Chicago Sun-Times APRIL 4, 2012 - by Wynne Delacoma


Despite their unassuming name, the New York City-based Bang On A Can All-Stars are distinguished pacesetters on the classical new music scene. For the past twenty years, they have been ignoring artificial boundaries between the pop and classical fields, performing music by composers as disparate as rocker Brian Eno and American experimental composer Conlon Nancarrow (who decamped for Mexico in 1940 and wrote myriad pieces for player piano).

On April 12, the six-member Bang On A Can All-Stars make a rare Chicago appearance at Wentz Concert Hall on the campus of North Central College in Naperville.

One founding member of the ensemble, clarinetist Evan Ziporyn, feels right at home in the Midwest. Born in Evanston, he grew up listening to his parents' wide-ranging record collection. At one point, his father owned a small record store near Main Street and Chicago Avenue, next door to the Amazing Grace performance space in Evanston. A legendary coffeehouse in the 1970s, Amazing Grace was a place to hear such Chicago folkies as Steve Goodman and Jim Post, as well as less classifiable artists as pianist Keith Jarrett.

As a student at Evanston Township High School, Ziporyn haunted the place.

"I feel like a huge part of my musical education occurred at Amazing Grace," said Ziporyn during a recent phone conversation. He was calling after a concert in Chelyabinsky, Russia, where the All-Stars were performing on a tour sponsored by the U.S. State Department. "I heard all this incredible music I would never have heard anywhere else."

Ziporyn studied clarinet and composition at prestigious schools, attending the Eastman School Of Music in Rochester, N.Y., and Yale University. But he was looking for something beyond the parameters of traditional classical music. He gravitated toward Bang On A Can, a collective of like-minded musicians founded in New York by composers Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolfe. The group launched itself with a marathon performance of new music on Mother's Day 1987 in a SoHo art gallery. The All-Stars emerged as Bang On A Can's resident performing ensemble five years later.

"When we started, we were organized in response to what was kind of a crisis for us," he said. "The new music scene was very polarized. You had the academic on one hand and the very experimental, improvised downtown scene on the other. For those of us who were interested in neither of those things, there were no venues for our music."

So composers like Ziporyn, whose tastes ran from King Crimson to Bartok quartets to Balinese gamelan music, created their own opportunities. Their music usually has definable melodic ideas, but harmonies and rhythms can wander off in bracing, unexpected directions.

"Just to get our music out there," said Ziporyn, "we decided 'if you won't want us to play where your music is playing, we'll find our own place to play.' We were trying to find our voices as musicians. There was no place for our music, so we made a place."

The group's April 12 concert includes Eno's Music For Airports, a 1978 piece that established ambient sound as an important musical genre. There will be player piano pieces by Nancarrow as well as music by Michael Gordon, David Longstreth of Dirty Projectors and Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore. Ziporyn's gamelan-inspired Music From Shadowbang also is on the program.

As a Yale student working in a record store in 1979, he first really listened to the haunting sound of Balinese gongs, drums and other percussion instruments.

"There is first hearing something and then there's first hearing something," he said. "I'm pretty sure I heard a lot of gamelan growing up and listening to my parents' record collection. But when I was in college, I heard that old Nonesuch [From The] Morning of the World LP, and it just hit me.

"It was doing everything that I was trying to do in my own music. It was everything that I was hearing in Stravinsky and Miles Davis and Bartok and prog rock. It was so familiar yet so strange, so mysterious. I was trying to find my way but wasn't finding what I was looking for. When I heard gamelan, I thought this was really going to provide some answers.

"The thing about gamelan is that it's a people's music, but it's very complex at the same time. It's organized around things you can hear - simple melodies, rhythms. It's built on the human impulse, the desire to sing simple songs, to play things that have a rhythm. It's elegant and eloquent."