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Bang on a Can at Emory University

Glenn Kotche

Glenn Kotche

Concert preview
Bang on a Can with Glenn Kotche
8 p.m. Jan. 22. $20-$50. Schwartz Center for Performing Arts, 1700 N. Decatur Road, on the Emory campus, 404-727-5050, arts.emory.edu.

By Pierre Ruhe
The most vibrant corner of the classical music scene today is not very traditional and not even comfortable with the loaded term “classical.” As a compromise, we might call the style “alt-classical,” where one leading troupe — New York’s Bang on a Can — draws eclectic musicians from all over the map, in geography and musical attitudes.
The Bang on a Can All-Stars perform Jan. 22 at Emory University’s Schwartz Center. The show’s headliner is the embodiment of the Bang on a Can ethos: Glenn Kotche, the drummer of indie-roots-rock band Wilco, who is a conservatory-trained percussionist, an imaginative performer and, increasingly, a noted composer. Two of his most admired works, “Snap” and “Mobile,” are on the program.
“Playing with Bang on a Can is like playing with a different rock band more than with a pseudo-classical ensemble,” says Kotche, who made solo percussion records before he joined Wilco’s rock ’n’ roll lifestyle and has been a regular Bang on a Can guest in recent years.
One show and one new piece at a time, Kotche (pronounced KOH-chee) is helping shape this new alt-classical world, where music is often constructed from a haze of rhythm, texture and noise — and has little use for what had always been considered the fundamental building blocks of music.
To wit: “The old divisions separating melody, harmony and rhythm are outdated,” Kotche asserts, “and pure noise has been a part of classical music for at least 100 years and central to the American experimental tradition for almost as long” — referring to Stravinsky’s violently percussive “Rite of Spring” and to Charles Ives’ Americana cacophony.
Bang on a Can was founded in the mid-1980s by three composers — Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon and David Lang — who were then outside the symphonic mainstream. In their music and their presentations, they tapped the style and mood of elegant Minimalist masters like Steve Reich and Philip Glass, but brought a scruffier, grungier, more blue-collar aesthetic to the culture.
The organization was soon presenting festivals and annual 12-hour marathons of contemporary music. It formed its own record label, Cantaloupe Music . A touring ensemble, the All-Stars, took the stuff around the world in live performances. In 2007, they commissioned Kotche to write “Snap” as part of a scheme to enlarge the classical (or alt-classical) tent. “One of our goals from the beginning,” says co-founder Lang, “was to find people outside our world and invite them in, musicians from folk and jazz and rock. Glenn seemed like a natural fit.”
Kotche says “Snap” was composed around the same time Wilco was assembling songs for its “Sky Blue Sky” album, which was inspired partially by the pioneering 1960s soul and funk label called Stax. There’s now a halo hovering over Booker T. and the M.G.s, the back-up band for many of the label’s hit singles by the likes of Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett.
“Stax was a lot grittier compared to Motown,” Kotche says, “and had some of the best [music] of the time. I’d dug deep into it.” So when Bang on a Can asked him for a work for amplified chamber ensemble, Kotche lifted a horn riff or drum line from a Stax tune and reworked it into his new composition. “Snap” sounds at times loose and improvised, but is, in fact, tightly structured and intricately notated.
That excites the old-classical element of Bang on a Can. Says the group’s clarinetist Evan Ziporyn: “We’re basically conservatory nerds who played in garage bands and love to bridge those worlds, or act like they don’t exist.” Ziporyn, whose “Shadowbang” Suite will also be on the Atlanta program, is the reigning clarinetist on the U.S. avant-garde scene. He’s also an M.I.T. professor and an increasingly esteemed composer. “We’ve got the best, or sometimes the worst, of both worlds,” he says with a laugh.
But it is David Lang, above all, who has yanked the slacker-cool Bang on a Can culture toward becoming a dominant player in the wider classical world. The open-borders mind-set and sheer industry of the group, coupled with iTunes’ mp3 technology that flatters the “Bang” musical style, contributed to its ascent.
Then, in the past year, Lang’s “The Little Match Girl Passion” caused a sensation for the same reasons that people cling to old masterpieces — a riveting drama that reveals intense emotional truths on the beauty and cruelty of human nature. It’s a setting of the dark Hans Christian Andersen parable, where a poor child freezes to death on New Year’s Eve. It tapped Bang on a Can’s twin ideals — old and new classical — without watering down either, and won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Music. (Released on the Harmonia Mundi label, “Little Match Girl Passion” has yet to receive an Atlanta concert performance.)
With Kotche and Ziporyn and the Bang gang on stage at Emory, the show should offer a hootenanny of music. Atlanta audiences will hear an airier Lang work, “Sunray,” music that was written for his father’s 80th birthday. “It’s delicate and twisty and hard to pin down,” is how the composer describes it, “then gradually gets agitated. The idea is something warming up as if in the sun.”

Pierre Ruhe blogs about music at www.ArtsCriticATL.com

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