Bang on a Can has a humble history, beginning in the 80's as a home for unconventional and experimental artists (Check out the group's website at bangonacan.org). The group has grown and changed over the years, but is a proud source of contemporary music that many would argue is "uncategorizable." For a good look at the music that founded the group, check out Bang on a Can Classics. Although the album has only 7 pieces, each comes from a different composer in the group and exhibits a different aspect of their experimentation with sound and music.
All of the pieces are somewhere between written music that can be replicated, and improvisation. The improvisation is subtle and constrained, but the pieces clearly deviate from a traditional rhythmic pattern. For example, I'll talk about my favorite piece from the album: Cheating, Lying, Stealing. This piece brought an interesting blend of traditional acoustic instruments, including strings and piano, as well as some harsher sounds from bells, drums, and other unidentified clanging noises.
The piece contains underlying rhythmic elements, primarily from short notes on the low stringed instruments and the harsh clangs of the percussion. The listener wants these rhythms to be symmetric, even, and repetitive, but the piece seems to almost purposely disappoint the listener by changing the rhythm and tempo regularly, albeit very slightly. This rhythmic element reminds me somewhat of musique concrete, where rhythmic sounds often appear in the composition, but without the traditional tempo and order of classical pieces.
Another distinctive element that in consistent throughout all of the pieces on this album is the use of classical instruments in non-traditional ways. The piano and strings along with limited woodwinds and percussion are the most common instruments heard, however, the pieces do not have the same degree of structure, rhythm, or melody compared to classical music. Additionally, these acoustic instruments often have a somewhat electric tone or sound to them. This was most noticeable in the track The Manufacture of Tangled Ivory. Also, in Red Shift, the sliding pitches and alternating swells sound much like granular synthesis, where small envelopes of sound are layered and overlapped to create a piece with seeming movement and depth. Beyond this electronic sound, some of the classical instruments were used to make unconventional noises that would not be traditionally classified as musical. For example, in Amalia's Secret, brass instruments are used to make screeching sounds. This track is reminiscent of jazz, but without as much organization and direction. Not in the sense of additional improvisation, but rather less rhythm, repetition, and phrasing.
In terms of the level of complexity of these pieces, it was actually refreshing that this experimental music was neither overwhelming nor loud as part of the experimentation. In Lick for example, silence is used strategically to add suspense to the simply structured piece. The number of instruments is small in all of the pieces, probably no more than a handful, but the quiet and restraint of the pieces is one of the most engaging aspects of the music. During one section of the track Industry, it sounds as if only 2 instruments are playing, but the way the swell, alternate, and play off one another is very powerful.
Overall, the experimental aspect of Bang on a Can's music is enjoyable to listen to because it is engaging and different without being overwhelming or grating to the ears. Listening to Bang on a Can is definitely an experience worthwhile of devoting your full attention to the music. I am excited to hear what they put out next and maybe even see them live!