Bang on a Can All-Stars are by no means small fish in a big pond. Their work within the world of minimalist and contemporary music, as well as their collaboration with some of the biggest names in 20th-century music, has made of them today a name respected by any fan of John Cage, Steve Reich, Terry Riley or Brian Eno (to name but a few of the best). Their previous concert in Paris filled out the impressive hall of the Cité de la Musique. It is with surprise, therefore, that this latest Paris concert took place in a smaller and more intimate surrounding: an invitation to perform at La Dynamo, in collaboration with Cabaret Contemporain for Paris’ Banlieues Bleues festival.

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

Famed interpreters of the music of Steve Reich, John Cage and Terry Riley, the All-Stars’ programme consisted not of the classics of the minimalist canon but rather the music of their very own founders and artistic directors David Lang, Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon. Launching straight into David Lang’s sunray, they took no time to show us what they were made of. With no rhythmic framework for the ear to hold onto, the work proceeds to transcend the very idea of “structure”, moving instead towards a singular and ever-shifting combination of sounds emanating from the various instruments. Like a well-oiled machine, the ensemble’s musicians functioned in perfect synchronicity, practically dancing on stage during the performance, proving that the term “minimalist” is not equivalent to “without passion”: each member appeared lost in his own world, although the infallible rhythmic unity proved otherwise. Julia Wolfe’s Lick, full of short, sudden and frantic bursts amidst long silences, dispelled any final hesitations regarding the group’s astounding talents, and Michael Gordon’s somber and sorrowful For Madeline highlighted a darker and more solemn aspect of minimalist music. With uneasy and shifting harmonies from the cello and the guitar, alongside a softly growling clarinet, the ensemble shifted to minimalist soundworlds each more different than the last.

Time must be taken to talk about the work that followed, Stroking Piece no. 1, composed by Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore. Starting with a simple tribal drumming pattern, the work builds progressively on a simple three-chord pattern, growing in strength until a final burst of furious improvisation from every instrument before finally closing in on itself. Without a doubt a work that merits far greater recognition, and certainly a work and performance I shall not forget.

Bringing a close to their programme, the All-Stars tackled the complicated soundworld of Louis Andriessen. Despite my slight lack of enthusiasm for the composer’s work, the group’s performance of Workers Union was able nonetheless to wholly retain my interest and curiosity throughout. With an obviously careful and passionate approach from each musician, the harsh harmonies and violent textures became more intriguing than alienating.

In contrast to the concert’s first half, the Cabaret Contemporain provided us not with a standard minimalist repertoire but rather a series of their own compositions. Made up of two double basses, electric guitar, drum kit and prepared piano (including computer-controlled synthesizer and prepared sounds), the group’s musical setup was not a world away from that of the All-Stars’. Their sound, however, is a different story entirely. A mix of electro/house/funk/trans with a healthy dose of avant-garde techniques, the result was somewhere between Sigur Rós and John Cage.

Filled with excellent ideas and techniques, the concert became a visual as well as an aural feast. Swiping hands on the side of the double bass, jamming percussion sticks in between its strings or even clipping cloth pegs directly onto them, the Cabaret Contemporain are clearly not lacking in creativity. However, a want for variety unfortunately made itself felt as the concert progressed. While the All-Stars were clearly careful in programming works that brought to mind different musical atmospheres and moods, the soundworlds created by the Cabaret Contemporain became increasingly, uncannily similar. That said, however, the ensemble undoubtedly deserves merit for how it puts its ideas into practice. Presenting an approach to the concept of sound and sound-manipulation entirely different to that of Bang on a Can, the result resembles more that of “acousmatic” experimentation than strictly composed minimalist music, valorizing each and every sound as a note and musical entity in itself from which a musical work may be built. Focused on the link between composer and performer, and sound exploration and experimentation, the Cabaret Contemporain build their music upon ideological foundations that, in the end, bring us ultimately to the same effect as the Bang on a Can All-Stars: a hypnotic minimalist music that evades the confines of structure, tonality, and form, creating instead a soundworld that shifts and evolves through the creation and manipulation of the musicians.

Whilst a small and intimate concert with such fantastic music and musicians is a rare opportunity that I was immensely happy to witness, it is a shame that such an event did not receive greater awareness: this was an excellent concert, missed by many.

*****