Bang on a Can: New school for new-music

Bang on a Can All-stars to perform at Mass MoCA on July 13 and 27

by Seth Rogovoy

(NORTH ADAMS, Mass., July 11, 2002) – For years in summer music camps and conservatory, composer David Lang felt like the odd man out. His musical interests tended toward the experimental and cutting-edge, which in a world that strongly emphasized tradition, made him one of the “weirdoes.”

Rectifying that experience of marginality was part of what originally drove Lang and fellow composers Michael Gorden and Julia Wolfe to found the new-music collective Bang on a Can 15 years ago, thereby providing a forum in the contemporary music world for their wide-ranging, avant-garde sensibility.

But Lang has never forgotten the experience of being a lone, isolated student alienated from his peers at places like Aspen and Tanglewood. And therefore an educational component for Bang on a Can has always been on the group’s agenda. Beginning today, Bang provides an opportunity for budding, new-music “weirdoes” to congregate en masse at the Bang on a Can Summer Institute of Music at Mass MoCA.

“We thought it would be interesting for the one weirdo like me at all these different summer festivals to get together in one place, because you really feel like the odd man out at these places,” said Lang in a recent phone interview from his home in New York.

“You’re going, ‘Hey, everybody, let’s go perform LaMonte Young’s piece where you drag the tables and chairs around.’ You feel like your interests are weird, that you are the freaks. There’s no place you can go to where everyone is interested in Cage and Ives and Partch. If you meet someone somewhere who knows something about that music, it’s an accident.”

With BOAC’s summer institute, that’s no longer the case. A sort of new-music version of the classical training center down the road at Tanglewood in Lenox, the institute has already garnered the program the unofficial nickname “Banglewood.”

But Lang says the goal of the institute is not to mold composers and performers in the image of Bang on a Can. “I don’t want to make an army of people who go out with one particular point of view,” he said. “It’s about people realizing that their world can be made larger. I hope someone comes to our summer school who had the goal to play the Beethoven violin concerto, and maybe all they need to know to play the Beethoven better is that there’s a larger musical world out there,” he said.

The 26 students who have signed up for the institute are a diverse group, hailing from six different countries, musicians and composers alike, including representatives from all the major classical conservatories, including Juilliard and Eastman.

Typically musicians and composers inhabit separate worlds at conservatories and festivals, but at the BOAC institute they will work together. Every morning all the institute participants will assemble as part of a Balinese Gamelan led by composer/clarinetist Evan Ziporyn, a member of the group’s resident ensemble, the Bang on a Can All-Stars.

“What’s interesting about this is it is a very intricate, highly composed, sophisticated kind of music that doesn’t call upon a lot of the musical skills we have as western musicians,” said Lang. “Everyone’s part is insignificant except as it relates to the whole. And everything is learned by rote.

“So every day we will begin with this ensemble where composers and performers are made equal in a musical task which is larger than themselves, which would never happen in a traditional music school.”

Lang said this model is typical of Bang’s philosophy. “The education will happen not in master-student relationships in the way it happens in college, with teachers’ lectures,” he said. “Instead, each performer plays in three different ensembles all day and each ensemble has a faculty member not as a teacher but as a performer in the ensemble. So the teacher is not the genius imparting knowledge, but performing alongside the student. So the challenges will be shared.”

Two ticketed concerts are scheduled as part of Bang’s residency. On Saturday, July 13, the festival kicks off with “The Big Bang,” a concert featuring the Bang on a Can All-Stars, in a program including jazz composer Don Byron’s “Eugene 1,” set to an early 1960s episode of the Ernie Kovacs TV show, alongside works by Bang composers including Lang, Gordon, Wolfe and Ziporyn, several of which are featured on Bang’s critically-acclaimed recording, “Renegade Heaven,” released last year on Bang’s own Cantaloupe label.

Besides Ziporyn, the All-Stars include bassisst Robert Black, pianist Lisa Moore, percussionist Steven Schick, guitarist Mark Stewart and cellist Wendy Sutter.

On July 27, Bang will end its residency with one of its trademark marathon concerts, a six-hour affair in which students and the 10-member faculty, including composer-in-residence and minimalist pioneer Steve Reich, will perform side by side in a program including the premiere of the institute’s Balinese Gamelan ensemble performing Terry Riley’s landmark work of minimalism, “In C” -- also the subject of a recent Bang recording.

But some of the most interesting music coming out of the workshops might be heard in the daily, afternoon recitals, free and open to the public, which will take place in locations throughout the Mass MoCA campus, in galleries, lobbies and outdoor spaces.

Bang is no stranger to Mass MoCA’s spaces. The group’s OBIE award-winning opera, “The Carbon Copy Building,” based on the work of comic book artist Ben Katchor, was staged at MoCA two years ago. “Shadow Bang,” a musical theater collaboration between Ziporyn and Balinese shadow puppet master I Wayan Wija, was at Mass MoCA last year.

Lang says MoCA and Bang on a Can are a perfect fit. “We had endless discussions about where is the perfect environment for a summer institute,” he said. “As often happens, we came back to the world of visual arts. Our first concert was at an art gallery. The people who are into contemporary visual arts like our music best. You accept it with visual art; it’s not such a stretch to accept that contemporary music works the same way.

“Plus they have this world-class art center but they’re very nuts and bolts about it. They’re not snobbish about it. They’re interested in exploring ways it can participate in a larger life. That’s why we’ve gotten along so well.”

In 15 years, Bang on a Can has grown from a one-day festival to a multi-faceted organization, with a commissioning arm, touring productions, a record label, an online festival and website, annual marathons, and now the summer program at MoCA.

Perhaps the hardest element to pin down is a prevailing BOAC aesthetic. Bang on a Can represents not so much a genre –compositions and performances under the Bang rubric include choral works, harsh dissonance, minimalism, electronic music, improvised and experimental works and rock- and jazz-influenced pieces, sometimes all mixed together over the course of one long piece – as an omnivorous sensibility.

As Lang reflects, “If there is a Bang on a Can aesthetic, it’s in the attitude of composers towards the music that is from the past and how they have tried to make it fresh or innovate or do something new.

“To us that’s the only thing that links all the pieces we’re interested in. There are minimal pieces that fit and don’t, there are improvised pieces that fit and don’t, dissonant pieces that fit and don’t, and there are ridiculous pieces that fit or don’t fit.

“For us what we’re looking for is someone who wakes up in the morning and says the music I was writing yesterday is not the music I’m going to write today. And the music I heard yesterday, I’m going to change in some way.

“I think it’s really a question of outlook or spirit and not sound, ideology or style.”

As such, the institute is not being set up to indoctrinate attendees to produce Bang on a Can-style compositions or performances.

“We’re not interested in perpetuating more Bang All-Stars,” said Lang. “It’s just to have people open their eyes a little bit. That’s also why it’s in an art museum. It’s not in a place where we’re trying to change the music world.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on July 12, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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