CAMBRIDGE - Embodying the everlasting respiration of culture and counterculture, Bang on a Can, the new-music collective founded by composers Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe, has gone from loft-concert outsiders to new-music establishment mainstays.
In its 25th season - and in the midst of a three-year residency at MIT, academic home of Evan Ziporyn, a member of the affiliated Bang on a Can All-Stars ensemble - the group brought two recent pieces to MIT’s Kresge Auditorium on Saturday. Their means remain distinctive, a sometimes clashing cross between minimalism’s disciplined patterns and post-minimalist rock and populist energies. But the ends have evolved in encyclopedic directions.
Wolfe’s 2009 “Steel Hammer’’ combined the crack drive of the Bang on a Can All-Stars with the unfailingly pure-voiced Trio Mediaeval for an epic riff on the song-and-story legend of John Henry, racing his own muscle against a steam-powered hammer. Minimalism’s process-driven nature would seem a good match for folk music’s weird mysteries, its expressive tension between charged subject and courtly formality. And the concept behind “Steel Hammer’’ is promising: collating the discrepancies among different versions of the tale into self-contradictory lists, deconstruction by variorum. But the constant repetitions were more stylistic tic than exploratory tool; the ideas, though striking - balancing the voices’ glassy keening against the players’ grittier, amplified propulsion - revealed few new shadings upon multiplication.
“Steel Hammer’’ was interesting (and superbly performed), but seemed stuck between a shorter, punchier critique of cultural authenticity and a longer, more ruminative meditation on it.
Gordon’s 2010 “Timber’’ is framed with instrumental austerity: six percussionists, playing nothing more than amplified two-by-fours. Over the course of an hour, Gordon wrings a rich array of sounds from the lumber, from chorale-like resonance to cascading Steve-Reich-like shifting phases. (The performance, by New York-based Mantra Percussion, was fluently focused in its stamina.) The limited resources efficiently marry post-minimalist polyrhythmic density and pure minimalism’s uncompromisingly spun out, single-minded function-following form.
But the sound is also more lush and elegaic than early minimalism. (Parts of it sound like a blurred, deep-varnish distortion of Reich’s own “Music for Pieces of Wood.’’) What’s particularly fascinating about “Timber’’ is that sense of both throwback and culmination. In a strange way, it’s almost like a hardcore minimalist version of “Der Rosenkavalier,’’ paying homage to the earlier style by channeling its manner with anachronistic opulence - a gambit notably characteristic of musical styles historically tipping from provocation into contemplation.
For Bang on a Can, time marches - and hammers, and dances, and pulses - on.
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.