Arts and Ideas: Bang on a Can All-Stars, Soldier Songs and Yo-Yo Ma

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Bang on a Can All-Stars
International Festival of Arts & Ideas. 8 p.m., June 14. Yale Law School Courtyard, 127 Wall St. $21-$30. 203-562-5666, 888-736-2663,

Soldier Songs
International Festival of Arts & Ideas. June 23–25. Frederick Iseman Theater, 1156 Chapel St. $17.50-$25. 203-562-5666, 888-736-2663,

Yo-Yo Ma
International Festival of Arts & Ideas. 3 p.m., June 11. Sprague Memorial Hall, 470 College St., Free. 203-562-5666, 888-736-2663,

Not so long ago, there lived a creature called the “classical purist” who believed in segregating classical music from the sullying influences of vernacular and non-Western styles. Students of classical composition were often forbidden from using repetition, and even tonal harmony, by professors who considered these techniques aesthetically regressive.

Though considered by some to have been wiped out by the culture wars of recent decades, vestiges of these species can still be found behind protective glass in conservatories nationwide, much as the endangered condor provides us with a glimpse into the age when dinosaurs ruled the earth.
For a glimpse of the current landscape, meanwhile, survey the classical headliners at this year's Arts & Ideas Festival. They aren't very ... “classical.” The biggest name is cellist Yo-Yo Ma (June 11, for free!), but he's coming to town with the Silk Road Ensemble, his cross-cultural new-music project.

On June 14, the Bang on a Can All-Stars juxtapose the music of co-founder Julia Wolfe with composers from the realms of indie rock and electronica. Drummer/composer David T. Little will bring members of his band Newspeak for three performances of Soldier Songs (June 23-25), a multimedia theater piece saturated with rock.

It's increasingly clear that, in the classical world, nothing is forbidden — leading to accusations that, as the new-music scene has lost its boundaries, it has lost its edge. For previous generations, writing in a rock style was an act of rebellion; for Little and his peers, who follow a path blazed by Bang on a Can in the '80s and '90s, rock is just another shade available on the aesthetic palette.

Little is less interested in creating tension through a clash of styles than in telling a story through whatever means are available to him: “You have sections that are using materials that you would find in, like, heavy metal,” he says, “and then there are sections that sound more like Sondheim, maybe.”

It seems absurd to suggest that someone who name-checks John Zorn and Sunn O))) as influences isn't interested in exploring musical extremes. But for Little, those extremes are just a way to communicate an emotionally charged topic: the struggles of the soldier during and after wartime. “The process of writing,” for him, “is also a process of figuring out what I feel about things.” Now Little is hoping to use the piece as a tool to help veterans communicate their wartime experiences, engaging with veterans' centers in West Haven and Hartford for this performance.

There's also a social subtext to the mission of the Silk Road Project, which was conceived by Yo-Yo Ma to foster cross-cultural exchange through music. “In many ways, the arts are a neutral territory that can contribute to a mutual dialogue that is not rhetorical,” says Executive Director Laura Freid.
The Silk Road Ensemble is comprised not of Western performers touring through the music of other cultures, but of experts from diverse musical styles. 

“We have musicians from Japan,” Freid says, “from Spain, from Iran, from India with us for this concert, and we're performing music composed all over the world.”

Freid sees the individual performers' intense musical specialization and virtuosity as one place where the Ensemble maintains a kind of “edge.” No matter how harmoniously the musical styles might coexist, there's always going to be a certain tension in collaborations between a brilliant tabla player who's never read sheet music and a classical violinist who was never taught to improvise.

The Bang on a Can show will also feature a few musicians working just outside their respective home territories. Advocate readers probably know the names of most of these composers — the National's Bryce Dessner, Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and Dave Longstreth of the Dirty Projectors.
But Wolfe dismisses the notion that just because collaborations are now accepted by the classical mainstream, there aren't any boundaries to be pushed. Yes, she says, “I think the language is crossing over in a very interesting way, but it's the invention that's really inspiring.”

“You can use a rock band reference and be completely conservative,” she says. “To me what's hip and cool is, ‘What did I experience? What happened in that piece? Where did it take me, from where to where, and why?'” Is what's innovative, she asks, “the language and the aesthetic? Or the musical ideas?”

And there's the key. The excitement in music doesn't come from aesthetic imperatives, or from resistance against them, but from the urgency of the ideas, whatever they are. However small the musical world might have become, and however many borderlines have disappeared, there will always be new countries — emotional, formal, or aesthetic — left to explore. 


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