As the name implies, this year’s LOUD Weekend at Mass MoCA is coming after your eardrums. For Thursday’s opening night, the Bang on a Can All-Stars are set to perform “Steel Hammer,” co-founder Julia Wolfe’s tenacious 2009 adaptation of the legend of John Henry, the steel-driving man.
Also planned for the opener: the no-wave electric guitar improvisations of Jim Jarmusch and Phil Kline, set to rare early footage of downtown New York City produced by the Thomas Edison Company.
Noise in all its forms — from the aggressive and insistent to the subtle and exquisite — will fill the galleries, courtyards, and outer grounds of Mass MoCA from Thursday through Saturday, the culmination of Bang on a Can’s annual three-week Summer Festival, which is marking its 20th anniversary. The program for this year’s LOUD Weekend includes “Field of Vision,” a new work for percussion ensemble composed by BOAC co-founder Michael Gordon, as well as sets by keyboard soloist Yuka Honda and experimental pop multi-instrumentalist L’Rain, works by the composers George Crumb, George Lewis, and Steve Reich, and much more.
Friday’s schedule is headlined by the inaugural presentation of Can Dance, a series of dancers’ films set to new music by Wolfe, Gordon, and David Lang (the third BOAC founder), among others. Annie-B Parson, the renowned choreographer behind David Byrne’s “American Utopia,” created a dance for Jennie MaryTai Liu inspired by Lang’s “interstate.”
The idea, of course, came about during the pandemic, when most artists were stuck in their bubbles and unable to collaborate in person.
“The bones of the piece have to do with transience and the nature of COVID,” Parson explains. Liu was in LA when they began working together, but she and her family moved to Hong Kong during the shutdown.
“So the piece kept shifting for me in my mind,” Parson says. “I always wanted her whole family to be in it. David [Lang]’s family is always with him.”
While the dance-on-film projects are reminiscent of the ways that TikTok has inspired eye-grabbing new ways of moving for the camera, Parson is careful to make a distinction.
“I do see TikTok as this beautiful folk-art form in that it’s an untrained form, a form of popular dance, often in the home, often in the bedroom,” she says. “I find it all fascinating. I would never have predicted it.”
But Can Dance involves the commissioned work of professional dancers, choreographers, and musicians. If there’s a connection, she says, it’s in the realization “that we all need to dance more.”
Kline and Jarmusch, the film director, have been friends since they went to public school together in a town outside Akron, Ohio. In the 1980s they were in a band together called the Del-Byzanteens.
Kline went on to perform in Glenn Branca’s guitar orchestra; in 1992 he debuted his seasonal outdoor “sound art” experience “Unsilent Night,” which has since been produced around the globe.
On Friday afternoon at Mass MoCA, Kline will present another immersion experience, a work featuring 24 boomboxes entitled “last words before vanishing from the face of the earth.”On Saturday a trio led by the avant-garde vocalist Theo Bleckmann will revisit Kline’s “Zippo Songs” (2004), an antiwar song cycle based on inscriptions that Vietnam soldiers carved into their government-issued Zippo lighters.
While composing that piece, Kline says, he was a little concerned that the Vietnam War would seem too far in the past for artistic protest.
“Then just at the time the doggone thing was coming out, we invaded Iraq,” Kline recalls. “Suddenly it seemed very relevant.” The things the soldiers wanted to express, he says, “that combination of bravado, heartbreak, and longing — you know, that’s never going to go out of style.”
Kline created the soundscape of “last words” more than two decades ago. But the festival where it was due to premiere was hastily moved from rural Vermont into Montpelier, so he shelved it. Resurrected, the piece finally had its world premiere last year at Art Omi in the Hudson Valley.
At Mass MoCA, Kline’s boomboxes will be strategically placed in the tall grass of Joe’s Field.
“I found a sound I liked,” he recalls, one that sounded to him not quite synthetic, not quite natural. The ascending notes “look a little like helixes” on the page, he says: “It begins subsonic — the first couple notes you don’t hear — and it ends supersonic, then repeats.
“The effect I was going for was really just nature. Not beautiful nature, not cruel nature, just nature. It comes and goes, inexorably. That’s all. It does feel to me like the weeds are singing to you. You start hearing human things in it.”
It’s almost impossible to detect any kind of theme to this year’s LOUD Weekend, says Wolfe, a MacArthur Fellow in 2016 who won a Pulitzer Prize the previous year for her oratorio “Anthracite Fields.”
The sphere of contemporary classical music “is a very broad world right now,” she says. “Some people are incorporating improvisation, some are using a lot of theater and spoken word. There are also certainly all kinds of musical influences.”
Wolfe and Gordon, who are married, raised their two adult children in an artists’ loft in TriBeCa, a former caviar factory.
“This generation of performers is really open, which is part of what we set out to do here,” she says. Each morning during the Summer Festival this year’s 40 or so fellows have devoted one chunk of time to building instruments and another to percussion training with a Ghanaian drummer.
“They’re getting music into the body in different ways,” Wolfe says.
For years, the composing partners have rented summer places in and around North Adams. About four years ago, they started looking for some property to buy.
“We wound up with an incredible deal on an old farmhouse,” Wolfe says. “We love this area.” Several other members of the Bang on a Can team have also found homes in the area; one or two recently left New York behind for good and made the Berkshires their year-round home.
“It’s like this infiltration,” says Wolfe. “Yeah, we’re digging in.”
Bang on a Can’s LOUD Weekend at Mass MoCA, North Adams, July 28-30. For more information: bangonacan.org/loudweekend
Email James Sullivan at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.