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.

Coming Up, Other Minds 19 at the SF Jazz Center


Official Other Minds logo

Official Other Minds logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On February 28 and March 1 the SF Jazz Center will host Other Minds for the first time.  OM 19 is the latest incarnation of this annual festival which presents an amazing range of new music.

The Other Minds Festival, brainchild of filmmaker/producer Jim Newman and musician, composer and broadcaster Charles Amirkhanian, was first heard in 1993 and, except for the years 1994, 1998 and  2007, has been an annual event in San Francisco  gathering mostly new but  always innovative composers to share their inspirations and innovations with each other and with bay area audiences.  Being curious about those apparent gaps in this festival I sent a query to the Other Minds office and received a prompt reply from none other than Charles Amirkhanian.  He stated as follows:

Executive Director Charles Amirkhanian in his ...

Executive Director Charles Amirkhanian in his office with ASCAP award in background (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Hi Allan,
Here’s the story:
After our first festival in November 1993, we needed time to raise more funds to produce OM 2 and get back on the Yerba Buena Center’s schedule. So we postponed until March 1995, the next available spot in the Djerassi schedule. Our timing for the festival is determined by when we have access to empty rooms at DRAP, so we need to be there either in Feb/March or November.
In 1997, once again, we needed time to raise more funds and simply postponed to the next available Djerassi time. Same for OM 13.
In each case, the delay was about eight months (for a November event) or four months (for a March event), giving us a festival in succeeding concert seasons, but not “annual” events. (A concert season is Fall ’07 through Spring ’08, for example.)
Thus the mysterious gaps.
Charles”

This internationally known festival is not just a series of concerts.  The diverse selection of composers gathers first for an artistic residency at the Djerassi Resident Artist Program (DRAP in Mr. Amirkhanian’s note), a pastoral setting nestled between the Pacific coastline and the hills west of Palo Alto, where the invited composers live, work and share ideas for a week prior to the public concerts. The Djerassi Foundation for the Arts was founded by biochemist Carl Djerassi whose daughter, an artist, committed suicide in 1978.  The area is a sculpture park and the facility operates all year round with residencies for artists of all media.  Charles Amirkhanian is one of the former directors of this venerable artist colony and is now the executive and artistic director of Other Minds. The selection process for OM artists is based on the incredible range of interests of the Other Minds Operating Board and in consultation with their advisory board which are very open to suggestions from the general public.  Just e-mail them.  They actually read all their e-mails and respond. This along with New Music America, the ONCE festival, the Telluride Festival (also one of Amirkhanian’s efforts) are among the important music festivals which have yet to receive adequate treatment and exposition of their histories. This year’s OM 19 (which also looks forward with eager anticipation to a very promising gala OM 20) includes Mark Applebaum, John Bischoff, Donald Buchla, Joseph Byrd, Charles Celeste Hutchins, Myra Melford, Roscoe Mitchell, Wendy Reid and John Schott.  For the first time in the history of the festival all the composers will be from northern California.  The dates for the festival, which moves this year to the new SF Jazz Center, are Friday February 28 and Saturday March 1. One might think that limiting the selection of composers would be limiting in the variety of artistic efforts to be had but one would be quite wrong.  In fact it would not be difficult to argue that music by musicians from northern California have been unjustly neglected in favor of the more dominant musical cultures of New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles.  A quick look at the roster for OM 19 reveals a great deal of variety:

Mark Applebaum at TEDx Stanford

Mark Applebaum at TEDx Stanford (Photo credit: Tamer Shabani Photography)

The Chicago born Mark Applebaum is currently associate professor of composition and theory at Stanford University.  He counts Brian Ferneyhough, Joji Yuasa, Rand Steiger, Roger Reynolds and Philip Rhodes among his teachers.  He also performs as a jazz pianist. He appears to be the first composer at these concerts to have given a TED talk.  In this talk he speaks of being “bored with music”, at least with traditional music and how he used that boredom to break through to another level of creativity creating new instruments and elaborate scores.  He is an engaging speaker and his presentation will no doubt be fascinating.

John Bischoff (1949- )

John Bischoff (1949- )

John Bischoff studied at the California Institute of the Arts and Mills College.  His teachers include Robert Moran, James Tenney and Robert Ashley.  He is currently visiting professor and composer at Mills College. He is one of the pioneers of live computer performance and he is a frequent performer at the Garden of Memory concerts held annually on the summer solstice at Oakland’s beautiful Chapel of the Chimes. Mills College with its Center for Contemporary Music can be said to be the primary life blood of northern California composers.  Bischoff is part of a long line of composers who  have guided musical pedagogy in the Bay Area and have included Chris Brown, Luciano Berio, Darius Milhaud, Lou Harrison, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Pauline Oliveros, Morton Subotnick, Ramon Sender, John Cage, Chris Brown, Maryann Amacher, Maggie Payne, Larry Polansky, Robert Ashley, and many others. Bischoff has released 16 albums and numerous publications.  He founded the League of Automatic Composers, the first computer network band and continues to be a driving force in the computer music scene. Don_Buchla_and_200e

Donald Buchla is one of the elder statesmen of new music in California.  His collaboration with Ramon Sender and Morton Subotnick produced one of the first modular synthesizers in 1963.  He continues to develop synthesizers with his Buchla and Associates corporation (founded in Berkeley in 1962) . He studied physics, physiology and music.  His importance in the field of electronic music and music synthesis cannot be underestimated.  His electronics have driven many classical, rock and jazz music.  He and his corporation continue to make new electronic instruments such as the marimba lumina and the piano bar and has made available again some of the classic analog electronics which first made his name familiar to musicians worldwide. I was able to find very little about his musical compositions but it is worth noting that his electronics will power the performances of several of the artists in this concert series in addition to his own.

Joe Byrd in 1968

Joe Byrd in 1968

Kentucky born Joseph Byrd is an electronic musician, composer and producer.  His album, “The American Metaphysical Circus” (1969) is legendary and considered a cult album which has been reissued on CD and can also be heard on You Tube.  His band, Joe Byrd and the Field Hippies never performed live but this work of 60s psychedelia has established itself as a landmark recording and a cult classic.  He also did an album of synthesized Christmas Carols in 1975. Byrd has also been a producer with estimable credits such as producer and arranger of Ry Cooder’s amazing ‘Jazz’ album from 1978.

I can’t imagine how his latest work sounds but I am looking forward to it.

Charles Céleste Hutchins at SOUNDkitchen

Charles Céleste Hutchins at SOUNDkitchen (Photo credit: hellocatfood)

Charles Celeste Hutchins is, as far as I can tell, the first instance in which an Other Minds operating board member has been featured as a composer in this series.  The advisory board consists largely of composers who have already been featured on OM concerts.  Until this booking I was not aware of this man’s work.

Hutchins worked in the dot com business for a time and is now working on his musical interests.  His work involves the digital music program called Supercollider which he uses to manipulate sounds.  Discogs lists an MP3 compilation of some of his work in this area.

Melford in Helsinki, 1993

Melford in Helsinki, 1993

Myra Melford is an internationally known jazz pianist and composer with some 17 albums and some 20 years of playing.  Melford is originally from Illinois.

She has played with AACM musicians like Leroy Jenkins, Joseph Jarman and other musicians including Marty Ehrlich, Henry Threadgill, Mark Dresser, OM alumni Han Benink and Tyshawn Sorey.  Currently she teaches at the University of California Berkeley.

saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell at the Pomigliano ...

saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell at the Pomigliano Jazz Festival (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Roscoe Mitchell is one of the founding members of the venerable AACM (American Association of Creative Musicians) which redefined both jazz and contemporary classical music from its founding in 1965 to the present.  Other notable members include Anthony Braxton, Lester Bowie, Malachi Favors, George Lewis and Lester Bowie among others.  Mitchell is currently professor of music at Mills College where he holds the Darius Milhaud chair.  He has collaborated with Frederic Rzewski, George Lewis, Anthony Braxton, Joseph Jarman, Malachi Favors, Muhal Richard Abrams, Albert Ayler, Henry Threadgill, Thomas Buckner and many others.

Mitchell is one of the acknowledged living masters of American music and he plays and teaches widely.  In 2012 her performed at the “All Tomorrow’s Parties” festival in Minehead, England.  Any performance by this musician is an event.

Wendy Reid is a new name for me.  She is a composer who works with nature sounds.  I did buy her CD entitled “Tree Music” which features 5 of her Tree Pieces with various combinations of violin, percussion, piano, mandolin, oboe and Don Buchla on “thunder” interacting with nature sounds.  For her OM performance she will be sharing the stage with a parrot.  Yes, it does sound like a Monty Python sketch, but this promises to be interesting if not revelatory.  Her work is clearly concerned with the sounds of nature and is at least distantly related to the work of Pauline Oliveros whose album ‘Troglodyte’s Delight’ involves musicians responding to the sounds of water in a limestone cave.

John Schott is another name with which I am not familiar.  But lack of familiarity spells adventure in this series of concerts.  A quick internet search reveals that he is a Berkeley based composer, guitar player and banjo player.  His web site is a blog which reveals his interest in a wide range of musical styles and literary interests.  He lists 8 CDs which feature his work.  He also lists his “compositions in the classical grain”.  It’s anyone’s guess as to what he will present at Other Minds but if the preceding artists are any indication it will be unique and interesting.

All in all this promises to be a very exciting event with the ‘revelatory’ music which Other Minds uses as a tag line in their publicity materials. I won’t miss it and neither should you.

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