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.

RIP Jon Gibson (1940-2020): Relative Calm


Receiving this album for review the fact is I actually shed a tear when, upon opening my mail, I found the cover of this album cause my emotions to jump to regions of nostalgic memories deeply treasured.

Another fact is that, due to COVID 19, the virtual stoppage of all live concerts, and shifts in my scheduling priorities I had stopped following the career of Mr. Gibson (1940-2020) for the last few years and I wasn’t even aware that this disc had been released. I had heard that he had died in October, 2020. Gibson is a musician I first encountered, as most people had, via his omnipresence at concerts of the Philip Glass Ensemble where he was a founding member. Gibson’s performances of the saxophone solo in Glass’ “Facades”, which I first heard in 1980, are forever etched in my memory. And I caught pretty much every concert they did in or near Chicago from 1980 to perhaps 2000. So that little personal history gives you some idea as to why seeing this album was a “gut punch” of emotion to me.

Albums

I lifted this discography of Gibson’s releases from discogs.com and it does not include his work the Philip Glass Ensemble in which he was a member since 1968. It is probably not definitive but it provides some perspective on Gibson’s range of repertoire and his musical affiliations.

  • Visitations 4 versions Chatham Square Productions 1973
  • Two Solo Pieces 5 versions Chatham Square Productions1977
  • In Good Company 4 versions Point Music1992
  • S..E.M. Ensemble – Petr Kotik / Jon Gibson / David Behrman / Ben Neill – Virtuosity With Purpose. (CD, Album)Ear-Rational Records ECD 10341992
  • Criss X Cross ‎(CD, Album). Tzadik TZ 80202006
  • Phill Niblock / Jon Gibson – Darmstadt Essential Repertoire 12/4/2009 ‎(5xFile, MP3, 256)ISSUE Project Roomnone 2009
  • The Dance ‎(CD, Album) Orange Mountain Music 70072013
  • Relative Calm ‎(CD, Album)New World Records 80783-22016
  • Jon Gibson’s Visitations Otoroku2017
  • Violet Fire – An Opera About Nikola Tesla ‎(2xCD, Album) Orange Mountain Music70182019
  • Songs & Melodies, 1973-1977 ‎(2xLP, Album) Superior ViaductSV1732020
  • David Behrman with Jon Gibson & Werner Durand -Viewfinder / Hide & Seek ‎(LP, Album, Ltd)Black Truffle BT08220211

Gibson’s brand of minimalism resembles Glass’ at times but Gibson’s eclecticism, his mix of styles bear the fingerprints of a style which will be easily recognized by listeners familiar with some of his previous albums.

This is an album’s worth of music written for a performance piece with choreography by the wonderful Lucinda Childs (who choreographed Philip Glass’ “Einstein on the Beach” and commissioned Gibson in 1981 for this piece). Relative Calm (1981) is in four sections (or movements) each with its own character.

Tracklist


1. Relative Calm (Rise) (1981)
Composed By, Wind, Keyboards, Autoharp, Sounds [Field Recording] – Jon Gibson
Keyboards – Joseph Kubera
Percussion – David Van Tieghem


2. Q-Music (Race) (1981)
Composed By, Keyboards – Jon Gibson
Keyboards – Joseph Kubera

3. Extensions RC (Reach) (1981)
Sopranino Saxophone, Composed By – Jon Gibson

4. Return (Return) (1981)
Keyboards – Joseph Kubera
Percussion – David Van Tieghem
Saxophone, Composed By – Jon Gibson

Gibson’s fondness for jazz is evident here but the dominant style is the composer’s brand of minimalism. Relative Calm was commissioned and choreographed by Lucinda Childs with decor by Robert Wilson, it received its world premiere by the Lucinda Childs Dance Company at Théatre National de Strasbourg in
Strasbourg, France on November 26, 1981. It’s wonderful and it is a blessing to have this recording available.

This was released in 2016 on New World Records and is now available for streaming on Bandcamp. The excellent liner notes are by Kyle Gann and Dean Suzuki tell you pretty much all you need to know and the album sounds great. Thanks, Mr. Gibson, RIP.