Bang a Gong!

The Roof Is On Fire: The Bang on a Can All-Stars take new music out of the rarefied realm of half-empty concert halls.

A GUITAR AMP sits beneath a grand piano and a huge battery of percussion shares the stage with a cello and a bass clarinet. The sound palette shifts from a loutish, precise dissonance to a hard-edged, driving rhythm. A dreamy, melodic clarinet solo inspired by Georgian choral music follows a ferocious, densely textured ensemble work by an American composer. In the plush seats of New York's Lincoln Center, the audience is grooving and applauding wildly as the band sets into a rendition of Nirvana's "Lithium."

It's a typical three-hour show for Bang on a Can, six classically trained musicians with a knack for rocking out. Emerging seven years ago in New York's East Village out of an underground music festival of the same name, the Bang on a Can All-Stars (who will play the Walker on Wednesday, April 1) began with a mixed sense of mission: part venue for new sounds, part band, and part ideology. The collective is the brainchild of three Yale-trained composers, Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe, and David Lang, and its motives have always been quietly subversive. Bang on a Can knocks down the barriers between Uptown and Downtown, minimalism and improvisation, rock and "Serious Music," and, in doing so, strives to appeal to audiences beyond the self-appointed "new music specialists."

Within a few years of its 1991 inception, the Bang on a Can festival and concept took the music scene by storm. Hordes turned out to hear new Steve Reich, Milton Babbitt, and John Cage compositions sandwiched between pieces by unknowns. At tiny art galleries and run-down Catholic schools, Bang on a Can presented musicians from all over the world in an atmosphere of living-room informality. Audiences kicked back, beers in hand, to savor the strange notion that new music can be fun.

The success of the Bang on a Can festival (which moved to Lincoln Center in 1994) led to a touring version of the All-Stars, involving a collection of powerhouse musicians who had regularly played at the festival. The band's unusual instrumentation--cello, bass, percussion, piano, electric guitar, clarinet/sax--makes for a vaguely anarchic sensibility, rooted in a taste for cutting across established categories with impeccable virtuosity.

The music they play, composed mostly by Gordon, Lang, and Wolfe, is a gutsy and adamant mishmash, borrowing amply from rock & roll, jazz, and gamelan music. For their one-night Walker stopover, the All-Stars are brewing up their pièce de résistance: a first-ever live performance of Brian Eno's 1978 electro-acoustic classic Music for Airports, featuring an orchestra of brass, winds, strings, and singers.

The Bang on a Can All-Stars will performMusic for Airports at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, April 1 at the Walker Art Center Auditorium; call 375-7622.

 
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