The Agony and the Ecstasy of “Bang on a Can”, a Socioeconomic History of Major New Music Innovators


William Robin is a musicologist whose credentials (nicely enumerated on his web site) are more than adequate to the task at hand. This is a socioeconomic and political perspective on the seminal Bang on a Can organization. At its core, Bang on a Can is the foundational work of three people now recognized as major American composers: Julia Wolfe, David Lang, and Michael Gordon, all of whom met as students at Yale University.

Julia Wolfe, image from composer’s web site

This is the (much needed) first book on the history of the collaboration of these composers and how their work helped transform and move ahead the new music scene. First in New York, then nationally, and now internationally these individuals experimented and embraced innovative ideas while navigating the labyrinth of of social, political and economic hurdles involved in the production and promotion of non-pop new music. Therein lies the “agony” referenced in my title. This essential background information makes for some slow going reading but also serves to demonstrate how daunting their task has been.

David Lang, image from composer’s web site

The book documents the early efforts both to define their concepts and to learn the politics of the new music economy. But, painful as they are, these efforts are ultimately instructive for anyone involved in the production of new music. This reader comes away with a new found respect for those who wrangle with the varied and complex elements behind the production of concerts in general, and new music in particular. It is “how the sausage is made” so to speak. And it is a useful perspective for the average listener to better understand the incredible complexity of new music production and promotion.

Michael Gordon, image from the composer’s web site

The book is divided into 7 chapters and an epilogue which focuses not just on the trials and tribulations of the gestation of Bang on a Can but also its context among several other new music initiatives that preceded BOC. Meet the Composer, New Music America, and the New York Philharmonic’s New Horizons Festival loomed large in their time and the “downtown” loft scene which nurtured the likes of Philip Glass, Meredith Monk, Rhys Chatham, etc. contributed to the promotion of new music during their respective eras.

Robin identifies the innovative efforts by BOC in their use of marathon open air concerts to showcase their innovative programming which effectively blurred the lines of genres like jazz, free jazz, classical, pop, rock, etc. But their challenges were essentially the some, the politics of concert production, funding, advertising, etc. They characterized their efforts in contrast to the economically dominant Lincoln Center. The evolution of BOC from its beginnings through the establishment of the Bang on a Can All Stars touring ensemble, the establishment of a record label (Cantaloupe) and their later performances at Lincoln Center, the stodgy institution against which they railed dubbing their music as “downtown” as an alternative to the “uptown” mainstream. There is the beginnings of a history of new music in recordings that remains to be written but the point here is context and the socioeconomic and political motivations involved.

Author William Robin does his work well in this academic tome which is richly annotated and referenced with a bibliography to take the interested reader to a wealth of information on new music and its production. And while this is more about “how the sausage is made” so to speak, it is a necessary exposition which provides both history and context, something to think about the next time you buy a ticket to hear new music. Admittedly its not a pretty picture but it certainly illuminates the side of new music virtually unknown to the average listener.

While this reader had hoped for more information on the music performed (which deserves a book unto itself) this book takes its place alongside Tom Johnson”s “The Voice of New Music”, Kyle Gann’s “Downtown Music”, Renee Levine Packer’s wonderful history of the Buffalo New Music scene, “This Life of Sounds”, Benjamin Piekut’s “Experimentalism Otherwise”, George Lewis’ “A Power Stronger than Itself”, Luciano Chessa’s “Luigi Russolo, Futurist”, and David Bernstein’s “The San Francisco Tape Music Center” (to name a few) as an essential history of new music.

Bang on a Glass Can: Maya Beiser’s New Album


This is not a Philip Glass album. This is also not a tortured Magritte metaphor. It is a Maya Beiser album. Yes, she is playing her transcriptions of several of Philip Glass’ pieces: (Piano) Etude No. 5, Etude No. 2, Mad Rush, Music in Similar Motion, and four movements from Glass’ score to the third of Godfrey Reggio’s trilogy (Koyaanisqatsi, Powaaqatsi, Naqoyqatsi): Naqoyqatsi, Massman, New World, and Old World.

It was after my second hearing of the disc that it occurred to me that Beiser’s transcriptions for cello with electronic looping and layering are in fact her own recompositions of these works in her own image, so to speak. Think Stravinsky’s Tchaikovsky transcriptions in “The Fairy’s Kiss” or Henze’s reworking of Telemann in his Telemanniana (other examples abound). Of course Beiser is working on a smaller scale but she is recomposing these works from a very personal perspective much as those composers did. I had been expecting to not like this album but once heard…

Beiser, a founding and long time member of the Bang on a Can All Stars, cut an elegant figure even when she was at the back of that venerable performing ensemble (got to be good looking cuz she’s so hard to see?). She has always been a highly skilled and accomplished cellist and a thoughtful, intelligent musician. That is true of all the members of the All Stars who started as highly skilled musicians with an interest in new music. Beiser is certainly also a member of the “glam classical” musicians following in the traditions of performers like Nigel Kennedy, Yuja Wang and, well… back at least to Liberace and perhaps Chopin and Liszt. The appellation, “glam classical” is descriptive rather than pejorative in intent. The reality is that all the aforementioned artists remained fine musicians throughout their careers. An imposing physical presence, after all, does not necessarily detract from the music. Quite the opposite sometimes.

Amazon lists this release as Beiser’s 14th album and she comes out strong on all fronts. Her playing, her interpretive skills, and her arrangements make for a very strong, complex, but listenable album. The first two etudes will be familiar to most listeners and are perhaps the most methodical with clear structures though very different from the piano originals. “Mad Rush” (also originally a piano piece) and “Music in Similar Motion” (originally for the Philip Glass Ensemble) both come off as driving ritual symphonic pieces, thrilling new readings of the original compositions (Music in Similar Motion a personal favorite for this writer and this version really rocks). The last four excerpts from Naqoyqatsi are the most lyrical and easy listening works, but again Beiser creates the music in her own personal context, glamorous but authentic and with a warmth that lasts long after the last tones fade. Fabulous album!