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Music Review

Singer's grammar joins Banglewood's sounds

NORTH ADAMS -- Every summer, the New York-based contemporary music juggernaut known as Bang on a Can takes up residence on the campus of Mass MoCA for an intensive three-week institute. Its proximity to Tanglewood helped spawn the festival's inevitable nickname -- Banglewood -- but the two can't really be compared in their scale or in their essence. The summer institute is only six years old and, beyond its daily gallery concerts, it offers just two big performances this summer. The overall vibe is also edgier, by classical standards, than its Lenox counterpart. Think of it as Tanglewood's hip great-nephew who lives geographically to the north, but culturally way downtown.

Saturday night, the group's dependably excellent house band, known as the Bang on a Can All-Stars, played here to a receptive crowd and was joined on the second half of the program by Iva Bittova, the Moravian avant-folk singer and violinist. But first up was "City Walk," a piece by Bang on a Can co founder Michael Gordon that also happened to be the most confident work on the program. The music was a concise and viscerally charged collection of insistent grooves, Reichian drone-like pulsation, and wisps of sighing expressive lines, often given to the upper registers of Wendy Sutter's cello. Behind the live performance was a projection of Bill Morrison's grainy, sped-up film of an actual city walk from Flatbush Avenue over a bridge and into Manhattan. Sound and image coalesced into something more effective than either one alone -- far from Alfred Kazin's lyrical ambling over nearby streets, but true to the gritty energy of the present-day city.

The Dutch composer Cornelis de Bondt's "About the Good Days of Good Signs" was commissioned as part of this summer's "NL" festival of Dutch culture in the Berkshires, and given its premiere on this program. Science is its stated theme and the voices of famous scientists are sampled throughout the piece, though they are often covered to the point of incomprehensibility by De Bondt loud, jagged music, which refracts some elements from ancient court dances and the Baroque concerto grosso through a modernist, post-Stravinskian prism. It's just as well, as De Bondt's view of technology seems hopelessly, sophomorically bleak, and he appears to draw a straight line from Thomas Edison to Hiroshima. On first hearing, little in the music seemed to amplify or complicate this message in interesting ways.

Gregg August's inventive "Oriente," also given its world premiere, was inspired by traditional Cuban Son music. The work could use a few trims, but it deftly contrasts languorous atmospheric writing with the kind of hard-driving and rhythmically charged music that the All-Stars eat for breakfast. August, who is the bass player in the band, clearly knows how to write to this group's strengths.

After intermission, it was all about Bittova. This singer and performance artist is famous for her extended vocal technique -- a rather academic phrase to describe what is basically a self-invented extraterrestrial language of sighs, clicks, guttural moans, sharp nasal tones, floating pure-voiced notes and ululations. Bittova made a dramatic entrance into the darkened theater, walking down in front of the stage, singing like a woman possessed and playing her violin in a mesmerizing dream-like state. Picture Meredith Monk learning the gypsy fiddle and contemplating the title role of "La Sonnambula." The description sounds absurd but Bittova has the conviction and the artistry to pull this off. Most striking about her singing is the way her invented language seems to cohere rhetorically, as if she is actually telling a story or communicating something very deep, in words that have been freed of their signifying, a private grammar boiled down to its expressive essence.

After this riveting solo introduction, it was somewhat anti-climactic to hear her perform "Elida," a suite of her own songs, full of traditional Eastern European modal writing, backed by the Bang on a Can All-Stars. In this setting, her own singing and fiddle playing seldom had the prominence one might have hoped for, but the set still made for an engaging coda to the evening. A large, youthful crowd made its appreciation known.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at


Bang on a Can All-Stars

With Iva Bittova

At: Mass MoCA, Saturday night