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If you've grown tired of having musical styles placed and labeled in pre-formed boxes, then Bang on a Can All-Stars is just the group for you. Duke Performances presented this world-renowned assemblage of six musicians who step over, crisscross and obliterate the boundaries between jazz, rock, classical, world and experimental music. The Reynolds Industries Theater concert also featured guest drummer Glenn Kotche of the group Wilco. This performance, in part, served as an homage to Steve Reich, the American composer generally considered as the pioneer of minimalist music; the evening also whet the appetite for the world premiere of a new work by him that will be unveiled by the Kronos Quartet at Duke in March, 2011.
One can argue endlessly about the merits, musical effect, and difficulties - or lack thereof - of performing or composing this type of music, but like the old adage about real estate, this musical style boils down to repetition, repetition, repetition. The program opened with Reich's New York Counterpoint, an early work for soloist - here with Evan Ziporyn on clarinet - accompanied by up to thirteen pre-recorded layers of themselves. Another aspect of minimalist style is known as phasing, in which brief snippets of motifs are layered, expand, and rhythmically move away from each other. This is a great intro and example of Reich's musical philosophy and a work which is brief enough to avoid a hypnotic trance or mind-numbing stupor.
The next work, For Madeline, by absent Bang on a Can member Michael Gordon, was the most traditional of the evening. Written in memory of his grandmother, this employed the full ensemble of electric guitar, bass, piano, cello, clarinet and percussion and was a nice palate cleanser sandwiched between two pieces by Reich - 2x5 closed the first half. This 21-minute work is pretty much your basic battle-of-the-bands, scored for two sets of five-person rock ensembles. There was some very interesting interplay between the two pianists, but for the most part it embodies the formula of repetition/short motifs/phasing - just much louder.
The second half was divided between works for the full ensemble and stripped-down rhythm: one or two percussionists creating fascinating patterns. First was Kotche's adaptation for drum kit of Reich's 1972 duet hand for hand clapping, "Clapping Music." The original is a unique and marvelous creation that doesn't really lend itself to anything but what it is. Playing it on a drum set was somewhat anticlimactic. However, the next work - another by Reich, called Music for Pieces of Wood - was a spectacular duet featuring Kotche and guest Ian Ding, assistant principal percussionist of the Detroit Symphony. Subtle but quite discernible rhythmic permutations as well as some playing of unusual pitched instruments helped make this the most satisfying musical experience of the evening.
It's been said that one should be wary of composers who write long statements/explanations about their work and, based on first hearing, wariness and weariness was my impression of Snap, Kotche's composition for rock band based on the artists and style of the Stax record label. The composer himself says it all when he writes, "Although Snap bears no audible resemblance to these songs, my goal was for it to retain the vibrancy, groove, power, and beauty of this music."
While not expecting a retread of the likes of Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, or other great artists who recorded for Stax, I merely heard and felt what amounted to minimalist jamming.
The finale, Mobile, ended the evening on a high note with a beautifully wrought work which showcased the infinite varieties of rhythm.