The Bang on a Can All-Stars’s first release in five years (and first release in over 10 that just features the core ensemble) is a sensory overload of eclecticism and intensity. It’s a fitting tribute to Bang on a Can in its 25th anniversary year, a testament to the unlikely survival and thrival of a new music cabal that started with a renegade 12-hour marathon in 1987 and has expanded into a dynasty led by composers David Lang, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe.
It’s this triumvirate that leads the pack on Big Beautiful Dark and Scary, named for the eponymous first track by Wolfe that encapsulates the composer’s emotional reaction to a post-9/11 world (she was a few blocks away from the World Trade Center with her children when the towers were hit). Always one to make an entrance, Wolfe sucks us in immediately with an undercurrent of strings that sounds like Flight of the Bumblebee on speed, giving way to her singular brand of critical-mass intensity.
The steam given off by the music’s coal-fuelled energy is somewhat mollified towards the end by the whistle call of a clarinet, and you’re talked down by David Lang’s subsequent sunray, glistening with unsettling curvatures and Tudor-esque motifs that build up into Lang’s own flariful fever pitch.
And at some point, each piece in its own way will stop you cold for at least a heartbeat as you try to imagine a more perfect union between acoustics and electronics, music and its interpreters, quirkiness and depth. Maybe it’s in the last selection from Evan Ziporyn’s Shadowbang. Maybe it’s halfway through David Longstreth’s Matt Damon. Maybe it’s at the beginning of Louis Andriessen’s Life.
In such a big (and beautiful, perhaps scary but far from dark) year for the Bang on a Can collective, the All-Stars could have done a glossy best-of disc featuring 90 minutes of the last two-and-a-half decades. But, ever dedicated to the new, the preponderance of world premiere recordings on this set hints that, while Bang on a Can is now old enough to rent a car, its best years may still lie ahead.