Transcending time and place: Borders are open for Festival’s celebration of culture and ideas

Hank Hoffman

Bang on a Can All-Stars. Photo by Marco Pieri

Composer David Lang grew up playing in a rock band. He played in a jazz band. He believes his music “should be a combination of all the things interesting to me.”

But back in 1987, when Lang co-founded the new music organization Bang on a Can in New York City with fellow Yale School of Music alumni Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon, a niche mentality prevailed in the New York City music world.

“A lot of the things we were reacting to when we started Bang on a Can was that you get the message from classical music sometimes that those influences aren’t welcome,” says Lang, who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2008 for his composition The Little Match Girl Passion. “When we started, we didn’t really want to be pigeonholed into little categories. One of the things behind all the decisions for Bang on a Can from the beginning has been because our backgrounds are hybridized and confused, it’s not really fair to put us into one category.”

As Lang tells me in a phone interview, they weren’t alone. With organizations like the Kronos Quartet and the Knitting Factory, Bang on a Can was “part of a movement among lots of people interested in trying to figure out how to make the world safe to listen to new things.”

Fast-forward almost a quarter century and appreciable progress has been made in breaking down barriers in the music world. As an example, one need only look at the music programming for this year’s International Festival of Arts & Ideas. The Festival’s theme, “Across Borders, Beyond Time,” is exemplified both by Festival openers the Silk Road Ensemble with cellist Yo-Yo Ma — making their Connecticut debut — and a concert featuring Bang on a Can’s in-house ensemble, the Bang on a Can All-Stars. (Lang, Wolfe, and Gordon are artistic directors for the All-Stars as well as the overall organization.) Where Bang on a Can meshes the sensibilities of new music, world music, jazz, and rock, the Silk Road Ensemble forges a 21st century classical music synthesis out of traditions and instrumentation spanning two millennia of Eastern and Western music.

The Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma. Photo by Jennifer Taylor

“Two hundred years ago, if someone was interested in music, someone would steer them into classical music and they would become Schubert,” says Lang, who has been on the composition faculty of the Yale School of Music since 2008. “Now, people who are interested in music, they don’t steer them in any particular direction. They open their eyes to lots of things and they’re free to find all sorts of interesting places to go.”

Apropos of the border-defying theme of the Festival, Lang notes that one of the things Bang on a Can tries to do is “find people who are our innovative counterparts in other parts of the music world. We find people just across the border of some artistic category and invite them in.”

Sometimes these counterparts are drawn from jazz or world music. In this case, Bang on a Can reached out to adventurous songwriters from indie rock. The All-Stars will play commissioned works by David Longstreth of the Dirty Projectors, Bryce Dessner of The National, and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, as well as their own arrangement of Brian Eno’s 1978 tape-loop composition Music for Airports.

Lang notes that before Longstreth was in the Dirty Projectors, “he was a composition student of ours at our festival.” And Dessner, according to Lang, “has a phenomenal classical music background but he decided, ‘I’m going to take my incredible skills and sensibility and become a gigantic international pop star.’”

In the case of Thurston Moore, the Bang on a Can All-Stars invited the songwriter and guitarist to teach the ensemble his composition as though he were bringing it into a Sonic Youth rehearsal. The point, according to Lang, “was to actually build it in our environment with our players.”

Classical musicians, Lang notes, are taught that “music is made by dead people and it appears to be written on old pieces of music paper that you have to decode. One of the really exciting things when you bring in somebody like Thurston Moore is trying to make this music happen in a completely different way.”

Lang notes that listeners coming in with the expectation of “where’s the beat?” are “going to be surprised.” The compositions do “feel like the same music by the same people,” according to Lang. But where composers like Longstreth and Dessner are used to “combining certain elements in a certain way so it is appropriate for the pop world, they are now taking that sensibility and rearranging it slightly.” That being said, Lang asserts that if you are familiar with Sonic Youth, you will recognize the Thurston Moore composition “in a second.”

We live in an era in which musicians have access to a world’s worth of musical genres. But that doesn’t mean that every border-crossing mashup is artistically valid. Lang poses the question: What is authentic cultural interchange?

“I could say it would be really fantastic to have a sitar and electric guitar play a duet,” Lang says. “That may be completely true but it has nothing to do with my interest or background so it would be inauthentic for me to do it.”

On the other hand, he cites Evan Ziporyn, the Bang on a Can All-Stars’ virtuoso clarinetist. Besides being a superb instrumentalist, Ziporyn is, according to Lang, “also an excellent composer and one of the West’s greatest experts on Balinese music, having lived there for many years and been director of a fantastic gamelan.”

For Ziporyn to include gamelan influences in his compositions would be authentic to his sensibility in a way that it would not be for Lang.

The responsibility for making cross-cultural connections, Lang believes, falls “on the individuals that are really passionate about it.”

One person who is passionate about it is virtuoso cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who founded the Silk Road Project in 1998. The Silk Road Project uses the historic Silk Road trading routes as a metaphor for cultural exchange. The Silk Road Ensemble includes some 60 virtuosos from more than 20 countries. Cathy Edwards, director of performance programs at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, points out, “This is not Western classical music.”

According to the Festival’s executive director, Mary Lou Aleskie, “It’s mostly contemporary work, mostly commissions for Western and Eastern traditional instruments.” Aleskie says the compositions incorporate the varied timbres of standard Western string instruments as well as such exotic — to Western ears — instruments as the sheng (a Chinese mouth organ), Galician bagpipes, shakuhachi flute, tabla, pipa (a short-necked Chinese lute), and others.

“It’s a joyful, buoyant music that reminds us how small the world is,” says Aleskie.

That the Silk Road Ensemble’s music crosses borders is obvious. Aleskie and Edwards note that the ensemble’s approach also dovetails with the thematic notion of “beyond time.” This is most evident in the group’s commissioned arrangements of traditional tunes. In a draft resource guide for a school curriculum in conjunction with the ensemble’s Connecticut premiere is a piece called Ambush, written in 200 BCE about an epic battle in Chinese history that led to the founding of the Han dynasty. Aleskie notes that most Chinese would be familiar with the tune, which was written for the pipa.

“They have created a whole new contemporary arrangement. It starts with the pipa piece but then explodes into this contemporary rendition,” says Aleskie.

“I find the music to be so evocative,” says Edwards. “There are so many images, moods, landscapes that are painted. The specifics of them are unfamiliar but there is so much room for the imagination. It’s just so interesting to hear some of these instruments you’ve never heard before with world-caliber musicians.”

Aleskie emphasizes the latter point. While Yo-Yo Ma is the driving force of the Silk Road Project, his role on stage is as an equal with everybody else.

“They’re each virtuosi on their instruments,” Aleskie says. “The strength of the ensemble comes from the strength of the individual players, not from ‘Yo-Yo Ma’s the star.’ These are musicians that he’s gathered around him that are his caliber to play with.”

Of course, the Bang on a Can All-Stars and the Silk Road Ensemble are not the Festival’s only musical acts. Edwards tells me that over the past several years the Festival has been showcasing “a lot of very adventurous contemporary jazz mixed with heritage and world influences.” Among the artists this year whose sounds will enliven New Haven are Benin-born jazz guitarist and singer Lionel Loueke, whose music Edwards describes as “gorgeous, haunting, intimate.”

Edwards says, “You can hear a lot of West African music in his guitar playing but also incredible adventurous jazz that any jazz lover could like.”

Other music highlights include the Cape Breton fiddler and step dancer Natalie MacMaster and Haitian singer-songwriter Emeline Michel. Freshlyground, the multinational Afro-pop ensemble from southern Africa, which backed up Shakira on her official 2010 World Cup theme song “Waka Waka (This Time for Africa),” will play the Festival’s grand finale on the New Haven Green.

According to Edwards, along with the Silk Road Ensemble, two other high-profile projects — performances by the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company and a presentation of playwright Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan — gave rise to Festival themes. With choreographer Bill T. Jones, whose dance company will perform Serenade/The Proposition and Body Against Body, the Festival developed its “Freedom’s Journey” component. Under the rubric of “Freedom’s Journey,” the Festival is presenting panels on issues of the African-American freedom struggle and civil liberties as well as events geared toward spotlighting the heritage sites of the Connecticut Freedom Trail.

Bill T. Jones /Arnie Zane Dance Company will perform Serenade/The Proposition at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas. Photo by Paul B. Goode

“We wanted to do something with Bill that was not just work presented in many other places (and) he was interested in reinvestigating the origins of his work with Artie Zane,” says Aleskie. “The idea of ‘Across Borders, Beyond Time’ also fit because we weren’t only looking back historically at our Connecticut heritage or national heritage but also looking at the history of this great artist. The fact that he also got the Kennedy Center Honor this year is the cherry on the sundae.”

The Festival’s presentation of The Cripple of Inishmaan by the Druid and Atlantic Theater Company is the cornerstone of its “Imagine Ireland” programming, which also includes an ideas panel on “The Irish Literary Landscape,” featuring three generations of Irish writers (Eugene McCabe, Colm Toibin, and Belinda McKeon).

The Irish government has invested $5.3 million to bring 1,000 Irish artists to the United States under the banner “Imagine Ireland,” launched this past January. The Festival is the Connecticut partner for “Imagine Ireland.”

The play, Aleskie says, “is a black comedy, with equal parts compassion and bitterness. It’s a really touching look at a small community in rural Ireland, a sort of mythologized vision of Ireland and poking holes in it at the same time.”

“The Irish are particularly aware of how their identity in the world is linked to their culture, and particularly their literary traditions,” says Aleskie.

She describes McDonagh, who was nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay for the dark comedy In Bruges, as a “contemporary heir” to the Irish “lineage of outstanding dramatic writing.”

Outstanding nonfiction writing is the province of literary journalist Jack Hitt, who lives in New Haven. He will be crossing a border of his own with his first-ever solo theater piece Making Up the Truth. A regular on NPR’s This American Life, Hitt is also a longtime contributor to Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, and other publications. Hitt is a (true) storyteller with a gift for recognizing the telling detail that elucidates the big idea.

“The script is fantastic and he’s got such a garrulous and engaging presence. We thought if we don’t premiere this piece, somebody else will. It’s a great show about storytelling and science — why we tell stories,” enthuses Aleskie.

As David Lang might say, the folks at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas have an authentic passion for culture, regardless of borders.

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