Gurgling water, a revolving fan belt, airport announcements and an impassioned poem by Charles Olson all fuel the output of New York ensemble Bang on a Can All-Stars. The eclectic group is back at the Barbican with new input by an awe-inspiring array of composers including Bryce Dessner of The National and Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire, iconic American composer Steve Reich, Golden Globe winner and two-time Oscar nominee Jóhann Jóhannsson, artist/musician Christian Marclay and Bang on a Can co-founder the 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner Julia Wolfe.

Using archival film the musicians have woven beautiful and immense sounds that fuzz and fade, replicating the thunder and drone of old movie reels and combining this with delicate piano, expressive percussion and soulful strings.

The concert include seven UK premieres including Bryce Dessner's Letter 27 with film and Richard Reed Parry's The Brief and Neverending Blur.

Richard Reed Parry:

How did you get involved in Bang on a Can?

I have met them all over the years from various contexts - they invited my old band Bell Orchestre to participate in one of their marathons ten years ago and we sadly didn’t have time to do it and I’ve regretted it ever since. Thankfully they reached out again.

Bang on a Can's concept is to push musical boundaries – how have you done this in The Brief and Neverending Blur?

The fundamental principle/technique of Music for Heart and Breath is, remarkably, a new one, or at least one that’s never been formally done before - using the heartbeats and the breathing rates of the performers as the only tempo guides.

How do you push yourself musically?

Two ways - firstly by attempting to make every kind of music that I aspire to make… and secondly by getting way over my head in terms of ability when I take on a project, and just forcing myself to rise to the occasion somehow.

What kind of a work out will the Bang on a Can artists receive with your composition – do they have to move around to alter the breath/heartbeat cycle?

The Brief and Neverending Blur is actually quite a miniature piece, and has a very drifty, languid pacing. I let BOAC off easy. This time. :)

Is it possible to orchestrate the human body?

Yes, but it’s difficult to conduct it.

How many instruments do you play now?

Hard to say exactly. It depends how competent one has to be to qualify as being able to “play”. Three or four decently well, and a whole lot more just enough to create and make nice sounds.

Why do Canadians make such good musicians?

Because there are lots of large, uninhabited quiet spaces in our land.

Who will your be collaborating with next after BOAC?

So Percussion.

What other projects are you working on at the moment?

I'll be finishing up my sonic folk record, called the Quiet River of Dust. Making an Arcade Fire record. Plotting and writing an hour-long piece of Heart and Breath music for large ensemble. Finally making another Bell Orchestre record. All the regular stuff for me.

Bryce Dessner:

How did you get involved in Bang on a Can?

I first toured with Bang on a Can in the early 2000’s (2002 or 2003) as a guitarist while Mark Stewart was on tour with Paul Simon. Some of my first professional experiences playing contemporary music in Europe were with Bang on a Can and I have remained very close to David Lang, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe as well as the musicians in the all-stars.  Percussionist David Cossin is one of my closest friends and we still perform together from time to time. Since those days I have written two pieces for Bang on a Can and collaborated extensively with both David lang and Michael Gordon.

What was your inspiration for Gloucester 27?

Gloucester 27 is a poem by American poet Charles Olson who was also the last rector of the Black Mountain College, the experimental art college in the mountains of North Carolina where from from the 30’s to its closing in the mid-50’s virtually every seminal figure of the american avant garde came through as either artist or student. Most famously perhaps it is where John Cage and Merce Cunningham began their long collaboration. Olson was a legendary figure, 6 foot seven inches in height and he often wore a cape.   He wrote epic poems which were highly inventive formally.  This is an excerpt from his masterpiece ‘Maximus to Gloucester’ and there is this amazing video of him reading it.  I love the poem and the images and find it very interesting what the work has to say about American identity. ‘An American is a complex of occasions, themselves a geometry of spatial nature.’ My piece sets music underneath the poem and the musicians find their own rhythms which gradually overlap in canon and shift keys several times.

What does the film add to the piece?

The piece was written to accompany the film.

Tell me a bit more about working on the musical score for The Revenant –what was the process for composing? Was it difficult to create sounds to express the extreme emotions seen on screen?

I worked very closely with director Alejandro Inarritu on specific scenes of the movie.  He is an incredibly musical director and has very specific and clear ideas.  We would often do several versions of just one or two notes. He is also very unorthodox in his approach and wanted me to be free to find experimental textures and to push myself as far as possible.  The second half of the film features a lot of my music including one pre-existing piece called ‘Lachrimae’ which I composed in 2012 for string orchestra.  Alejandro had chosen this work to feature in the film and wanted me to connect the rest of the score to the sound world of that composition.

Who will your be collaborating with next?

I am currently working on a new piece for the amazing Ensemble Intercontemporain in Paris, originally founded by composer/conductor Pierre Boulez, which will be premiered with their brilliant music director Matthias Pintscher at the Philharmonie de Paris September 24.  After having spent almost 20 years in New York I am now living in Paris and it has been very exciting to discover a new musical universe here and to get to know the French approach to contemporary music especially. I will also be working on a large double piano concerto for the unbelievable talented pianists Katia and Marielle Labeque which will premiere with several orchestras in 2018.

Julia Wolfe:

In your Pulizer prize winning work you captured harsh industrial landscape of the coal mine and Steel Hammer for Bang on a Can also conveys a sense of the industrial. Is it important to you to highlight the plight and grit of the working environment?

I am interested in American labor history and all of the issues surrounding it. In the case of the miners I was particularly interested in how miners persevered in demanding that the work place was safe and that they received compensation.

How did you select the All Stars for Bang on a Can?

I have worked with this spectacular group of musicians for nearly 30 years. It has been a remarkable adventure to develop work with them. 

What do you seek to explore through this work?

I am from a small town in Pennsylvania not far from the Anthracite coal region. I began to explore the history of this region and learned so much about the industry, the waves of immigration, the politics. The piece takes a look at who we are as American workers and how this dangerous work fueled the nation.

Have you worked with Bryce and Richard Reed Parry before?

We are thrilled to have Bang on a Can work with these very interesting musicians who cross worlds between rock and experimental concert music. I have admired their work for a long time and we all feel honored to have Bryce and Richard as a part of the program.

What have they brought to the mix?

Invention and creativity - I hope everyone can come out to hear their work.

Can you tell me a bit more about Reeling?

For Reeling I chose a field recording of a French Canadian singer who is creating mouth music - a syllabic type of singing that can take the place of a fiddle or other instruments for dance music. You can also hear him clogging (rhythms with his feet.) I wanted to stay true to this singing tradition by supporting it, but I also figment it to recombine in different way until it gets a bit manic.

Have you put the pieces in a specific sequence to give them a narrative structure or is does each represent a separate part of the evening?

We are flexible with the order - but do think through the change of energies over the evening.

What musical acrobatics will this performance demand from the players?

High energy virtuosity and a completely new adventure.

How do you push yourself musically?

I always look for a new challenge - whether it’s writing for 9 bagpipes or for full orchestra - where can I go that i haven’t been before - what can I bring that is new and intense.

Tell me a little more about the musicians who will be playing on the night?

They are a spectacular amplified sextet. Their musicianship is very broad - all classically trained but they also play different kinds of music and bring this broad knowledge to their performance practice . There is a high level of chops but also a real body energy.

Why do you think it is important to break down boundaries between musical genres – what can we learn?

I just think that this is naturally happening - a kind of openness. Music is powerful in many different forms

Is music finite or infinite in its scope?

infinite - as we are all unique and so have the potential to make unique creations.

What will you be working on next and who with?

I am writing an evening length work for the New York Philharmonic and women’s choir on the subject of the New York garment industry.

Bang On A Can All-Stars: Field Recordings (Vol.2) is at The Barbican, Milton Court Concert Hall on Sunday, April 17 at 7.30pm.