The marathon before the Marathon: Emily Thorner at Bang on a Can

{ published in New Sounds, New York Public Radio, Saturday, July 28th 2018 }


by Lasse D. Hansen



On Thursday afternoon, Emily Thorner arrived ten minutes early to sing into a paper cup. “It’s my warm up cup,” the high-coloratura soprano explained while preparing her voice for her second rehearsal that day—this time of steel pan virtuoso Andy Akiho’s NO one To kNOW one.


The piece is one of many new works the Bang on a Can Summer Festival’s thirty young musicians, or Fellows, are performing with its Faculty this Saturday at the six-hour Marathon at MASS MoCA. It is a pulsating, fast-paced and shape-shifting piece, and with its leaping melodic lines, rap sections and punchy bass drum hits, it requires Thorner to be exactly the same.


Saturday’s marathon will mark the end of eleven different performances for the young soprano, who gives the impression of someone who is constantly in motion. “There have been a lot of times during this where I would go from one thing and then immediately after go learn something else,” she said flipping through her sheet music while recalling three weeks of Old English text, Scottish dialect, electronics, Renaissance-like timbres and scat singing. “At this point you kind of rely on your sight reading abilities, and then just put it together bit by bit: ‘Where do I have an entrance?’, ‘What’s the next interval?’, ‘How’s the rhythm?’”


She had to leave the rehearsal an hour early in order to get ready the third rehearsal of the day—this time of Iannis Xenakis’ Akanthos. The sound of the Greek “stochastic” composer’s piece—with its wordless and wide-ranging instrumental use of the voice—is located at the opposite end of the musical spectrum from the Akiho. Being located at the opposite end of the converted factory building complex as well, walking through the iconic wall art hallways gave Thorner just enough time to adjust to the appropriate frame of mind.


“It’s doesn’t always seem like there’s a place for vocalists in the new music world and I really want to change that,” she said later that Thursday. “I really want to show that we can be part of the instrumental texture too.” This interest she shared with Flute Fellow Alexis Letourneau in the first week of the festival, and they came up with the idea for a composition that would switch the classic roles, having the flutist as the soloist with the singer supporting. Subsequently they asked Composition Fellow Samn Johnson to write a piece based on the idea. After only 24 hours it was premiered this Tuesday together with Fellows Cara Search, Eli Greenhoe (both singing) and Rebecca Lawrence (bass).


“We can move fast,” Thorner concluded in a rare moment of rest. “And we do move fast.”




Lasse D. Hansen is a Copenhagen-based composer and writer, whose latest performances includes the theatrical fantasy Face the Music at the 2018 MATA Festival in New York. As a music journalist he is interested in the mysterious process of doing creative work.