[Photo by BILL HEBERT]
BY DAVE ALLEN Spending 10 waking hours in the same space is nothing; to me, it’s a Saturday night bartending shift. A ten-hour long concert, though, was a new experience for me and, thanks to the New York-based composer-performer collective Bang on a Can and their first-ever Philadelphia Marathon, held Sunday at World Café Life, not one I’ll soon forget. The day belonged to groove – percussion-driven ones in particular – but the most thrilling moments came when steady beats skipped and patterns were thrown for a loop. Throughout the day, the moment everything threatened to come apart was the moment it came together.
I sensed that moment in “Drumming Part I,” the Steve Reich work that New York ensemble So Percussion played to open the concert. The circular patterns, falling in and out of phase, of Reich’s early works are the benchmark for so many of the late 20th century’s great pieces. When the looped rhythms, hammered out on a row of bongos arranged not on the World Cafe Live stage but amid the audience seating below, began to unspool, the timbre and decay of a struck drum – the real fundamental stuff of music – came into focus. So Percussion’s rendition revealed the surprising intimacy that’s often overshadowed by Reich’s mesmerizing tendencies.
I heard it during Spoken Hard Percussion Orchestra’s set, as the multi-ethnic ensemble playing, appropriately, a multi-ethnic assemblage of percussion instruments, layered tablas on top of djembes over timbales and cowbells over talking coil drums…and then sang, chanted and shouted over the whole thing. It’s a mystery how you can have people playing behind the beat and ahead of it, and no one playing the beat itself, and still it emerges. One of Spoken Hand’s members said they usually play festivals and in other less-epic settings; the Marathon, then, was their emergence.
I heard it among the stuttering beats and tangled, sung lists in “Shelter,” a seven-movement oratorio jointly composed by Bang on a Can founders David Lang, Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon as an ode to the safety, anxiety and impermanence of having and living in a home. Lists of building materials were recited over an epic, bombastic accompaniment – think Beethoven cracked open and stuffed with guitars – by the chamber orchestra Signal. Later, a trio of singers softly lamented the decline in use of porches with stretched-out, yearning phrases – “lemonade,” “air conditioning” – in crisscrossing counterpoint.
Even the things that never quite coalesced still opened up ears and minds. A set by local avant-noisists Normal Love, which captured the thrust and holler of groups like Yeah Yeah Yeahs and cut it up into flitting, spasmodic chunks, thrashed amid almost total darkness; the only illumination came from black lights and strobes trained on a pair of paper flower arrangements that sat where a lead singer would have otherwise stood. I do love a good absurdist spectacle.
Other Philly artists were at the same, weird end of the spectrum. The fixed explosions of pianist Uri Caine and his crack group, trumpeter Ralph Alessi and thunderous drummer Jim Black, were alternately blistering and beautiful. The Sun Ra Arkestra – from Germantown or Saturn, depending on who you ask – began and ended with chaotic, horn-powered skronk, but the middle of their set shuffled and swung in a remarkably down-to-earth fashion, even as they declared that “space is the place” and “the earth is not my home” over a barrelhouse piano riff.
Other segments of the concert were cleaner and tidier, but were no less affecting for not verging on bedlam. Baltimore electro outfit Matmos shuffled between samples and genres, offering a spoken-word opera by Robert Ashley backed by electronic blips and keening slide guitar. They were later joined by So Percussion and stitched together amplified rubber bands, steel drums, melodicas and splashing water into a soundscape that was, by turns, surreal and serene. Plus, there was an amplified cactus, which I’m still trying to process (seriously, Google it). Another solo set by So Percussion clattered and tinkled with marimba, glockenspiel and other mallet-played percussion, churning out “Threads,” composer Paul Lansky’s take on a Bach cantata. It didn’t sound like any Bach I’d ever heard, but the power and the proportion of the music were calibrated just right.
Sets like those require a lot of hardware – both technological and musical – and the other thing that defined the Marathon, apart from groove, was copious set-up time between acts. Sure, it allowed for new-music warriors to hit the bathroom and grab food from upstairs, but I would have preferred that the music never stop coming. I would have loved for the Crossing, a Philadelphia-based, 21-voice chamber choir dedicated to modern repertoire, to have broken into song at the back of the room, acoustics be damned, with no transition from the high-volume acts that preceded them. The ethereal, beautiful and more-complex-than-they-seemed compositions the choir offered spoke for themselves, though Lang, Wolfe and others still did plenty of talking throughout the day to cover set changes. Getting background that way beats reading it in a program booklet, no question, but there was a lot of time lost in transition.
The fun, freewheeling and from-out-of-nowhere romps by the renegade street band Asphalt Orchestra provided, I think, the best model for how future Marathons should proceed. They went from the foot of the stage to the bar in back in no time. They nimbly scattered, danced and conga-lined among the audience. They got right up in listeners’ faces; I was this close to the business end of a trombone slide at least twice. There was no prompting or preparation, it just happened. It didn’t matter that I knew the tunes – many were reprised from the group’s Philly debut last August, at 30th Street Station – because where they’d play them and how they’d present them kept me guessing. If BoaC brings the Marathon to Philly again – and it sounds like they want to – I know they’ll maintain the presence of local artists, but I hope they’ll take their cues on sequencing from the marching, mischievous music-makers.
PREVIOUSLY: Interview With Bang On A Can