In the Spring of 1998, when this was recorded in concert, the Bang on a Can All-Stars consisted of cellist Maya Beiser, clarinetist Evan Ziporyn (who doubles on keyboard and samplers on "1/1"), guitarist Mark Stewart, percussionist Steven Schick, pianist/keyboardist Lisa Moore, and bassist Robert Black. The previous year, the same group -- plus guests -- had made a studio recording of this music for Point, a Philip Glass label distributed by PolyGram. That album is still in print, so the question is whether this new release is different enough to justify its existence.
A similar question applied when Bang on a Can made its studio recording: was it different enough from Brian Eno's landmark 1978 album Ambient 1: Music for Airports to be more than a gimmick? It was, and in thought-provoking ways. It moved Eno's work into the classical tradition in a provocative but entirely justified way.
In concert, the performance of "1/1" is quite emphatic in phrasing and accents; "ambient" does not apply to this forceful -- even clangorous -- reading. This is not an inherent result of Michael Gordon's arrangement; comparing this to the group's studio recording, it seems like the effect in this concert performance is a result of close miking emphasizing an interpretive choice. And as compared to Eno's original, which was electronically treated and deliberately given a gauzy texture, this is bright and piercing. All of this makes it sound more like a composition in the classical tradition.
"1/2" strikes me as cheating a bit on the whole premise of the concert presentation by using a synthesizer "vocal" setting; wouldn't actual vocalists be more in the spirit of things? And on BOAC's studio version, in fact, a quartet of women sang. Obviously there are mundane factors of expenses and convenience involved rather than artistic decision, which is unfortunate, but it does serve to emphasize that this is not the exact same arrangement (by David Lang) as on the studio album; this one adds restive percussion, which undercuts the "ambient" feeling by giving the piece a bit of a sinister undertone.
Arranged in both instances by Julia Wolfe, though they sound quite different, "2/1" also lacks the guest artists of BOAC's studio version, a brass section plus pipa player Wu Man. Stewart's tangy guitar plucking and Schick's glockenspiel and marimba plunking are prominent instead, and the music's overall textural feel becomes less smooth and even, more accented, and some horn parts are taken by the synth-voice setting. The quicker decay of guitar and percussion give the music more space, more near-silences.
The droning bass tones of "2/2," arranged by Ziporyn, mean it's the piece that functions most ambiently. The multiple string players (pipa, violin, cellos, bass) of the studio version are absent; here only Beiser's cello (which makes a few pipa-ish sounds) and Black's bass remain. Ziporyn's microtonally ornamented clarinet squiggles remain prominent as well, but stand out more in the less gauzy textures, sounding more klezmerish. Everything stands out more, in fact; on one level it reminds me of Webern's Schubert arrangements.
So the answer to the question raised at the end of the first paragraph is probably clear by now. Just as BOAC's studio version changed Eno's pieces enough to be musically and philosophically valid, the concert iteration is similarly justified, and similarly thought-provoking. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer whose newest project is setting James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach for singer and cello.