Personnel: Steven Schick (guitar, percussion); Robert Black (guitar); Mark Stewart (electric guitar); Maya Beiser (cello, organ); Evan Ziporyn (clarinet, harpsichord); Lisa Moore (piano, harpsichord, keyboards).
Audio Mixers: Damian leGassick; Evan Ziporyn.
Recording information: Magic Shop, NY (12/1998).
Editors: Damian leGassick; Evan Ziporyn.
For over a decade, the Bang on a Can All-Stars have been internationally known for their radically and accessibly energetic approach to modern music-making. Whether reinterpreting works by well-known figures such as Brian Eno's Music for Airports or Terry Riley's In C, or commissioning new works from avant composers such as Arnold Dreyblatt or Toby Twining, they perform with a comprehensive depth that makes these works their own. With Renegade Heaven, BOAC debut not only new works by composers such as Glenn Branca, Arnold Dreyblatt, Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon, and Phil Kline, but kick off their own record label as well, distributed by Harmonia Mundi. This sextet includes Maya Beiser on cello, Robert Black on bass, Lisa Moore on acoustic and electronic keyboards, Steven Schick on percussion, Mark Stewart on electric guitar, and no less than Evan Ziporyn on clarinet. While it is more than fair to say that there isn't a weak moment on the disc, there are some standouts. Julia Wolf's "Believing" was chosen to open the record for a reason: It displays the individual and combined strengths of BOAC in more depth than any other piece here. From the opening rhythms played by each instrument, to the chaotic shrieks of guitar and keyboards, to the vocal pathos at its nadir, it's a breathless ride on a roller coaster of frightening emotions and intense if hidden pleasures. "Believing" may imply some kind if spiritual metaphor, but its sheer physicality also illustrates cultural as well as metaphysical taboos. Dreyblatt's "Escalator" is a sustained meditation on rhythm and pitch with Beiser's cello exchanging itself with Schick's percussion as the work's only constants, in a ride both exhilarating and hypnotic. The rich dynamic in the work continually draws the listener into its ever-shifting themes. "Movement Within," by Branca, as one would expect, opens with the detuned stretching of the guitar strings before allowing for a theme to develop. It's haunting in its lack of form at the start, yet continues in a chameleon-like manner, superimposing one set of droning lines over another until a seemingly endless series of timbres weave themselves in and through the mind of the listener. Unlike many of his other works for guitar, there is no percussion in "Movement Within," though there is a sense of rhythm that develops in the way the drones manifest themselves and are embodied within the framework of other drones, creating microtonalities that suggest the passage and entrance of yet others. These recur at almost regular intervals, and notions of pitch are resilient enough to hold onto for 16 minutes. The upshot of Renegade Heaven is this: Other than Music for Airports, it is BOAC's most "accessible" record (whatever that means), and without doubt the ensemble's most lively. It possesses the visceral power of the best that rock & roll has to offer, the disciplined musicianship that is required of players encountering the works of new music composers, and the sense of humor that only great improvisers can provide. It seems like starting their own record label was what the Bang on a Can All-Stars had to do to truly be themselves on disc. And listeners are all the richer for the wondrous pleasure they offer us here. ~ Thom Jurek