They're loud, sweaty and tend to prefer funk rhythms, long riffs in one key and Slavic sounds. I've seen street bands, but never one as good as the Asphalt Orchestra.
At a series of recent outdoor concerts at the construction-ravaged (and Mozart-soaked) Lincoln Centre piazza, 12 wind and percussion musicians in boots and Converse sneakers played music to enormous and blissful crowds. They performed ferocious and thrilling half-hour sets, only to disappear as quickly as they came.
August 5th marked their first outing and the start of Lincoln Centre's Out of Doors festival. I arrived early at the north plaza for what I presumed would be the best view of the band. Yet just before the sun disappeared behind the skyline, the Asphalt Orchestra burst forth unexpectedly from the 66th street subway station like a bunch of buzzing, angry locusts. They moved wind-up-toy fast, banging out spooky polyrhythms and dissonant woodwind peals. I was stuck behind a throng, hearing but not seeing the cacophany blowing through the crowd. Finally I was able to push through with some gentle elbowing.
The ensemble is a commission of Bang on a Can, a New York musical organisation that provides the spark and capital to make new music accessible. Founded in 1987, Bang on a Can is only now venturing into the world of street bands, a domain that plainly harmonises with the organisation's mission.
Most of the members of the Asphalt Orchestra are graduates of a major music conservatory. This was not surprising: their enthusiastic five-piece programme was technically demanding. We heard skilful arrangements of Frank Zappa and Bjork (whose "Hyper-Ballad" was like a marching band version of the sunrise in Copland's "Appalachian Spring"); Charles Mingus also occasionally appears on their set list.
My favourite was serenely beautiful and almost completely inaccessible: "Study No. 20" by Conlon Nancarrow, choreographed as a slow gathering of instruments, each honking without tonality or rhythm. I was told the piece was specifically intended to be unperformable, and yet the group didn't lose one audience member. Many were swinging and clapping, smiling or simply open-jawed. We all wanted more.
Lincoln Centre's "Out of Doors" festival continues through August 28th
Picture Credit: Colin Baker