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Sunday, April 17, 2005
Bang on a Can All-Stars, Bang on a Can Meets Kyaw Kyaw Naing
Bang on a Can Meets Kyaw Kyaw Naing popped up from the pile I’ve been given to review accompanied by a dilemma. My journalistic integrity in the case of this disc is a bit compromised as I’ve been helping out at Bang on a Can/Cantaloupe Music for the past several months. At first I was hesitant to write, but eventually I decided that I didn’t want a worthy CD to go unreviewed just because of my affiliation with its producers. While I suppose I could’ve attached a disclaimer to a standard review, I wanted to find some way of restoring some objectivity. After a little deliberation, I hit upon a solution. I decided to play the CD for the students in a composition seminar I’m taking at Columbia.

Before we get to their responses though, a little background on the CD is in order. As the title suggests, the disc unties the Bang on a Can All-Stars with Kyaw Kyaw Naing. Naing is a composer and a virtuoso of the Burmese pat waing, which describes as “a traditional instrument made of 21 separately tuned drums… [that] surround the player completely, and are played melodically at lightning fast speed.” The bulk of the nine compositions on the disc come from Naing, and two feature just the pat waing and the si wa, paired Burmese cymbals and clappers. On the other seven pieces, an expanded All-Stars lineup adds bass, percussion, piano, keyboard, violin, guitar, cello, and clarinet to Naing’s drumming.

Unfortunately for the direction of my review, my classmates didn’t share my opinion of the music. Perhaps the most positive response came from the TA of the class who described being “simultaneously attracted to it and repulsed by it.” After I remarked that I though it at least deserved praise as a pleasant listen, one student asked, “What’s pleasant about it?” The general reactions of the rest of the class fell somewhere between these two comments.

Though my classmates’ objections to the CD were perfectly valid, my composition seminar, in retrospect, was not the ideal environment for an evaluation of Naing and the All-Stars. First, time constraints prevented us from hearing the entire CD. Second, the disc is much closer to world music than to the more academic, avant-garde works that we discuss in the seminar. In comparison to those pieces, Bang on a Can Meets Kyaw Kyaw Naing might well seem trite, but the disc isn’t meant to be compared with them.

Evaluated on its own terms, Bang on a Can Meets Kyaw Kyaw Naing is full of joyous, energetic music that’s often quite beautiful. The tracks featuring the All-Stars heighten the melodic aspects of Naing’s playing and writing and avoid the ‘fusion-y’ sound of albums similar in concept, even on the improvised track. In addition, Naing’s two (nearly) solo excursions are highlights for me. Both are full of excitement and reveal both the pat waing and Naing’s music to be tremendously expressive.


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