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Bang on a can founders (from left) David lang, michael gordon and Julia Wolfe
CRAZY FOR NEW Going strong for a quarter of a century and having a huge following hasn’t affected Bang on a Can’s freethinking approach to making and disseminating new music, as Vivien Schweitzer discovers
There is something about the marker that makes you stop and look back at your beginnings,’ says the composer Julia Wolfe, referring to the 25th anniversary – this season – of Bang on a Can, the new music collective that she and two colleagues inaugurated with a one-day musical marathon in 1987. From underground beginnings, it has grown into a prominent organisation with its own ensembles, recordings and regular concerts at major venues.
‘We didn’t really have an itinerary and we weren’t thinking about starting an institution,’ added Wolfe. ‘But we haven’t lost our craziness and enthusiasm for doing interesting new works.’ She and fellow composers David Lang and Michael Gordon decided to organise the first Bang on a Can marathon – now an annual event featuring an eclectic array of performers and works that meshes classical, jazz, pop, rock, indie and world music elements – out of frustration with the then-divisive aesthetics that pigeonholed composers into ‘uptown’ or ‘downtown’ niches and categories such as ‘symphonists’, ‘minimalists’ or ‘academics’. The trio wanted to cross boundaries and create a space for music that wasn’t easily categorised.
The inaugural event featured established composers such as Steve Reich, John Cage and Milton Babbitt as well as a host of young, unknown composers of an eclectic bent. Over the years Bang on a Can has thrived and expanded, with marathons staged in neighbourhoods all over New York as well as in Philadelphia, London, Amsterdam and Hamburg. The organisers aim for a balance between styles – so a marathon might feature a string quartet playing Xenakis, a chamber ensemble playing Reich, a choir singing contemporary classical music, a jazz band, folksongs from Kyrgyzstan, a rock guitarist and a gamelan ensemble. The events usually only feature works by living composers, but exceptions are made.
Some of Bang on a Can’s repertory is commissioned through its People’s Commissioning Fund, to which fans of contemporary music donate money so the group can continue to generate a healthy number of new pieces each year.
Bang on a Can has always had a strong connection to music of other cultures, and this link has increased in strength over the past 25 years. The organisation’s eclectic, porous ethos has had a major impact on the younger generation, especially those who have participated in the Summer Music Festival at MASS MoCA (the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art), a professional development programme for young composers and performers of an experimental bent.
Lang is proud of the influence his organisation has had in opening doors for up-and-coming classically trained musicians, who are increasingly entrepreneurial and adventurous about both the types of music they play and where they can play it. ‘They take it gramophone.co.uk
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