Bang On A Can All-Stars: More Field Recordings
Naturally picking up where the first one left off, part two in the Bang on Can All-Stars' field recordings project again sees the intrepid sextet—cellist Ashley Bathgate, bassist Robert Black, pianist Vicky Chow, percussionist David Cossin, guitarist Mark Stewart, and clarinet player Ken Thomson—venturing into ever-adventurous experimental terrain, mostly to good effect. This double-disc installment features works by a diverse thirteen-member cast, with everyone from Jace Clayton and Arcade Fire's Richard Reed Parry to Anna Thorvaldsdottir and Caroline Shaw taking part.
The concept in play is an interesting one that offers limitless compositional possibilities: each composer was asked to explore the field of recorded sound itself, whether it be to select something in an already recorded form or something new, and to create an original piece in concert with that originating material. On this collection, ambient phenomena and archival recordings blend with the group's contemporary classical playing in material that extends from soothing ambient to nightmarish soundscaping.
The opening Really Craft When You illustrates the fundamental idea by merging ‘70s interviews of quilters from North Carolina and Virginia with “some quilting squares of music” Shaw wrote for the group. Her seven-minute weave of ensemble playing and voice samples from the Library of Congress's archives obviously functions as a literal instantiation of the project concept, but it also achieves a satisfying balance between the two components, even if the women's voices are perhaps used more than necessary. Also effective is For ontology of an echo, in which Paula Matthusen had the group respond to fragments of recordings made in the Old Croton Aqueduct, which first supplied fresh water to New York City in 1842, after which the recordings were then projected back into the aqueduct and repeatedly re-recorded to exploit the resonant frequencies of the location.
The most harrowing of the pieces is undoubtedly Frost's Negative Ghostrider II, a writhing colossus that threads recordings of the Northrop X-47B, an unmanned semi-autonomous drone aircraft, into its declamatory, high-decibel shriek. On a related theme, Dan Deacon's Sago An Ya Rev translates a transcription of a NASA Voyager recording into a rippling space drone. Parry's The Brief and Neverending Blur continues the work he's done in his Music for Heart and Breath series, in which the breathing rates or heart rates of the performers dictate how the music is played. Building upon a degraded tape of warbly piano chords whose speed matches the composer's own breathing, the All-Stars generate a gentle reverie that provides a dramatic counterpoint to Frost's contribution, which precedes it.In other cases a less successful balance is struck, resulting in muddiness when the sound design is too dense, and the presence of the field recording sometimes verges on gimmicky. Had extraneous noises (peoples' voices, for instance) been stripped out of Glenn Kotche's Time Spirals, a less cluttered and more pleasing presentation would have resulted. In fact, there are times where—as much as I recognize this goes against the fundamental idea for the project—I would prefer to have had the field recordings element excluded altogether, a move that would ostensibly turn the piece into one inspired by a field recording. Cases in point, Zhang Shouwang's ambient-drone setting Courtyards in Central Beijing would be as effective minus its overlays of nature details, and the sound of footsteps clumping through Thorvaldsdottir's Fields isn't necessary either when the musical material already evokes the vision of a late-night trek through Iceland's lava fields; I also could have done without the baby wails in Nico Muhly's Comfortable Cruising Altitude when their inclusion interferes with one's appreciation of this otherwise lovely classical setting. But even if More Field Recordings is ultimately somewhat of a hit-or-miss proposition, the Bang on Can All-Stars deserve credit for resolutely continuing its commitment to experimental work, thirty years after Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe co-founded the Bang on a Can organization.