Exactly where does repetition become monotony?
On their latest release, New York’s Bang on a Can navigates the elusive middle ground between simplicity and unrelenting tedium, and they do it with varying success. The group is the product of Lincoln Center’s music festival that bears the same name, which was founded in 1987 to bring “new” music to the selective masses who had grown weary of the classical canon. Described as “part classical ensemble, part rock band, part jazz band,” the Bang on a Can, at least on this album, is made up of eleven graduates of the Bang on a Can festival. They have made a name for themselves in the world of the avant-garde by performing pieces in the minimalist style (popularized by present-day composers like John Cage and Philip Glass) that often involves very few key changes amid general themes of uniformity.
One of the ruling aspects of minimalism is slight variation on a recurring premise, and Terry Riley’s composition, “In C,” seems to exist as an ideal model for this assumed sub-genre, as the piece is based around one piano chord, repeated in excess of forty-five minutes. On it’s own, the song may stand closer to psychological torture than contemporary music. But Riley endows the musical backbone with a given number of varying melodies, musical lines that are repeated at any time by any instrument. The intended result is a composition that may be interpreted differently at all times by all players – much more of an exercise than a symphony.
The steady C serves as a stream of continuous, unifying noise, while three to five notes are repeated in pattern by a vibraphone, a clarinet, an electric guitar… One line seems to follow the lead of the first, and as the piece progresses, the numerous phrases somehow gel into one organic, cohesive whole, a kind of sound texture with no discernible beginning or end. Patterns slip in and out of their own accord, at times isolating and elevating one repeated string sequence toward heightened clarity. The master here is bustling, almost frantic rhythm, a clockwork consistency obscuring its own melodic intervals. After each instrument falls out of line, one feels a momentary fear that none will appear to follow it up, as if the trainlike pattern has encountered congestion along its route.
Yet there is no apex to this piece, no crashing crescendo, no extended drum solo. Each note is itself tension, self-control, and preparation for a chorus which never arrives. The only recording I know which could be closely compared is Steve Reich’s Music For Eighteen Musicians, which, unlike Riley’s, is divided into fourteen distinguishable “sections,” inaudibly gliding into one another. Another reference point may be current Chicago-based group Tortoise, whose instrumental blend feels like modernist principles forced into five-minute pop compositions, with mallet-driven rhythm lines and rock guitars.
The initial effect of this music can be slightly ingratiating, feeling both hyperactive and unfocused, but repeated listens reveal logic slowly seeping from dissonance. Though I have limited experience with classical music, I predict that both casual pop-music consumers and staunch traditionalists will show mixed responses to this album, and no hidden equation serves as a guide to consuming these noises effectively. The music was recorded live at the World Financial Center in 1998, and I would like to have measured the crowd’s reaction. Flowering adjectives do little to explain the deceptive simplicity at work here, and complete acceptance may be the only option.