Leaving the hair shirt at Heathrow

MUSIC Bang On a Can Marathon Lincoln Center, New York
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New music events in Britain can be penitential: we know the stuff is good for us, but we're damned if we're going to enjoy it. New York's annual Bang on a Can Marathon does it differently. Even the formality of Lincoln Center doesn't inhibit proceedings. You still get eight hours of performance, no intervals; listeners wandering in and out whether music is playing or not; a baby burbling while its parents read the paper. Yet last weekend's audience remained appreciative and good-humoured, even laughing at the lame-brain MC patter of Michael Gordon, one of BOAC's founders.

Gordon explained that the house-band, the Bang on a Can All Stars, grew out of a desire to take "all this Bang on a Can music" wherever required, as if the music were a branded commodity. And for a while we did indeed seem to be on a highly efficient production line, turning out pieces that were brash, brassy and 12 minutes long.

There were two Louis Andriessen works on the bill, and BOAC acknowledges a philosophical debt to the Dutchman. His tutelary presence hovered in Hanna Kulenty's Air, played by Amsterdam's Orkest de Volharding: piano cranked out thumping chords, brass throbbed and rustled beneath. Later, the same band played Arsenal of Democracy by Julia Wolfe. Both works were exciting, but when they were followed by the equally crisp and rasping Enhexe by Petr Kofron, performed by Agon (from Prague), the gestural rules seemed about to calcify.

Introducing her Thousand Year Dreaming, Annea Lockwood, an Australian, likened the work's four didgeridoos to "the centre of the earth in sound". Just so. Their slow undulations, supported by clarinet, oboe, trombones and sundry percussion, washed through the hall like molten lava. A waterphone - a kind of hand-cranked gourd - made noises like pre-industrial electronic music, and when the didgeridoo players began to wander around the stage, they looked like nothing so much as upright ant-eaters. The whole effect was weirdly exhilarating, and although the piece lasted 45 minutes, it might have been a few moments, or several hours.

If we then reverted to type with Steve Martland's Horses of Instruction, at least Lockwood cleansed the aural palate. Agon returned for Michael Nyman's quirky Bell Set No 1 and, as the evening drew to its close, gave us Martin Smolka's witty Rent a Ricercar, for which the players banged, shook and blew everything in sight. That work's delicious irreverence made a telling foil for Victoria Jordanova's Requiem for Bosnia, in which the composer improvised on harp over a tape of her playing a piano that had been almost destroyed in the war - not so much a "prepared" piano, she said, as an "un-prepared" one. Its eerie clankings were oddly moving, more confessional than they might have been in the frostier environs of, say, London's Purcell Room.

Altogether the Marathon offered 21 pieces by composers from at least eight countries, performed by over 100 musicians. The impression that there was a mould into which the music had been poured never quite went away, but the mould proved flexible and welcoming. Marathons are not something I usually contemplate, but this one was bracing and energising.