Mission control—where Sound Engineer Andrew Cotton works the audio magic. Photo: John Schaefer/NYPR

His ears decide what we are hearing: amplifying the Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival

{ published in New Sounds, New York Public Radio, Tuesday, July 24th 2018 }


by Lasse D. Hansen



“Okay, what do you guys need to be different?,” sound engineer Andrew Cotton asks from the back of the empty hall as soon as the ensemble stops playing. The time is 3:30pm, Monday afternoon, and it's the first day of the final week of the three-week Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival.


For the past two weeks, the musicians have worked intensively with the festival’s nine composition Fellows at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art campus to realize nine new works written for the occasion.


Right now, eight of the Musician Fellows are on stage, rehearsing Zero System—a groovy piece by composition Fellow Daniel Rhode consisting of waltzing melodic fragments—for the last part of the process: the sound rehearsal for the World Premiere Composer Concert in just one hour.


Cotton’s fingers rest on ten of the 32 faders on the extensive mixer desk at which he is seated. On a small monitor screen he can follow the sound levels of all the individual instruments and with a microphone he is able to speak directly to the musicians on stage. Most of the time, however, he shouts through the hall. It works perfectly fine.


The sound engineer has been working with the Bang on a Can All-Stars since 1996, and he is introduced as “the seventh member of the band” by Bang on a Can co-founder Julia Wolfe. “It’s a long-term relationship,” she points out.


“A lot less guitar, please,” one of the percussionists answers. “And if possible, can I get a little more bass clarinet?” At this time, it’s not so much about actually rehearsing the pieces as it is about setting the right levels of amplification for the musicians on stage. 


“We should probably kill the monitors for this,” the clarinetist and faculty member Ken Thomson suggests as they decide to move on to the next piece on the program, Heron and the Bell by composition fellow Guusje Ingen Housz. This means that Andrew Cotton gets a brief but much needed break on a very long work day.


The piece is about simplicity, stillness and movement, according to the Dutch-born Housz, and for the entire piece the two percussionists are moving calmly and almost processionally across the stage. One is playing a singing bowl, the other is playing shackles.


The piano and bass players join by adding simple, meditative harmonies to the percussion, quickly followed by woodwinds playing short two-note melodies. The piece is slowly assembled from these musical elements, both free floating and structured like planets in a solar system.


In a brief moment of silence an unexpected creaking sound appears. First, it is not clear where the sound comes from, but it quickly turns out that it is the stage floor that creaks, amplified through the microphones on stage. The musicians interrupt music to discuss different solutions, and Cotton is called to the stage to help. So much for that break. 


The solution, he says, is to move the percussionists to the floor in front of the stage, along with the strings that are taped to the floor to guide the musicians’ walk. “Can we move the stairs?,” one of the musicians shouts through the room, and three stage hands quickly enters to move it.


“I just broke my golden rule,” Andrew Cotton says walking across the room to take his seat again with the audience now entering the room. “I changed something five minutes before the concert.”


Now another unexpected sound appears, this time from above. From the roof, a deep and soft rumble moves down the walls, amplified by the whole room. The musicians are looking up. A member of the audience turns to me, saying “Wow, the rain on the roof sounds amazing!” There is no way to fix that. It will be part of the concert.




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.