As much as the Kronos Quartet paved the way for modern chamber musicians to broaden their horizons by recording genre-busting albums including Pieces of Africa
, Bang on a Can has extended that road by, amongst other things, interpreting ambient works like Brian Eno's Music for Airports
. Both groups, one a more conventional chamber quartet, the other a rather odd ensemble that includes guitar, bass, percussion, clarinet, keyboards and cello, have breathed new life into a stale form by expanding on the type of material available for examination.
It's no coincidence that Bang on a Can has chosen to release two albums on the same day. One, Phillip Glass: 5ths , re-evaluates early minimalist work that blends longer Eastern forms with more Western harmonic conventions. The other, Meets Kyaw Kyaw Naing , teams the group with Naing, Burmese master of the pat waing, a traditional instrument made of 21 separately tuned drums, for a programme that does the oppositeblend more Eastern harmonic conventions with shorter Western form. The result is two recordings that redefine the meaning of modern chamber music, with Meets Kyaw Kyaw Naing in particular demonstrating just how far afield it can go in the hands of more forward-thinking musicians.
There is an overriding sense of joy about Meets Kyaw Kyaw Naing. On a program of Burmese music that includes four pieces by Naing, the members of Bang on a Can continue to prove themselves to be highly adaptable players. The material is characterized by rapid shifts in tempo and call-and-response type passages between Naing's pat waing and Bang on a Can's more conventional instrumentation. Harmonically based around various pentatonic scales, the compositions are pleasing to the ear, without any sharp edges or jagged dissonances. But the rhythmic complexity of the pieces more than make up for any melodic simplicity, in terms of providing a challenge for both the musicians and the listener. But the disparity between an almost na've harmonic sensibility and a more tightly-construed rhythmic concept make for a programme that is richly varied yet never less than approachable.
Naing's percussion work is remarkable, with a dexterity that is more than a little frightening with all the shifting tempos. Still, David Cossin's drum set and Robert Black's bass form a rhythm section that is at times quite conventionally Western in its approach, most notably on the piece "Improvisation," where Naing, guitarist Mark Stewart and violinist Todd Reynolds, on loan from Cantaloupe label-mates Ethel , get the chance to take more than a few risks.
Meets Kyaw Kyaw Naing continues to assert that the contemporary chamber group is more than just viable; it is a living, breathing and evolving form. By expanding the timbral palette beyond the conventional and experimenting with music from broader sources, Bang on a Can continues to transcend narrow definition and stylistic constraint.
Personnel: Ma Aye Myint (si wa), Robert Black (bass), David Cossin (drumset), Lisa Moore (piano), Kyaw Kyaw Naing (pat waing, gongs, 6-drum set, pat ma), Marc Perlman (keyboard), Todd Reynolds (violin), Mark Stewart (guitar), Wendy Sutter (cello), Maung Maung Myint Swe (si wa), Evan Ziporyn (clarinet)