Bang On A Can are within touching distance of canonisation. The New York group has long been as famous for its genre-agnostic composition choices as it has for its high-energy live performances – and it is with that reputation that the sextet could all but fill the Barbican Hall for the world premiere of their new project, Field Recordings.
Field Recordings consists of nine new compositions, each of which is based around a piece of recorded audio or video. Some of the composers used found samples while others, like Warp’s Mira Calix, recorded their own in airports and casinos.
The results are decidedly mixed. The evening started in iffy fashion, with Julia Wolfe’s ‘Reeling’ – a piece that takes as its basis a recording of French Canadian singer Benoit Benoit. The sample was startlingly beautiful, but the arrangement felt clunky; surprisingly melodically uninventive given the quality of the source material.
Indeed, this lack of invention became something of a theme throughout the set. For all of Bang On A Can’s pioneering spirit, Field Recordings is often oddly unimaginative. Christian Marclay’s ‘Fade To Slide’, for example, sees the group play a live score for a series of clips pieced together by the composer. Many of the clips are of sonic events: bands playing, tablets fizzing, turntables, and so on. Rather than approach the images laterally, the group played little more than clumsy audio representations of the images – images which were, it has to be said, already pretty unadventurous.
The most interesting aspect of ‘Fade To Slide’ comes during a series of shots of ceiling fans, planes, and helicopter rotors. The ensemble use the same sound for each, in a neat illustration of the strange assonances that surround us every day. That assonance is explored elsewhere in the set, particularly in David Lang’s ‘unused swan’, which plays on the similarities between the composer’s recordings of knives being sharpened and the movements of a set of chains played by percussionist David Cossin. It’s a reasonably interesting idea, and the samples are arranged in a remarkably unsettling fashion, but again the interpretation is too literal, too unimaginative, to really hold the attention.
But there are high points. Florent Ghys’s ‘An Open Cage’ does a good job of highlighting the remarkably constant rhythm of human speech, with the ensemble playing along to a recording of John Cage reading extracts from his diary – a reading which, intentionally or not, tends to stay surprisingly close to 4/4 time. Meanwhile Evan Ziporyn’s ‘Wargarsi’, for which the composer reconfigured a 1928 recording of a Balinese singer, is beautiful – as is Michael Gordon’s ‘gene takes a drink’, which takes the form of a slowly evolving Reichian round, set to hyper-saturated film footage. But it is Tyondai Braxton’s piece that represents the evening’s high point. Despite sounding so much like Central Market that it occasionally veers close to self-plagiarism, the Battles man’s ‘Casino Trem’ is a fantastically entertaining exploration of the Resorts World Casino in Queens. With slot machines tweaked to sound like analogue synths, and Braxton’s characteristically spring-loaded melodies, ‘Casino Trem’ sounds like a slightly less Looney Tunes-esque ‘Duck and the Butcher’. Hardly representative of forward motion for the composer, but hugely enjoyable nonetheless.
A frustrating evening, then, in which moments of excellence were buried in a pretty unimaginative thicket. Here’s hoping for better composition choices next time round.