NORTH ADAMS — OK, it’s not like I wasn’t warned. If one is going to attend an event called LOUD Weekend, it’s probably healthy to assume that there will be loud music.
But nothing could have prepared me for the whirlwind of raw, reverberating noise that flooded the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art’s Club B-10 at the top of the 9 p.m. hour on Friday evening of LOUD Weekend, courtesy of New York-based electric guitar quartet Dither’s performance of Brendon Randall-Myers’s “Dynamics of Vanishing Bodies.” Roaring feedback careened off the brick walls, and the cabaret-style tables shook. Deciding that a possible ear infection was preferable to feeling my braincase ring like a bell all night, I booked it to the bathroom and made some DIY earplugs out of toilet paper. (This is typically a bad idea, for the record.)
LOUD is a joint presentation by New York-based new music collective Bang on a Can and Mass MoCA. Bang on a Can, which over 31 years has grown from scrappy downtown mavericks to a respected elder of the scene, has been holding an annual summer festival and institute at the museum since 2002: only three years after the museum opened in its decommissioned factory complex along the Hoosic River. In the past, the festival’s grand finale has been a six-hour marathon concert in the museum’s largest performance space, the Hunter Center.
With LOUD, Bang on a Can dials up the volume, transforming the marathon concert into a three-day festival that takes over spaces throughout the museum — adding another destination weekend of music to Mass MoCA’s ever-growing performing arts schedule, which already includes Wilco’s early-summer Solid Sound Festival and September roots music blowout FreshGrass.
It feels right at home in that company. Bang on a Can has always made a point to poke at classical concert conventions, and LOUD Weekend carried itself more like a folk or rock festival than a classical event. It looked like no one blinked at listeners who dropped in or out mid-piece, and if one didn’t arrive early to the smaller performance spaces, they’d probably have to stand, or perch on any available windowsill.
Also, the slim schedule brochure included only the most bare-bones information about each event — sometimes just a name and location. Some performers and composers provided more information in the form of “live program notes,” which cofounder Julia Wolfe described from the Hunter Center stage as a “Bang on a Can tradition.”
The festival proved true to its name throughout most of Friday’s events, which ran (and sometimes overlapped) from 4 p.m. until midnight. And curiosity had its rewards. Tristan Perich’s “Interference Logic” took a crowd to a cavernous space in Building 6; Dither performed surrounded by small, round speakers, out of which leapt a chorus of lo-fi electronics. The result was akin to catching sunlight in a jar; so bright and beautiful it almost hurt. In the Chalet bar, Soo Yeon Lyuh offered a solo set on the haegum; the two-stringed Korean instrument is played upright on the performer’s knee, and it resembles a fiddle but is grouped with wind instruments in traditional Korean orchestras. In Lyuh’s deft hands, its piercing moan sounded more like a blues guitar than any of those. Lesley Flanigan’s sweet, sinister vocalizations beckoned late-night wanderers to the Chalet to immerse in “Amplifications,” kneeling on the floor as if in meditation, she manipulated her voice and her handmade speaker feedback instruments.
The biggest names on the program offered mixed results. The Bang on a Can All-Stars sextet brought composer Pamela Z on stage for her dark and wry “Schmetterling,” then played selections from its ongoing “Field Recordings” project, for which composers write pieces inspired by found sound. The best of these included Wolfe’s mouth-music stomper “Reeling” and Ben Frost’s foreboding drone “Negative Ghostrider;” on the other end, the up-close scratches and chirrups of David Lang’s “unused swan” hit right in the misophonia. As for Toronto-based chamber ensemble Contact’s arrangement of Brian Eno’s “Discreet Music”: If you’re going to inflate that 30-minute ambient piece to an hour, I demand a bean bag chair, and throw in a vape while you’re at it.
But in that also lies the beauty of Bang on a Can’s eclectic approach; there’s always something unexpected around the next corner. Where else can you hear a party band of winds, brass, and percussion play Ruth Crawford Seeger’s String Quartet, no strings attached? With any luck the LOUD Weekend will continue in future years, and the growing pains will iron themselves out. In the meantime: B.Y.O. earplugs.
Presented by Bang on a Can and Mass MoCA. At Mass MoCA, North Adams. Aug. 2-4.
Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.