Bang on a Can were gentle with their London audience last night, giving the UK première of their Field Recordings project, a sequence of nine new compositions which all involved recorded sound or video samples. Some of these samples were old, and some were new; some were musical, and some were not; but all were performed with the rhythmical intensity and verve one expects from this ensemble, and the programme gelled together to form a relaxed, compelling and oddly coherent whole.

Bang on a Can All-Stars © Stephanie Berger
Bang on a Can All-Stars
© Stephanie Berger

As you'd expect from such a broad brief, the composers responded to it in a variety of different directions. Loosely, there were three distinct types of approach: pieces which used film, pieces which used 'miscellaneous' audio recordings, and pieces which used vocal audio extracts.

Even within these groups, though, the works were very different. Michael Gordon's strongly Reich-influenced Gene Takes a Drink seemed essentially to be a soundtrack to his film of Gene, a cat, wandering around a garden, filmed from the cat's point of view. Nick Zammuto's Real Beauty Turns was also soundtrack-like in approach, but less narrative: the film consisted of short commercial clips (mainly) showing women beautifying themselves with all manner of devices and products. Periodically punctuated by a cheesy chorus singing 'Real beauty turns!', this was a surprisingly dramatic composition, and atypically mature and stable for a multimedia work, which integrated the film and music elements very effectively.

Of the pieces using non-vocal audio recordings, Tyondai Braxton's Casino Trem was my pick. Braxton used the circus-like tones of a New York casino as his sound source, and the ensemble blended in with these sounds to produce a zany and rhythmically taut sound a little reminiscent of the music of Braxton's brilliant former band Battles. Mira Calix's Meeting You Seemed Easy was a rather freer piece in which the music and the sound sample (from an airport) blended less provocatively. Bang on a Can stalwart David Lang's contribution unusued swan was harmonically and melodically soft, over harsh recorded sounds of scraping metal, exacerbated in performance by an oddly similar live percussion part.

The three pieces with vocal sound samples perhaps had an easier job conceptually, and all of them were enjoyable listens. Julia Wolfe's Reeling and Evan Ziporyn's Wargasi both used recordings of singers – Wolfe of a French-Canadian singer, Ziporyn of one from Bali – and both explored subtle harmonies from in amongst the recorded sounds. Ziporyn's piece had a stabbier, jazzy edge but both exuded a sense of calm, and affection for their recordings.

Neither of them could compete, though, with Florent Ghys' An Open Cage, which again coaxed out a rich musicality from its sound source. The source this time was a spoken recording of John Cage reading an extract of his own prose. Cage's speaking voice has always struck me as unusually musical, but this piece, which followed the rhythms and tonal contours of Cage's voice tightly throughout, was stunning. A little ritualistic in its adherence to Cage's words, Ghys' gentle, swaying composition beautifully charts a discovery of music in speech, and is a wonderful tribute to the master in his hundredth year. Though second on the set-list, I was thinking about it throughout the rest of the concert and trying to reconstruct it on my journey home as well.

It was a virtuosic performance from the ensemble, which had a real sense of swing in all the pieces. Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, Bang on a Can is a group which knows itself well, and they make their essentially slightly odd instrumentation – clarinet, cello, bass, guitar, keyboards, percussion (plus electronics) – sound as natural as a string quartet. Their encore, Sonic Youth member Thurston Moore's Stroking Piece, additionally highlighted their brilliant commitment to willfully ignoring generic boundaries; this seemed basically to be a fully-'composed' Sonic Youth track, but was good enough and well enough performed that it was completely convincing in this context. So soon after a problematic violin concerto from indie star Owen Pallett, in a generally bizarre Nico Muhly recital also at the Barbican, this was a timely reminder that the best way to unite classical and popular is to let them be themselves.