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.

Starkland Captures the Exploding Pianist: Kathleen Supové’s “Eye to Ivory”


eyetoivory

Starkland ST- 233

Kathleen Supové is one of a handful of new music pianists whose repertoire choices are such that anything she does is worthy of at least one listen and most frequently many more.  (She was previously reviewed on this blog for her wonderful The Debussy Effect album from 2017 on New Focus recordings.)  Starkland, analogously, is a label whose choices of both repertoire and artists is similarly reliable.  So it is with this most recent release.

Five composers are represented on 16 tracks.  All but one utilize some form of electronics (computer, sampler, etc.).  It is difficult to characterize the sort of choices Supové makes except to say that she leans toward the experimental but includes a variety of genres that run the gamut from minimalism to obtuse and complex experimentalism.  The issue here is not the genres but the quality of the performer’s choices and that is what makes this release so compelling.

The title track is by the still too little known Mary Ellen Childs (1957- ).  Eye to Ivory (2005) is a commission written for Supové is described in the brief but useful program notes as a composition focused on the sound densities of the various ranges of the keyboard and one which requires a variety of movements by the pianist (including sitting standing, etc.).  Obviously the visual component is not captured here but the sound clusters, no doubt analogous in some way with the movements, make for compelling listening.

Talkback IV (2010/12) by one Guy Barash, a composer new to this reviewer’s ears.  It is described as one of a series of pieces exploring the interaction between the piano and a computer in real time (i.e. the computer responds to what the piano is playing.  Barash does the real time digital processing.  Here is some of the edgy, perhaps even somewhat obtuse (to the casual listener I think) music where Supové and Starkland excel.  Its not easy listening but it is substantial enough to prompt this reviewer to bookmark the composer’s internet page (you should too).

It is with Rama Broom (2000) by Nick Didkovsky aka Dr. Nerve (1958- ) that we begin to hear a more intimate music making via the use of the performer’s voice speaking a text of her own composition. Written for this artist, the piece is an opportunity to showcase her dramatic abilities both as a writer and as a vocal performer.  There are algorithmic composition processes here but the music belies these complexities and what comes through is the drama in music, text, and performance.  Play this one on Halloween (that’s all I’m gonna say).

Also of 2000 vintage and continuing the intimate aspects of this album is the next selection, “In the Privacy of My Own Home” written by the Bang on a Can composer Randall Woolf.  He is also Supové’s husband and a composer of serious note.  If you haven’t yet encountered his work then you owe it to yourself to do so.

The intimacy of the work involves Woolf’s sampling of the pianist’s various types of laughter and playing the laughter on a sampling keyboard more or less simultaneously with the piano.  This twelve movement work has got to be this writer’s favorite of the group both for its melodic invention and the novel use of what is basically involuntary sounds made by or provoke from the pianist.  It’s like, “tickle me, I want to play piano” and it is a piece full of good humor and also deeply personal, even kind of sweet actually.  Will this be played by other artists using Supové’s sampled laugh or will they need to be tickled and sampled?  It is a delightful work.

Dafna Naphtali is yet another composer unfamiliar to this reviewer, also one with a fascinating, now bookmarked, internet page.  Her work Landmine (1999-2017) is another work written for Supové and another work involving real time interaction between a computer (which alters the timbre of the piano).  Its four movements are named with computer code (which adds a curious dimension especially to the tech challenged such as I).  And yes, this is probably one of the more obtuse and complex works but one which, with the curation of this artist, demands at least a listen or two.

Enjoy this album for its sonic beauties (Silas Brown’s mastering is always an event in itself) but also as a sort of advance guard suggesting the path of music yet to come.  It is in some ways similar to the CRI SD 288 recordings discs by the late Robert Helps from 1971 which helped guide this writer into the realms of new music.  It is a rich realm.