoit Benoit with fingersnaps, footstomping, and jubilant playing by Thomson, Bathgate, et al. The compositional device used by Wolfe—instruments replicating speech intonation—is also adopted by Florent Ghys in his “An Open Cage,” which sees John Cage's rhythmic reading of sundry diary musings mirrored by the group's own playing. Strong, too, is Michael Gordon's “Gene Takes a Drink,” a splendid example of richly coloured, high-energy post-minimalism.
Though the idea of using sounds of people sharpening knives and scissors as source material is an inspired idea, David Lang's “unused swan” ends up being weakened rather than enhanced by the sounds when their overly emphatic presence draws too much attention away from the group's sensitive rendering of Lang's subdued musical content. A better balance is achieved by Jóhann Jóhannsson in his “Hz,” which threads sounds of operating machinery at a hydro-electric power station near Reykjavik into its ponderous musical make-up. If there's a sense of decrepit gloom about the piece, it might have to do with the fact that the station in question is not in use anymore and is now a museum, though it is activated once a year to the keep the machinery functional. Listeners familiar with Steve Reich's The Cave will recognize “The Cave of Machpelah,” even if it's been dressed up in a new arrangement by the group, and pieces by Tyondai Braxton, Todd Reynolds, Mira Calix, and Anna Clyne also appear on the physical CD (a digital-only track by Nick Zammuto appears on the DVD).
A few of the tracks benefit significantly from the video treatments featured on the DVD. One wouldn't know simply from listening to Gordon's “Gene Takes a Drink,” for example, that the Gene in question is a cat and that the video documents his movements through a NYC community garden. Another piece enhanced by video accompaniment is Bryce Dessner's haunting “Maximus to Gloucester,” which includes archival footage of poet Charles Olson and works part of the poem's reading into the musical framework. And Christian Marclay's “Fade to Slide,” whose freewheeling channel-surfing style invites comparison to an early John Zorn game piece, seems a whole lot less random when the music is heard with its video content than without; for his contribution to the project, Marclay edited film fragments into a rapidly changing flow that the musicians then used as a springboard for their performance (Marclay's video is, however, not one of the five tracks included on the DVD). Whatever qualms one might have over some of its content, in featuring a seventy-two-minute CD and half-hour DVD the release is certainly generous with respect to the amount of material presented.