June 1, 2008

Live Review: Post-Modern Madness [Bang on a Can NYC Marathon]

The Winter Garden, Site of Bang on a Can's Annual NYC Music Marathon

In my most recent posts, I have expressed my deep respect and admiration for minimalist music. While I have already articulated my admiration for one of the greatest composers of our time, Steve Reich, there are several promising and forward-thinking artists today purporting minimalism and post-modern music. Enter music collective Bang on a Can and their essential annual marathon of avant-garde composition in New York City.

I originally heard about this great, free music event last year and had the distinct pleasure of seeing Steve Reich’s seminal composition, Music for Eighteen Musicians, performed during a transcendent sunrise. Immediately impacted by the event, I subsequently wrote a review on my personal blog and knew immediately that I would be a repeat attendee of the marathon. Both last year’s and this year’s marathons were held in the Winter Garden shopping center at the World Financial Center, which although ironic, has airtight acoustics that allows sound to reverberate and breathe beautifully.

This year’s 12-hour event, though not as lengthy and packed with as many artists as last year’s 27-hour affair, was equally impressive, beginning last night at 6 PM and culling a wonderful variety of electronic, classical and rock collectives from around the globe under one roof. Accompanied by my friend Hanly, I arrived at the Winter Garden at around 12:15 AM, in time to catch a beautiful Steve Reich piece Daniel Variations being performed by music collective Signal. The piece, written in 2006, uses the best elements of Steve Reich’s unique compositional style, filled with achingly beautiful strings, enchanting marimbas and xylophones and soaring vocalwork.

The next notable event was music collective Alarm Will Sound’s orchestral re-interpretation of the Beatle’s “Revolution #9” sound-collage off the their 1968 White Album. Though the piece didn’t quite sit with me, the performance was solid, with individual members doing a great job of both playing their instruments with precision and providing their own vocal interpretation of the multiple sampled voices in the original work.

Next was So Percussion’s performance of The So Called Laws of Nature, a piece composed by Bang on a Can founding member David Lang. A highlight of the night, the piece was performed at the marble stairwell at the back of the Winter Garden, with So Percussion performing each of the three movements at three different levels of stairwell. A video of the second movement is provided below for your viewing pleasure. As a side note, I have a bit of soft spot for So Percussion, as I engineered their live, on-radio performance of Steve Reich’s Drumming, the precursor of Music for 18 Musicians, at my college radio station, WNUR.

The next two highlights of the night came at 4 AM. First, Baltimore electronic musician and video collagist Dan Deacon presented us Ultimate Reality: Part III. The piece is a beautiful and, to put it bluntly, mind-blowingly trippy, mixing video and electronic/rock freakout, and was easily the craziest event of the night. Much of the music up until Dan Deacon was played at pleasant pace, so to hear the bombast of Deacon’s work was like a shot of caffeine directly to the vein. The video collage itself transformed and manipulated Arnold Schwarzenegger’s finest moments on screen and tie-died them with a wide array of colors. The best justice I can give to this part of the night is a brief clip of the performance below, which is still not enough to describe this absolute aural and visual onslaught.

The last events I saw for the night were Contact’s back-to-back performances of Allison Cameron’s 3rds, 4ths& 5ths and Brian Eno’s Discreet Music. Both pieces were absolutely beautiful and provided a striking dichotomy against Deacon’s performance. Like last year’s Music for 18 Musicians performance, Discreet Music was played against a rising sun, providing a transcendental backdrop to an already beautiful piece of ambient music. A video of the performance is below.

After Discreet Music, Hanly and I exited Winter Garden at around 6 AM in a trance-like state, greeted by a newly risen sun over the Hudson River. Seeing this musical event is an absolute must, and proves to be a truly unique and special experience. More than anything, the marathon creates a defined mood and setting to accompany the already surreal notion that your normal sleeping hours are being substituted by post-modern musical works played in a shopping center filled with all walks of life. Ultimately, the event proved to be as exceptional as last year’s, and is one of the NYC music community’s greatest public offerings. Let’s start planning for 2009.


Anonymous said...
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Will Grizzly said...
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Justin said...

Thanks Will. Glad you were at the marathon. It was off the hook for sure.

Matt Sargent said...

While that original commenter was way over the top with his vulgarity, it is a shame that the review stops with Discreet Music. The 2-hour Stockhausen meditation was really quite an experience.

Otherwise, great job with the review. I was personally disappointed with the early intonation issues with the Reich, but as you mentioned, the Eno was wonderful.

Justin said...


Thanks for approaching this issue with more class. While understood Stockhausen would have been great to see, my friend and I were on our "last limbs" and I felt Discreet Music was an excellent way to end the night.

With all the acts we saw, Dan Deacon was probably the most impacting, in my opinion. Seeing a mosh pit at the Winter Garden at 4:30 AM is something to be seen.

DJA said...

Great writeup, Justin, and thanks for adding the video clips.

My own blow-by-blow is here.

Justin said...


Great account and very detailed. Is that some coffee on your program? It was amazing that Starbucks stayed open through the marathon. I was happy to get my caffeine fix at around 3 AM.

Impressive you liveblogged last year's 27-hour affair! That's some serious multi-tasking!

Tom said...

The organizers of the Bang on a Can Marathon should be applauded for slotting Dan Deacon's performance at 4AM. A stroke of genius. I wasn't enamored with the performance but the crowd surge and the accompanying energy helped pace the night.

I stayed for the Stockhausen. But after 12 hours of mostly good music, Stockhausen was unbearable.

The arrangement and performance of 'Discreet Music' was nearly perfect, and I found it to be more successful than the BoC's arrangement of 'Music for Airports 1' from the previous year. With hindsight, I would have preferred to end the experience with that.

Justin said...

I listened to Stockhausen in a computer music composition class in college. I agree...he is a bit difficult to listen to.

Discreet Music was perfect, and that accompanying visual of the piles of paper/cardboard being stacked one upon the other...very entrancing. Stark contrast to Deacon's Arnold Schwarznegger acid trip.

Matt said...

Does anyone have more information about the video that accompanied the Eno piece? I assumed it was one of Eno's video works, but I'm not certain.

I wonder if similar video accompaniment would've made all the difference in last year's Music for Airports. (Particularly to make the large-scale phasing in that piece more obvious.)

(Also, just a quick edit to one of your video pieces: David Lang, rather than Daniel.)

Justin said...


Thanks for the catch - I made the change.

The video was done by Suzanne Bocanegra. I think this is her website: http://www.lucasschoormans.com/index.php?mode=artists&object_id=27

Seems as though she's an artist from my hometown Houston. Props.

Anonymous said...

Video artist Suzanne Bocanegra is married to David Lang, one of the BOAC founders.

Teleza said...

You write very well.