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Banging the Can

By Rob Rushin-Knopf, Culture Warrior
(Photo of Shara Nova by Peter Sterling, 2022, courtesy of Long Play Festival)

On May Day (workers unite!) I attended the final day of Bang on a Can’s inaugural Long Play Festival. Scheduled to debut in 2020 (but, well, ya know…), the festival delivered three full days of music, with roughly 60 acts across eight venues mostly within a roughly four block radius; two stages were less than a mile distant. On my way to collect my festival pass, I considered the times I had seen BOAC perform, all of them at the Big Ears Festival. I mentioned this to BOAC’s Director of Development Tim Thomas and noted that the Long Play setup – multiple sets run simultaneously among easily-walked locations – was similar to the Knoxville vibe.

In mock dudgeon he replied, “Are you suggesting that we copped this idea from Ashley Capps?? We absolutely did.”

The lineup was eclectic in extremis and heavily populated by the Bang on a Can / Brooklyn new music crowd. There were several artists ‘from away’ – Philadelphia’s Jamaladeen Tacuma, the Southern Oregon University Percussion Ensemble, Matmos from Baltimore, cellist Zoe Keating to name a few – but the aesthetic was pure Brooklyn.

It’s an aesthetic that is near impossible to pigeonhole, and therein lies its charm. You could catch the BOAC All Stars perform Brian Eno’s seminal ambient classic Music for Airports or Terry Riley’s legendary In C; the always compelling Attaca Quartet playing music by Glass, Caroline Shaw, Flying Lotus, and more; or the Sun Ra Arkestra, still traveling the spaceways under the direction of the 98-year old Marshall Allen.

Sadly, I saw none of these acts, and another dozen or two that would cause me too much psychic pain to mention. But my one day there was everything I could have hoped for, an opportunity to immerse in performances that shatter notions of genre restriction, music by turns unexpected, bizarre, ecstatic, hilarious, and deeply touching. Who could ask for anything more?

Bassist Robert Black, a longtime BOAC all-star, started my day with a solo recital that stretched my conception of the double bass to near the breaking point. His opening piece, Four Moons of Pluto (2015) by Miya Masaoka, is an open string and harmonics affair using a just intonation tuning scheme that generated layers of strange harmonics and wave-interference beats that created internal rhythms that pushed this droning wonder into a subtly insistent groove. Masaoka wrote this for one to five basses; one can only imagine the shimmer a full compliment would engender.

Robert Black at Long Play 2022 (Photo Credit: Peter Serling 2022, courtesy of Long Play Festival)

Black introduced Theraps by Iannis Xenakis (1975) as “an extreme piece of music in all sorts of ways” and recalled his sessions with Xenakis where the composer pushed him beyond anything remotely resembling a comfort zone. Click here for a recording of Black performing the Xenakis piece from an album released a month before the festival. (WARNING: Not for the faint of heart.)

Then I caught cellist/singer Iva Casian-Lakos playing Joan LaBarbara’s a trail of indeterminate light and ad astra…for cellist who sings. La Barbara is a living legend whose Voice is the Original Instrument (1976) is perhaps the iconic document of extended vocal techniques. (Good look finding a copy.) She appeared on Steve Reich’s masterwork Drumming and famously sang the alphabet on Sesame Street. (No lie, y’all.) A collaborator with new music giants like John Cage, Alvin Lucier, Philip Glass, and Morton Subotnick (Go! Listen!), La Barbara has established a significant body of her own compositions. ad astra… is a BOAC commission written specifically for Casian-Lakos. By turns melodically dreamy and terrifyingly banshee, this was a performance to be reckoned with.

Here’s the premiere of ad astra… during BOAC’s 2021 annual marathon, held via livestream during the pandemic.

Next up, the utterly luminous Shara Nova (pictured up top and below) embodied the Reaper in BOAC co-founder David Lang’s death speaks (2013). Occasionally you happen upon a performance that completely transforms your being. This was one of those. I could barely breathe.

Death, where is thy sting? (Photo of Shara Nova by Peter Sterling, 2022, courtesy of Long Play Festival)

(I’ll be back soon with a longer look at Shara Nova, aka My Brightest Diamond. I’ve become a tad obsessed, to be honest.)

I wandered in a daze to the next and nearest show, pretty sure anything after death speaks would be a letdown. Instead, I found myself transfixed by interdisciplinary artist eddy kwon. I knew her name from the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s 50th anniversary project, but had no idea what to expect. It was another complete mind melt.

kwon’s website explains that “her practice connects composition, performance, improvisation, dance, and ceremony to explore transformation & transgression, ritual practice as a tool to queer ancestral lineage, and the use of mythology to connect, obscure, and reveal” and that “[h]er work as a choreographer and movement artist embodies an expressive release and reclamation of colonialism’s spiritual imprints, connecting to both Japanese Butoh and a lineage of queer/trans practitioners of Korean shamanic ritual.” Somehow even those expansive descriptions fall short of expressing the essence of expression that was otherwordly, touchingly sad, extremely funny, and punctuated by musicianship of the highest caliber.

The first piece (I’m pretty sure it was an excerpt from her Umma-Ya project) struck me as a Kurosawa epic compressed into who knows how many minutes – I seriously lost all sense of time – in the body of a single performer. Here’s a series of excerpts from an earlier staging of Umma-Ya.

Other pieces showcased his violinist chops (multiple Bach quotes) and his representation as a gender fluid artist and activist. Lyrics such as “hips like lambs’ horns” evoked deep longing and desire, while the line “your life does not have to be a dubious, sticky sweet secret” offers encouragement to anyone yearning to embrace their authentic core. I could watch/listen to her for days.

Soo Yeon Lyuh was running behind schedule, so I was able to catch her mastery (sorry for the gendered term, but what is the alternative?) on the haegum, the 2-string Korean spike fiddle. Her set ranged from traditional to free improv with a guitarist to a composition by BOAC co-founder Michael Gordon performed with recorded pulse/drone backing. Mesmerizing.

A few tacos at Tacombi set me up for the festival finale at the stunning Brooklyn Academy of Music Opera House: An orchestral re-imagining of Ornette Coleman’s groundbreaking album 1959 The Shape of Jazz to Come.

Released the same year as Kind of Blue and Giant Steps, these three albums mark a stark inflection point between their swing and bebop predecessors and what was emerging as the so-called “new thing in jazz.” Sixty years on it is impossible to imagine the kind of impact they had on unprepared listeners. Shape was considered especially anarchic in its day, though in retrospect it seems a quite logical next step from the Bird-Gillespie be bop innovations. As with Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and other mythical artistic upheavals, these works inevitably established themselves as a new norm waiting to be upended by subsequent innovators. But it is no exaggeration to state that these recordings changed the world.

Fittingly, the star power around this event was tremendous, both on stage and in the audience. For the festival, BOAC enlisted seven contemporary composers – some considered jazz, some not – to reimagine the six Shape pieces for sextet plus the Bang on a Can Orchestra conducted by classical piano titan Awadagin Pratt.

Photo Credit: Ellen Qbertplaya 2022, courtesy of Long Play Festival

The sextet featured Ornette’s son, drummer Denardo, with OC alumni Jamaaladeen Tacuma (bass) and James “Blood” Ulmer (guitar). Jason Moran, the reigning embodiment of the jazz piano tradition, was my pick for star of the hour, resplendent in a canary yellow duster that was almost as spectacular as his playing. (fwiw, the entire sextet was fashionably fabulous, a nod to Ornette’s commitment to spectacular wardrobe.) Wallace Roney, Jr. held down original trumpeter Don Cherry’s role, while multi-reed phenom Lee Odom tackled the challenge of standing in for the late master on alto with admirable confidence and gusto; her solos captured the essence of Ornette’s singular vocabulary without falling prey to mimicry and pastiche. Mark her as one to watch.

The star power carried over to the lineup of composers/arrangers: Pamela Z, Nicole Mitchell, Craig Harris, David Sanford, Nick Dunston, and Carman Moore. (Go! Listen!) The variety of styles at play stretched the program’s coherence, but the internal logic of Coleman’s compositions defied the potential for anarchy; the center somehow held. One piece re-contextualized Coleman in the lineage of American composer Aaron Copland. Another was recognizably in the bop/big band vein, though only just, while others fixed Coleman in the realm of 20th-century classical abstraction reminiscent of his own Skies of America.

It was a fitting capper to an ambitious inaugural weekend. Like the festival, it was a swing for the fences turn at bat, and when it connected the results were transformative. The evening’s scope reflected the festival’s ambitious programming that offered something for everyone with willing ears to hear.

My sense was that the crowd was mostly locals. At 1500 attendance over three days, the scene was congenial and friendly. I can imagine Long Play evolving into a destination event along the lines of Big Ears – though some of the cozier venues may not scale if the festival takes off – and given the rising price of lodgings in Knoxville for festival weekend, a weekend in Brooklyn would not cost that much more.

Hell, let’s just do both.

And if you plan things right, you can take a stroll across the Brooklyn Bridge. Bucket list plus!

(Pro tip: The bridge is not actually for sale. Boy, do I feel dumb.)