At 30, Bang on a Can Still Seethes With Energy
, April 21, 2017
When the composers’ collective Bang on a Can alighted on the scene 30 years ago, one of its defining qualities was volume. Amplified to exuberant rock-music levels, works by its founding members, David Lang, Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon, typically featured a novel mix of electric guitars and traditional orchestral instruments. So it was a funny coincidence that these composers’ microphones malfunctioned at the start of an onstage discussion at Zankel Hall on Wednesday.
The first question, posed by Steve Reich — the evening was part of “Three Generations,” a series of concerts he has programmed exploring Minimalism’s legacy — was almost inaudible.
“When you’re younger, you’re closer to chaos,” Mr. Lang answered, as technicians fiddled with the sound. “Now I move slower. I’ve got kids, I have health insurance.”
Unplugged, soft-spoken and unchaotic — parents now, rather than children — is a good summary of the Bang on a Can founders these days, even as their energy is undimmed. Their work, once punkishly outsiderish, is now showered with mainstream accolades. Mr. Lang and Ms. Wolfe have both won the Pulitzer Prize in the past decade; Ms. Wolfe has added to it a MacArthur Fellowship.
The shifts in their styles — toward a greater restraint, and perhaps even maturation — were obvious from the earlier works performed on Wednesday by the Bang on a Can All-Stars ensemble. Mr. Lang’s Pulitzer, for example, came in 2008 for his quietly chilling “Little Match Girl Passion,” an ethereal cantata light years removed from his brake-drum-clanging “cheating, lying, stealing,” from 1995, performed with raucous verve at Zankel.
Mr. Gordon’s recent compositions include hyperkinetic works for acoustic instruments (bassoons, planks of wood) that uncannily evoke electronic music. These often have a meditative quality completely at odds with his “Yo Shakespeare,” from 1992, which the All-Stars also played, and that sounds like a marching band weaving through a honk-happy traffic jam on a hot day. Ms. Wolfe’s pumped-up-funk “Lick” (1994) was a bracing reminder of the raw sass of her music in the early 1990s, before she incorporated her earlier interest in folk into works like her searing “Anthracite Fields,” which won the Pulitzer in 2015.
The collective was born in 1987 when the three friends (Mr. Gordon and Ms. Wolfe are also married) put on a marathon concert of new music that brought together composers who had until then inhabited separate, even hostile, orbits. Mr. Reich, for instance, found himself programmed back to back with the serialist and computer-music pioneer Milton Babbitt.
The annual marathon is still at the heart of Bang on a Can, even as the organization has grown to include a record label, a summer camp, the Bang on a Can All-Stars ensemble, a commissioning program and even an avant-garde marching band. This year’s marathon will take place on May 6 at the Brooklyn Museum, featuring eight hours of live music encompassing works by the founders as well as Iraqi maqam music, a Brooklyn-based collective dedicated to the Moroccan gnawa tradition, and “A Murmuration for Chibok” by the vocalist Joan La Barbara, in memory of the abduction, by Boko Haram, of Nigerian schoolgirls.
The marathon lineup suggests that the aesthetic struggle of the 1980s have given way to more overtly political ones. Back then the walls that Bang on a Can sought to breach were institutional and ideological, like the persistent division of New York’s new-music scene into an academic uptown camp grounded in European modernism and a scruffy, experimental one downtown.
“There was a reluctance to acknowledge others,” Ms. Wolfe said before the concert on Wednesday. Mr. Lang added that even expressing admiration for a Minimalist composer like Mr. Reich was considered incendiary in a conservatory setting: “Back then, those were fighting words.”
The divisions Bang on a Can tackle now are political and social. Ms. Wolfe’s “Anthracite Fields” is part of a series of works honoring the history of blue-collar workers in America; both Mr. Gordon and Mr. Lang have composed pieces that focus on national anthems. But they also maintain that their efforts to build new audiences and to bring together seemingly incompatible musical styles is itself political.
“The problems we face today have to do with people trying to divide the world into small groups that have nothing to do with each other,” Mr. Lang said. “Someone needs to articulate the reasons why we need each other. Art does that.”
That artists also need each other on a practical and personal level is central to the Bang on a Can ethos. The founders on Wednesday pointed to specific musical decisions they made based on each other’s advice. The nearly minute-long chord held at the end of Ms. Wolfe’s string quartet “Early that summer” was Mr. Lang’s idea; the bringing back of the heartbreaking stammer motif evoking the freezing child in his “Little Match Girl Passion” was hers.
At their summer camp in the Berkshires, nicknamed Banglewood to wink at the Boston Symphony’s Tanglewood, they encourage young participants to band together in their own collectives. The American new-music scene is now dotted with dozens of Bang on a Can alumni groups, among them New Amsterdam Records, the Ecstatic Music Festival, Mantra Percussion, Dither, Ekmeles and Hotel Elefant and another composers’ collective, Sleeping Giant.
Perhaps the most radical notion that has taken root thanks to Bang on a Can is that of success through generosity, with composers attending each other’s concerts, playing each other’s music and founding record labels that foster new voices.
Asked to name the biggest difference between the music scenes of the ’80s and today, Mr. Lang had a ready answer: “Composers are nice to each other.”
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