I chose to unplug myself for the final hour-plus of the Bang on a Can Marathon on Sunday and immerse myself in the multimedia epic that is Shelter (music by Lang/Gordon/Wolfe, libretto by Deborah Artman). SIGNAL, conducted by new music maven Brad Lubman, delivered one of the most polished and and stupefyingly brilliant performances of the entire twelve hours (really more like thirteen hours; it finished right after 1AM, and I almost missed the last train out of Grand Central).
Before it started, the musicologist in me was eager to attempt to identify which composer wrote which movement. At first it seemed easy, and then I realized that I know hardly any of Julia Wolfe's music, and basically could not figure out which movements were hers. I ended up attributing some of her music to Lang and Gordon in my head, so I'll try not to speculate here as to who wrote what unless I'm pretty positive (comment away if I'm wrong). But the opening Before I Enter was absolutely David Lang, with that celestial descant he perfected in The Little Match-Girl Passion. Delicate strings and chiming percussion provided a tender accompaniment, and Bill Morrison's stark imagery added stunning effects. It was a spiritual experience; the narrator painstakingly describes an inane but impassioned series of actions before he enters his house, the repetitive lull of the text matching the softly declamatory, quasi-medieval trio of female voices. It combines a liturgical, Jewish perspective with modern anxieties about home security: the series of actions includes "I kiss my fingers and pat the scroll," (a reference to mezuzot) and "I punch in a code on a key pad."
Is the Wind had that Michael Gordon electronic ooze to it, with wild and shrieking winds, and a heavy, driving electric pulse. The trio wailed "Is the wind at my back?" like a cracked-out train whistle, as Morrison's video shot us through a canyon. Chugging, grinding musical motors lay the groundwork for high woodwinds bending pitches and thunderous low brass, the emblematic sound of Decasia.
Maybe The Boy Sleeps was Julia Wolfe's but I can't say for sure. With greater reverb, the voices took on a hollow and disembodied sound, the single line of text (the title) dissolving into timbre. Sweet dissonances piled up within the trio, and instruments picked up the vocal pitches; gradually everything meshed together, an interwoven tapestry from which a kind of lament emerged. A sense of heart-wrenching loss pervaded, as single instrumental tones pierced through the orchestra. Morrison's image was a fluttering cloth, perhaps a veil. It built to a sweeping climax, preparing for the John Adams-esque sweeping drama of American Home. The fourth movement was full-bodied, ecstatic, and captivating, with a mess of seemingly droll text (describing almost intimately the structural components of a house) which took on great import: "stairs - 1 set, oak/smoke detectors - 4 or 5." Lubman embodied the breadth of the music in extravagant but effective gestures, reveling in the music's incredible kinetics.
Porch began as an ode to simpler times, with scratchy old home videos playing behind SIGNAL. Pure, overlapping voices, pulsing marimba, and twitching strings created a sound fitting for the text ("Summer evenings and lemonade/A time when the whole town knew each other and said 'hello'"). But tension gradually builds as the conveniences of modern living ("screens against the bugs, "walls against the winter") erode the utopian innocence, , and an electric guitar attempts to take over. Finally, a fully-charged furor emerges of the words ("The street became so loud with cars and trucks/Passerby diminished"), which obliterate the quaint notions of home, and music, with figures spiraling downward, tolling bells, and tweaked-out guitar.
I Want to Live, the calm before the storm, was (if I remember correctly) entirely acapella, with intertwining counterpoint. The flickering line on the screen, maybe representing an EKG, brought out the twists and turns of the vocal trio, who quietly but deliberately chanted "I want to live where you live."
And finally, What We Build, the apocalyptic finale to our thirteen hours of music. The music sounded like a freight train colliding with a thundercloud, almost definitely the work of Gordon. Bleak images of post-Katrina flooded plains and cities made palpable the portentous text: "No dwelling built by human hands is eternal." It destroys any notions established in previous movements of the home as respite. Darkly grand, the instruments slide around a smear of voices, sounding a musical equivalent to opening the gates of Hell.
I noticed the Bang on a Can founders sitting together on the back steps of the Winter Garden during Shelter. They looked tired but content, and I'm sure they were marveling at the massive, heaving organism which they have built. Many great composers create music which will outlive them, but only a choice few establish institutions which reign on after their deaths. This will be one of them.