The Bang on a Can Marathon at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center

The audience gets comfy as the Bang on a Can Marathon gets going.
The audience gets comfy as the Bang on a Can Marathon gets going. (By Laura Mertens)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 31, 2009

In a big, white, glassed-in space, music rose from a group of performers like a gentle wash of watercolor, flowing and pooling in little pockets of intensity before dissipating into near transparency at the corners of the room.

The audience listened attentively, but not always quietly. People sat on folding chairs, on the steps of a grand staircase, or along the balcony running around the room. Sometimes the music was punctuated by the mew of a child, or the rustle of a candy wrapper, or the sound of footsteps as someone walked around. They had been explicitly told, at the start of the concert, that the point was to be welcoming, and that they could leave their cellphones on.

The piece was Brian Eno's "Music for Airports," written as an experiment in ambient music for public spaces, now a cult classic, and re-imagined for acoustic instruments by the composers' collective known as Bang on a Can. The location was the lobby of the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland on Sunday afternoon. And the occasion was the Washington area's first-ever incarnation of a New York institution called the Bang on a Can Marathon: a collection of different kinds of music by composers local and national, much of it presented for free, and lasting, in this case, for more than seven hours.

Overall, the event was a success. "Success" can be measured in the genuine interest of the crowd that filled the black-box Kogod Theatre at 2 p.m. for a demonstration of a Moog synthesizer (the pioneering instrument of electronic music, built in the 1960s and looking and sounding like something out of a sci-fi movie of that vintage). Or in the intensity and receptiveness that listeners of all ages appeared to bring to the repeated undulations of Eno's music. Or in the number of people who stayed all the way through to the end of the day's one ticketed event, a performance by the ensemble Bang on a Can All-Stars with indie rock drummer Glenn Kotche and '60s avant-gardist Terry Riley, which finished at 9 p.m.

And success can be measured in the quality of much of the music. It may not be to every taste, but there was no denying the beauty of the Eno piece, the vitality of Kotche's rhythms and the pleasantly hallucinogenic dreamscape created by the amiable Riley -- less William Burroughs than Roald Dahl.

Bang on a Can, formed by composers Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolfe, was conceived as a gesture against the status quo of contemporary concert music. The knotty, cerebral pieces their teachers had held up as models lacked some things they loved about music: the freedom of jazz, the beat and sound of rock, the timbral palette of non-Western musical traditions. In the eclectic annual marathon that is currently held in the atrium of the World Financial Center in Lower Manhattan, even the presentation is liberating. The Clarice Smith Center lobby captured that very well, offering a focused listening experience by virtue of its very informality. Why shouldn't you be able to walk around if you want to, and hear music from different angles? Why can't your experience be enhanced by sitting and facing the audience for part of the piece, or by looking up through a skylight and seeing scudding white clouds, seemingly in time with the drifts of sound happening below?

But on Sunday, in its efforts to use every one of the center's performance spaces, the presenters squandered some of the goodwill that built up in the lobby during "Music for Airports" -- and highlighted some of the limitations of the concert experience that Bang on a Can was resisting in the first place. After "Music for Airports," the program's next segment was presented in the Gildenhorn Recital Hall, which, though a lovely little wood-lined theater, felt dark and constricted after the airy lobby. And much of the music in this mixed bag of a segment, some of it by local composers, lacked the open, involving accessibility that's a hallmark of Bang on a Can. Instead, the pieces were full of attitude and high concept, and weren't that much fun. The Bay Players Experimental Music Collective, a group formed by U-Md. alums, rehashed experimental performance techniques of the 1960s in Michael Boyd's "Hand Leg Suit," deconstructing not only music but also its instruments -- literally. The players took apart their drum and guitar -- and the whole idea of performance, thoroughly but not very interestingly. (At one point Boyd took refuge under the piano, commenting on how weird the whole thing was. He was right.)

The final leg of the event, however, brought back some of the freedom and fun in what amounted to a tie-dyed homage to the past. Kotche, the drummer in the band Wilco, and David Cossin, the Bang on a Can All-Stars' percussionist, cast Steve Reich's austere "Clapping Music Variations" and "Music for Pieces of Wood" in new arrangements that flowered with unimagined color (and even added pitch), before playing two of Kotche's own pieces, including the appealing "Mobile," with the rest of the All-Stars. And Riley's "Autodreamographical Tales" -- settings of his own dream journal -- proved an enchanting magical mystery tour. It smelled of patchouli and cannabis (the title of one of his pieces) and was beautifully supported by music that was narrative in its own right and tinged with percussion, bits of Mass settings, the pounding of the piano and other kitchen-sink elements that, at the end of seven hours of music, seemed to make perfect sense.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company