Foto: Ailie Robertson / Bang on a Can Summer Festival 2018

Bang’s Big Theory

{ published in New Sounds, New York Public Radio, Sunday, August 5th 2018 }

  by Lasse D. Hansen



“Do not warm up in the bathroom, please.” It’s not hard to imagine the situation that made it necessary to put up the sign backstage at MASS MoCA’s Hunter Center. With 31 young musicians from the Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival getting ready to go on stage at the North Adams-located museum for modern art, the spaces backstage were sparse.


No two line-ups were the same in the 15 different pieces of the iconic marathon, which in keeping with tradition rounded off three weeks of intense work for musicians and composers from around the world. During the six hours of music the musicians stood ready to take over for each other, with some of them on stage playing, while others were on standby offstage with a violin bow in one hand and a slice of pizza in the other. “Came here for the pizza—stayed for the music,” violin Faculty and 28-year Bang on a Can veteran performer Todd Reynolds joked in a short break between two performances.


A third group had gathered around a time table that listed the concert order and on which the “start time,” “estimated end time,” and “actual end time” of every piece were noted as the concert progressed. The festival’s Fellows and Faculty had an internal bet on when the marathon would actually end. Composer and Bang on a Can Co-Artistic Director David Lang has reportedly won three years in a row.






















Between performances, a part of the audience walked in and out of the hall with beer and ice cream. The invitation did say “Come and go as you like, or stay all day” when Lang, together with his two Bang on a Can co-founders Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe, opened the doors in 1987 to the very first marathon—a total of 12 hours of contemporary music at the Exit Art Gallery in SoHo.


The three composers met as students in what they remember as “a very hostile environment” where commands from teachers such as “Do not play that weird music” were commonplace. “Our teachers told us: ‘No one is interested in your music and no one will play it. There’s no audience’,” Gordon revealed in an interview with his two co-founders during the preparations for the marathon.


With the name Bang on a Can—a name they chose “so people would ask us about it”—they decided to program an entire marathon of music. “We curated by a different criterion,” Wolfe explained. “We thought about: ‘What’s powerful and interesting to us?’ and that could be a piece by Milton Babbitt back to back with a piece by Steve Reich. At that time they basically weren’t on the same concert, they weren’t on the same venues, they weren’t on the same side of town, and they weren’t in the same zip-codes.”


Beer was served at the concert and formalities such as dress code (for musicians as well as for the audience) and printed program notes were removed to shift the focus from the prestigious works and composers back to the experience of the music itself. “Instead we did living program notes,” Wolfe continued. “That was really fun. ‘Steve Reich, get up and say a few words about your piece’,” she recalled.





















Since then, the marathon has become a popular annual event with music ranging from the clever constructions of Karlheinz Stockhausen to the eastern minimalism of Arvo Pärt—and could thus celebrate its 31st anniversary in May. When the Summer Music Festival was launched in 2002, the marathons became part of that program as well.


“Usually if you are interested in contemporary music, you’re the oddball in your music school,” Lang said about the beginning of the festival, “so we had this idea from the beginning that it would be great for our world if those people could find each other in a school situation like this.”


Gordon, Lang and Wolfe wanted the young people at the summer program to “be nice to each other, feel respected, feel like they are part of a larger culture” and to “feel optimistic about what music can accomplish in the world.”


“In 1987, those were fighting words,” Lang emphasized. At this summer festival the three founders have tried to design as many things as possible to make composers and performers equal. By participating in music from different traditions like African drumming and Latin music, the Fellows get the opportunity to solve musical problems equally “and not only have their musicianship attached to, for instance, a piano, where all of your expression comes with a piece of furniture,” Lang elaborates.


“I think we’re about to shake up a bunch of art formats,” he continued. “We’ve spent a lot of time in production meetings talking about how to make this format more inviting to people who are a little further away from our world.”






















“We haven’t figured it out yet, but we’ve done the marathon for over 30 years,” Wolfe added, “and it’s good to question why we keep doing this, and if its role has changed or what its value is. To me it’s always a very special day, so the answer is not necessarily something new or a solely separate project, but more like a development or change of what we already do.”


On the evening of the marathon Steve Reich, the festival’s guest composer this year, was on stage in front of a full hall to do a live program note for his recent piece Runner, which concluded the marathon and thus the festival. The evening’s biggest ensemble was on stage with him in front of a bright emerald green background that resembled one of the luminous James Turrell installations that MASS MoCA exhibits in its basement.


During the introduction there were frequently laughs and cheers from the audience, as had been the custom the entire event. Earlier the same evening conductor Brad Lubman introduced György Ligeti’s etheric Ramifications by initiating the audience to the instrumental setup: Two groups of strings sitting opposite to each other, with one of the groups tuned a quartertone lower than the other. At first this could seem like a theoretical curiosum, but the mere sound of the string sections tuning their instruments in the rather abrasive tuning before the performance was enough to arouse both applause and enthusiastic shouts from the audience.


It was clear that the young musicians and composers were among friends. Change may be coming, but in the meantime the marathon audience seemed to respond to the original ideas. Some of them came and went as they liked. Others stayed all day.




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.

Brooks Frederickson, Eli Greenhoe, Guusje Ingen Housz, Samn Johnson, J. Tower, Timothy Peterson, Pamela Z, Stephanie Orlando, Ailie Robertson, Dan Rhode, M. Gordon, J.Wolfe, Alicia Jane Turner, D.Lang. Photo: Maggie Molloy/Bang on Can Media Fellows


Steve Reich introduces his recent work “Runner” onstage at Mass MOCA. Photo: John Schaefer/NYPR


Bang on a Can Co-Founders sit for an interview with Media Fellows. Photo: Will Robin/Bang on A Can Summer Festival 2018