First impressions are important. For instance, one expects certain things from Bang on a Can and their four-year-old record label Cantaloupe – there are graphics, ideas, names, and especially musical styles that have become predictably associated with the New York festival/coterie since its inception in 1987. The cover of Elida manages to confound those expectations – it looks like a restrained library edition, or perhaps the documentation of an old live performance, using a single color (deep turquoise) and classic fonts. In fact, in a pleasant if not arresting postmodern twist, the coolly antiquarian fonts are perhaps the clearest indication that this is a ‘new’ work.
As for my first impression of the music, it was even more memorable. A lovely wash of piano and violin that suggests a marriage of Victorian parlor music and eastern European busking is shattered by a voice that sounds as though it belongs to an otherworldly descendant of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and for that matter one that is having a rather blithe nervous breakdown. With more time to absorb and reflect, the listener becomes acclimatized to this odd and not unpleasant universe – many of the sounds would be familiar to devotees of romanticism, others would fit well in a klezmer band, and many passages suggest gestures derived from a constellation of minimalism, new age, and folk ballads. In fact, the overall aesthetic concept seems most like that of progressive rock, or fusion jazz – a set of gestures freely assembled from a variety of styles and references that hold together mostly because of their mutual amiability, as though several different musical genres could build up good-humored, easy-going relationships over long acquaintance.
As a matter of fact, Elida is a collection of tracks by a Czech violinist/vocalist who has a background in classical, folk and various kinds of community performances. Bittová openly presents her personal life in her music, as well as in her publicity material; one has the impression she would be pleasant to make music with, and pleasant to know – in her biography she focuses on her country home, on growing up with music and dance, and on what appears to be a deeply integrated approach to living and playing. She seems, in fact, to be a skilled, flexible performer who has moved into composition – which is perhaps why the compositional side of this record, though competent, is not particularly innovative, nor does it outline a completely distinctive musical persona. In fact, after that startling first track, the rest of the CD settles down into a series of milder, less remarkable hybrids – at times I thought of Jane Siberry, at others Kate Bush, but when those singers came to mind it was with a certain longing to go hear their work instead.
Aside from that, this album is not like most of the music that comes out of the Bang on a Can composers and their circle. This is in fact a loose collection of songs, based on short, private lyric poems by Richard Müller and Vera Chase – it might be useful to think of Elida as a gentler, more popular version of one of those Kurtág song cycles, with their charged female musings and comparably spare textures. Unfortunately the poems themselves are rather adolescent and clichéd, except for the last lines of Müller’s ‘Painters in Paris’. As for Bang on a Can, although it was founded as an all-inclusive contemporary music festival (I was lucky enough to live in New York for several months the year it began, and still remember with pleasure the odd mixture of uptown and downtown styles that was so radical at the time, along with a gorgeous piece by Lois V Vierk performed by accordionist Guy Klucevsek), it has in the long run drifted towards something more predictable, and distinctly more limited. Bang on a Can has, in fact, settled down to a particular kind of post-minimalism that runs smack in the middle of the now very, very wide stream of musical works produced by the many clones of Louis Andriessen. I had expected Elida to be somewhat like Lost Objects (2001), the collaborative post-minimalist opera by Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolfe, Bang on a Can’s three founders; although Lost Objects is not as consistently interesting as, say, most of John Adams’ stage works, it nevertheless includes some solo-with-chorus sections that remain for me, even after numerous rehearings, disturbingly beautiful.
This is not, however, That Kind Of Thing. Bittová is undoubtedly talented and pleasant as a violinist and as a singer, with a flexible voice that employs several strongly contrasted colors – although it would be nice if she could bring more body and depth up into her high ‘chipmunk’ range, which becomes less enjoyable after one hears it for a while. And Elida is also pleasant, interesting at times, and always very musical – it is clear that this is a record made by good musicians who are doing the kinds of things they enjoy. Given all that, it may be mean of me to point out the limitations of the work; but, frankly, I have heard so many varieties of post-minimalism, hybridity, folk integrated with contemporary and popular, and playful vocalization, that it seems only fair to expect something more remarkable than this. Perhaps I’ve gotten jaded, as it seems that the postmodern styles I used to love continue to run and run, without growing or developing beyond boundaries that were too familiar ten years ago. But, let’s face it: so many people are engaged in all of these stylistic tropes these days, including many of my university students, that it doesn’t seem unfair to expect that a well-hyped new work produced in New York and featuring well-known names should have something, well, surprising about it. Unless, given that many contemporary musicians seem to have been marking time since the millennium, waiting until the next Big Idea pops up, while busily digging up grants, corporate sponsors, and trendy connections with formerly distant cultures, that is simply too much to ask?
Paul G. Attinello, Ph.D.
University of Newcastle upon Tyne