Asphalt Orchestra: Not Your Father's Marching Band; Debuts Aug. 5

Classic Arts Features   Asphalt Orchestra: Not Your Father's Marching Band; Debuts Aug. 5
A new cutting edge marching band called the Asphalt Orchestra performs at various locations on the Lincoln Center campus August 5 _9. Their debut opens the eclectic Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival's 39th season.


Folks showing up for the Mostly Mozart program or other events at Lincoln Center will be in for a surprise if they linger on the newly renovated Plaza before attending an indoor performance. A new cutting edge marching band called the Asphalt Orchestra will perform at various locations on the Lincoln Center campus August 5 _9. It will make its world debut on August 5, opening the eclectic Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival's 39th season. Dressed in stylish outfits and showing off movements by award-winning choreographer Susan Marshall, this self-proclaimed street band is an explosive addition to the Lincoln Center experience.

Asphalt Orchestra is actually the newest group from Bang on a Can, the pioneering contemporary music organization known for its innovative new music presentations and ear for the unconventional. According to organization co-founder Julia Wolfe, "When we started Bang on a Can we made a list of all the things we wanted to do and I think that [a marching band] was on that very first list. Then we did a couple of recent events that made us think more about doing it."

One such event was the Anthony Braxton's 100 Tubas performance in 2006 as part of the annual Bang on a Can Marathon. The other was its music program during its annual summer residency at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. Wolfe and co-founders David Lang and Michael Gordon liked the idea of bands performing outdoors and moving in formation, listening and mingling. "We also want the music to breathe, to have a very open and free context in which people hear it," Wolfe adds. "There are no trappings of what you find in a more formal setting. You just have a great musical experience and hear beautiful music."

Wolfe freely admits that the idea of an avant-garde marching band is a little "hair-brained," but Asphalt Orchestra speaks to a great tradition of public musical performance. Everyone has seen and heard marching bands, whether it's at a parade or a college football game where giant college bands move around a football field dressed like ceremonial guards playing brassy versions of Michael Jackson's "Beat It." Of course there are also the great second line bands roving the streets of New Orleans playing classics like "St. James Infirmary." Whatever the context, these groups are a part of the social and cultural fabric of their communities, and that is the idea with this band at Lincoln Center.

"Amidst all the redevelopment around the campus, this just seemed like the right project at the right time," says Bill Bragin, Lincoln Center's Director of Public Programming. "It gives us the ability to bring the band and our audiences to different parts of the campus as the construction walls come down and new architectural spaces are opened. Conceptually, it's really exciting: to celebrate our 50th Anniversary by looking forward and helping birth a new performing ensemble. This also inspired us to program a series of additional marching bands from various musical traditions which will perform on other dates throughout the Out of Doors season."

For its debut performances, the 12-piece band plays innovative new arrangements of songs by avant-garde-pop star Bj‹rk, jazz legend Charles Mingus, weirdo rock icon Frank Zappa, Swedish metal pioneers Mesh‹ggah, and the work of iconoclastic American composer Conlon Nancarrow. Sets will also feature the world premieres of works by Tyondai Braxton of the art-rock band Battles, Stew and Heidi Rodewald of the Broadway hit musical Passing Strange, and Balkan film composer Goran Bregovic, all commissioned especially for Lincoln Center's 50th Anniversary.

"We're going to be exploring all these different things," says bandleader and saxophonist Ken Thomson. "Everything from real no-messing-around multi-meter heavy metal to Stew and Heidi's piece, which is more New Orleans pop, to the Serbian brass band stuff. So it's really kind of an incredible range of music. And I sort of wanted to match that to the players and find people who are comfortable doing all these different kinds of things."

Coming out of jazz, rock, and classical traditions, the musicians were picked for their energy level and their broad-minded approach to music. The band, in keeping with the marching band tradition, features brass (three saxophones, two trumpets, two trombones, and sousaphone), a flutist and three percussionists. The members come from such varied bands as the modern classical of Newspeak and Signal, the Eastern European brass of Balkan Beat Box and Slavic Soul Party, the avant-garde jazz of Gutbucket and Kneebody, and the warped cabaret of World/Inferno Friendship Society. Some lead their own bands as well.

To make sure that the performances have a strong visual element to them as well, internationally acclaimed choreographer Susan Marshall has worked with the band to come up with choreography that is as innovative as the music. The band will also be wearing "uniforms" by Elizabeth Hope Dancy, who designed the costumes for Broadway's Passing Strange among other shows.

BOAC's original idea was for Asphalt to go out into the community well beyond Lincoln Center and that is still the case. "There is a multicultural identity that makes it ideal for walking into different neighborhoods and performing. Once they start marching and moving they'll hopefully convey something beyond what the notes are. I think it's a vehicle that will make its way into strange and unexpected places," says Wolfe.

According to Thomson, the band leans upon its varied background to cover all the ground it wants to. So far this seems to be working out by having different people who do different things leading the way when their specialty is called upon, whether its finding the swing in a metal song or getting the tricky notation right on the Nancarrow arrangement.

It's a far cry from the marching band music of John Philip Sousa, which strove for uniformity and order more than a century ago. This band epitomizes the chaos and creative fusions that come from living in this 21st century melting pot of cultures, ideas and beliefs. More than anything, though, they're a band on the prowl looking to show you a good time. "We're kind of like loud uninvited guests who cause trouble at the party," Thomson says with a laugh. "We want people to be walking by and think: What the hell is that? And then they'll stop and look."

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