Bang On A Can’s ‘Road Trip’ Reflects on the Journey

By Leonard Bopp, Contributing Writer, August 2, 2017

North Adams, MA.  Music and art, at their best, have always been modes of communication, methods of making abstract qualities of beauty feel experiential, tangible, visceral. But some works manage to so profoundly capture elements of the human experience, placing it front-and-center before the viewer. Such pieces are what affirm the centrality of music and art to our lives, our culture, to our ability to make sense of ourselves and our world. Last Saturday night at the Bang on a Can Festival, perhaps one of the foremost destinations where contemporary, experimental, boundary-breaking music is allowed to flourish, one such work was unveiled.

Road Trip, a new composition for the Bang on a Can All-Stars, written by festival founders and artistic directors Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon, and David Lang, celebrates the experience of the journey: emotional ones, physical, personal. And it does so viscerally. With rock show-esque scenic design by CandyStations, the evening-length work drives forward relentlessly, full-force, sweeping the listener along for the ride.

There’s a certain poignancy and nostalgia to the composition itself. For Gordon, Lang, and Wolfe, the the piece celebrates the anniversary of the journey they began together 30 years ago when they founded Bang on a Can, reflecting on the miles travelled, compositions written, and concerts produced since. But moreover, what the piece manages to capture is the universal centrality of journeys to the human experience. In rendering their own personal and artistic journeys in music, the composers give every listener something with which to connect. Everyone, after all, has a story and makes a journey of some kind.

Texturally and emotionally varied, each of the piece’s nine episodic movements captures a stop along the way. The work opens with a searing, propulsing movement titled “Violin/Brooklyn,” whose hard-edge rhythmic drive accompanies a visual speed race through the city. With an unrelenting rock edge, this is authentic Bang on a Can.

The work continues with “Triple A,” which harkens back to the aesthetic foundations of Bang on a Can. Reminiscent of David Lang’s seminal cheating, lying, stealing, the movement draws on the minimalist, process-driven approach of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, and like such compositions, the piece wanders profoundly, unfolding before the listener in a subtle, understated way, bending time until the listener’s sense of space and time is lost in the atmospheric texture. This is followed by “Wind in my hair,” a reeling, sweeping movement where punctual rhythms are counterbalanced by long, screaming lines in the guitar and cello before suddenly dissolving into a solo piano that gradually gives way to layers of sound that unfold from within the ensemble. Ocean waves churn, crash, and dissolve on the screens above.

In “Interstate,” themes unfold in sequence and blend from one to the next, disappearing before you realize they’re gone, recalling the futility of trying to hang on to time that moves too quickly. The movement embodies the realization that a moment has passed forever, that it exists now only in memory. In contrast, “Plains” expresses the beautiful possibility of the open space ahead. With its long, expansive lines drawing the listener endlessly into the texture, the movement is pure beauty, an emotional high.

This continues with the similarly emotional “We are driving,” a nostalgic look back at moments gone by, simple ones, joyful, painful, and sentimental. Repeated text continues the title line over a beautifully placid musical texture, narrating the journey as we drive “past the park, past the accident, past the old inn, past the primary school.” More than the locations named and their emotional—or even political—connotations, the central word is always “past.” Equally important, though, is the artistic decision to include “we” in the title, thus including the audience as part of the journey. The piece is a collective journey, one that everyone in the room gets to take together.

We are provided with an emotional respite in “Under the stars,” an homage to the tradition of singing folksongs around the campfire, with all the musicians playing mandolins. By reminiscing on this tradition, the movement celebrates the centrality of music to people’s lives and experiences. This is then followed by “Moose Unseen,” an all-out, hard-rock tour-de-force, one that is urgent, surprising, and exhilarating; it’s quirky title alluding to unexpected surprises and detours that make the journey both challenging and exciting.

We end with “Arrival.” The movement is an apt way to conclude this piece, with its overlapping lines repeating lines that grow and dissipate until seemingly stopping in their tracks at the end. Indeed, this ending is less an arrival than another stop along the way, an affirmation that the journey continues, destination unknowable. Overhead, images of landmarks passed along the way, everything from open plains to the Golden Gate Bridge, flash upon the screens so quickly that they practically blur together, managing to make each stop along the journey both encompassed, remembered, and lost in the blur.

The ultimate brilliance of this work is that it manages to do so many things at once, capturing moments and emotions central to human experience, the long arc of the restless, tumultuous, exhilarating journeys we take, and, most profoundly, the deeply personal yet universal nature of of these experiences. Emotional, visceral, and profound, Road Trip is a bold statement of everything that art can be.

This was not the last stop for this Road Trip; this was only a test run. The official world premiere takes place on October 14 at the Ford Theatre in Los Angeles, with subsequent performances on October 27 and 28 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, as part of that venue’s Next Wave Festival. Bon voyage.

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