Groups like Clogs and Bang on a Can offer a new paradigm for contemporary chamber music. Much as today's jazz artists are expanding their language by incorporating seemingly disparate elements, similarly adventurous spirits in the classical world are bringing in concepts that might seem out of context on first pass. But listen to these groups with open ears and a less prejudicial disposition, and what you'll hear is contemporary composed music for the new millennium.
David Lang has been involved with Cantaloupe Music, Bang on a Can's label, for more than a decade, wearing a multitude of hats. As a composer his output has been relatively small, but in its postmodern blending of ambient music, minimalism, electronica, jazz, and more, Lang has fashioned music that manages to be stark and moody, yet equally strangely beautiful. Elevated combines an audio CD of three recent compositions with a DVD featuring the three compositions as an audio landscape for three films by William Wegman (Treat Bottle), Bill Morrison (How to Pray), and Matt Mullican (Elevated). The music is compelling, the films some of the most intriguing blends of music and image since Philip Glass's score for Godfrey Reggio's movie trilogy of Koyaanisqatsi (1982), Powaqqatsi (1988), and Naqoyqatsi (2002).
But while Glass' music bears the inexorable insistency and constant thematic shifts of his mathematically logical minimalism, Lang's music is often more staticor, at least, it feels that way with his more elongated sense of development, often taking place very gradually over extended periods of time. The 43-minute "Men," featuring the eleven-piece European Music Project under the artistic direction of Jurgen Grafzinger, is filled with long tones, dark and spacious pulses, and a slowly-shifting harmonic center. Hypnotic but more intrusive than, say, the ambient music of Brian Enoalthough Eno is a clear precedentthe composition's evolution is inescapable yet painstakingly subtle. The slow shifts in harmony are sometimes driven from the bottom, other times from the top, making it essential to pay attention to the whole picture, rather than focusing on any specific component.
The ten-minute "How to Pray" bears a more defined theme carried by Audrey Riley's cello, and a more insistent rhythm from the twin drums of Nick and Rob Allum that is nevertheless constantly displaced, giving the piece an unsettled feeling. A two-chord vamp forms the harmonic basis, but it shifts periodically, again making things less than predictable.
The brief "Wed" is a solo piano piece performed by Lisa Moore that, with its heavy reverb and gentle elegance, brings to mind Harold Budd. But whereas Budd has described his musical purpose to "create eternally pretty music," Lang's subtle use of dissonance makes for a darker beauty.
While Lang's music is undeniably beautiful, its resonance is considerably broader. Elevated works on a number of emotional levels and consequently is a multi-layered work that, like the most forward-looking jazz, works to expand the boundaries of contemporary music, rather than work within any rigid confines of predefinition.
CD: Wed; How to Pray; Men. DVD: Treat Bottle (director: William Wegman; music: Wed); How to Pray (director: Bill Morrison; music: How to Pray); Elevated (director: Matt Mullican; music: Men).