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.

Ramón Sender Barayón, Always Going Toward the Light


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Ramón Sender Barayón at Arion Press in San Francisco (Photo Creative Commons 2011 by Allan J. Cronin)

 

This crowd sourced video opens with a sort of exposition of the various identities of its subject Ramón Sender Barayón (also known as Ramon Sender, Ramon Sender Morningstar, Ray Sender, and Ramon Sender Barayón).  His father was the renowned Spanish novelist Ramón J. Sender whose work was unappreciated (to say the least) by the Franco regime resulting in his spending the last part of his life as an expatriate in the United States of America.  His mother Amparo Barayón fared far less well.  Her short life and her death at the hands of the Franco regime are memorialized in her son’s book, “A Death in Zamora“, an experience which has understandably informed his life.  As a writer, in order to distinguish himself from his father, he adopted his mother’s maiden name appended to his given name.  Happily this and some of his other works are making it to the kindle format.

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The film unfortunately does not appear to be available in any commercial outlets at the time of this writing but one hopes that Amazon or some internet distributor will make it more widely available.  One small critique is the use of sometimes English narration and sometimes Spanish narration with attendant translation subtitles in the opposite languages is a bit difficult to get used to but hardly an insurmountable issue.

Sender’s personal website continues to be a source of useful information.  Links can be found here to many of his writings and other work as well as some discussion of his musical compositions.

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In addition to being a writer he is an acknowledged pioneer in the area of experimental music.  He, along with Morton Subotnick, Pauline Oliveros, Joseph Byrd, William Maginnis, Tony Martin, Joseph Byrd, and Terry Riley (among others) founded the San Francisco Tape Music Center in 1962.  This later became the Mills College Center for Contemporary Music and remains in operation as of the date of this review.  Barayon’s ” novelized history of this time in his life titled, “Naked Close Up” finally found itself in a Kindle release after having circulated in PDF format for years on the internet.  (This history is also further documented in David Bernstein’s excellent, “The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960s Counterculture and the Avant-Garde“)

His curiosity and wide ranging interests saw him participating in alternative commune living situations (beginning in 1966) in northern California exploring spirituality and challenging established social norms through the exploration of viable alternatives.  He writes most eloquently about this in his recently published “Home Free Home“, a large edited tome on the Morningstar Ranch and Wheeler’s Ahimsa Ranch which includes material by several other former residents.  The book is as much compilation as it is historical writing and memoir.  It is a fascinating read and is filled with historically significant recollections and commentary by many of those one time residents of these (now sadly defunct) communities.

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This DVD is one of those increasingly popular crowd sourced productions (here is the Indiegogo link) which has allowed independent publication of countless books and CDs and countless other projects which stimulate little interest among traditional venues despite the significance of their content.  The content here is of a profoundly important nature to fans of new music as well as fans of alternative living experiments and 60s counterculture and philosophy.  It is contemporary history and biography.

Ramón is man possessed of both wisdom and humor as well as deep thought.  This film is the first documentary to cover the diverse interest and involvement of this affable cultural polymath.  It begins with an interview of Mr. Sender in the living room of his home in San Francisco.  From there it traverses more or less chronologically among the dizzyingly diverse events which comprise his life thus far.

From his birth in Spain in 1934 to his present role as a sort of spiritual/intellectual guru running a lecture series called, “Odd Mondays” in San Francisco’s Noe Valley neighborhood which he and Judith Levy have managed for some 17 years with a variety of carefully chosen speakers.  The film covers a variety of topics and while it leaves out details at times it is a cogent and balanced biographical documentary.

His early involvement in the establishment of the influential San Francisco Tape Music Center finds him connected with fellow luminaries such as Pauline Oliveros, Terry Riley, Morton Subotnick, William Maginnis, Steve Reich, Joseph Byrd, Tony Martin, and Donald Buchla.  This institution, now relocated as the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College, saw the creation of a great deal of musical technology and significant musical compositions (Terry Riley’s groundbreaking “In C” was first performed there in 1964).

Sender was one of the organizers of the Trips Festival in 1966 along with Stewart Brand (later of Whole Earth Catalog fame), Bill Graham, Ken Kesey with his Merry Pranksters. Following this he left San Francisco for Sonoma County in northern California.

He states at one point that he has not wanted to be identified with a single career (as his father was) so, following his experimental music work, he became among the first to experiment with communal living in the Morningstar Ranch and later in the Wheeler Ranch in Sonoma County, California.  These are now well documented in his book, “Home Free Home” mentioned earlier.

Happily the film does a nice job of acknowledging the role that his wife Judith Levy has played in his life since their marriage in 1982.  In particular her support in Sender’s research into his mother’s death at the hands of Franco’s thugs in Spain is both sweet and heartbreaking.  The two appear to be constant companions in a mutually supportive relationship he sought for many years.  They are frequently seen together.

A segment of his work which gets less attention here are his fiction and spiritual writings including Zero Weather, Being of the Sun (co-authored with Alicia Bay Laurel), Zero Summer, and Planetary Sojourn.  He has a collection of unpublished manuscripts and is reportedly now working on his autobiography.  Something which will doubtless be worth the wait.

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Sender with unidentified man walking out of the Pauline Oliveros Memorial Concert at Oakland’s Chapel of the Chimes in December, 2016 (Photo Creative Commons 2016 by Allan J. Cronin)