Like Velvet Underground before it, Bang on a Can fuses the street and art

by Seth Rogovoy

(NORTH ADAMS, Mass., July 17, 2003 – Someone – it may have been bandleader Lou Reed himself – once said that although the Velvet Underground didn’t sell many records, every one of its fans went on to start a band.

Add to that at least one new music collective.

The founding composers of Bang on a Can – the multi-faceted, contemporary music organization currently in residence at its summer home at Mass MoCA – were big fans of the legendary 1960s rock band, which combined a street-savvy focus with an avant-garde approach – not unlike that of Bang on a Can.

“I was very affected by the first Velvet Underground record,” said David Lang, sharing a speakerphone in a Mass MoCA office with Bang co-founders Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon earlier this week. “As someone interested in classical music also listening to pop, most of what I heard was about love, dancing, boys and girls. And then in classical music there were all these noble thoughts.

“But then, in high school, in the Velvet Underground, I heard this very dangerous, scary music about drugs, crime, dirt, sex and New York, and all these things that were left out of classical music. It had a big effect on me.”

Years later, Lang had the idea to revisit that feeling and to try to recapture it in music. The result, “Songs for Lou Reed” – for which Lang has composed new music for Reed’s lyrics -- is one of several new pieces on the program tomorrow night at MoCA’s Hunter Center at 8, when the Bang on a Can All-Stars – the collective’s resident ensemble – performs a program called “American UnPop.”

“A lot of the music we work with has to do with the relationship between our
world and the pop music world,” said Wolfe, “so we have designed a concert that highlights those pieces that go between the worlds.”

Among the other compositions that explore this relationship are “Selected Studies” by Evan Ziporyn, who plays clarinet for the All-Stars. Ziporyn’s work features new arrangements of player-piano studies of American exile composer Conlon Nancarrow, who found boogie-woogie, piano jazz and blues on old player piano rolls and “translated them into high-art artifacts,” according to Lang.

Also on the program is “Pelvic Noise,” a new piece by Sonic Youth co-founder and guitarist Thurston Moore, which Moore will perform along with his wife, Sonic Youth bassist Kim Gordon. Commissioned by Bang’s People’s Commissioning Fund, Moore’s work is a music-theater piece, “very intense and hard to describe because you don’t want to reduce it to its description,” said Wolfe. Already written about in the New Yorker, the piece features Moore and Gordon approaching each other from opposite sides of the stage with electric guitars strapped across their shoulders. They don’t play their guitars, but they are turned up so high that as they get closer their sheer proximity sparks “an incredible sonic process,” said Wolfe.

It also doesn’t escape notice that just as the Velvet Underground had its roots partly in the avant-garde experiments of LaMonte Young – the V.U.’s John Cale was a disciple – Sonic Youth has always had one foot in the classical avant-garde through its connection to downtown composer Glenn Branca. And to further complete the circle, Michael Gordon (who is married to Wolfe) was in an underground rock band in New York called Peter and the Girlfriends, emerging from the same scene as Sonic Youth.

Bang on a Can is back at MoCA this summer for the second annual Summer Institute of Music, or “Banglewood” as it is known unofficially. The three-week residency includes classes, workshops, seminars, and master classes attended by over two-dozen music students from three continents. Areas of concentration include gamelan performance, orchestra of homemade instruments, and improvisation, and students and teachers play alongside each other in daily, free (with museum admission) afternoon recitals in the MoCA galleries at 4:30.

The faculty includes the three Bang composers, members of the All-Stars, and guest performers and composers including Dutch icon Louis Andriessen, whose work will be featured at next Saturday’s six-hour Summer Marathon, which begins on July 26 at 4 in the Hunter Center.

“Louis as been a very central, major figure for us and for a lot of American composers,” said Wolfe. “He is one of the few European composers who have looked toward America -- who are not Eurocentric -- who looked this way and saw interesting stuff. He’s a big boogie-woogie fan, and he was deeply affected by Terry Riley and Steve Reich.

“His music really spoke to us for a lot of reasons. Unlike American minimalism, he embraces very edgy, aggressive, noisy sounds, with a lot of bite and dissonance side-by-side with dense and rich consonance. We’re particularly interested in that mix – it’s part of our interest in that rougher sound, our interest in rock music and electric guitars. His language is very related to our language. And besides that, he has written some beautiful, monumental work. There’s something so naked and bold about his music.”

In addition to composing, performing and teaching, Bang on a Can now has a recording arm with its new label, Cantaloupe. The last year has seen releases featuring compositions by the three founding composers – Lang’s “Child,” Wolfe’s “String Quartets” and Gordon’s “Decasia” -- as well as Andriessen’s “Gigantic Dancing Human Machine,” and Wolfe’s description of dissonance next to consonance neatly encapsulates the broad and beautiful expanse of music contained on these terrific recordings.

“Banglewood” and Mass MoCA seem tailor-made for each other, according to Lang. “We had an incredible time last year,” said Lang, who is looking to buy a home in the area. “We love it here, and the people who work here and the people who come to see the art here are very naturally interested in trying to find out what’s going on in music.”

Wolfe can easily envision a long-term relationship whereby Mass MoCA becomes the summer home of Bang on a Can in the same way that Tanglewood is the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

“It’s clear that this means a lot to the young people who come to the summer
institute,” she said. “It is a real alternative, and there aren’t that many alternative programs for people who are really going in new directions but at the same time are incredibly well-trained musicians.

“It’s even clearer this year how the program offers that and people are very psyched about it. We can’t imagine not doing it again.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on July 18, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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