Absolute Bangers from the History of Bang on a Can.
When the composers Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe put on an eclectic marathon concert of contemporary music in downtown Manhattan in May 1987—and decided to call it the Bang on a Can Festival—they might not have known it would become the powerhouse organization it is today.
But they were young, scrappy, and hungry for avant-garde music to reach a broader audience. They were also not alone: As Bang on a Can sought new relevance for new music, other institutions in the United States—from government funders to major record labels to Lincoln Center—saw the need for contemporary composition to reach beyond the academy. My new book, Industry: Bang on a Can and New Music in the Marketplace, traces the rise of Bang on a Can through the 1980s and 1990s, amidst an idealistic, capitalistic, and tumultuous period in American new music.
The sounds of this era were fraught with contradictions: populist and anti-commercial, brutally dissonant and blissfully groovy, meditative and combative. Here is some of my favorite music from this moment.
Michael Gordon: “The Tree Watcher”
My book begins with a minor but revealing incident when, as a grad student at Yale in 1981, Michael Gordon debuted a work called “The Tree Watcher.” The piece is clearly indebted to the minimalism of Philip Glass and Steve Reich, but its incessant repetitions are even more abrasive than those composers’ early works. Gordon played simple, overlapping arpeggios on a portable organ that were looped through a tape delay system. Towards the end of the performance, Gordon’s best friend David Lang came onstage and began buzzing a hotel bell, creating feedback that eventually drowned out the organ. When they finished, some in the audience cheered and others lustily booed.
The moment documents the ambivalent status of minimalism in the academy in this period, and represents an early example of the cheeky provocations that would be central to Bang on a Can.
(This is the public debut of a private archival recording of that original 1981 performance; permissions and hosting courtesy of Michael Gordon, Adam Cuthbért, and Cantaloupe Music.)
Steve Reich: “Four Organs”
The stories that the three Bang on a Can founders tell of their first marathon often center around their incongruous juxtaposition of the minimalist music of Steve Reich and the serialism of Milton Babbitt. They wanted to showcase and subvert what, at the time, was a powerful binary shaping contemporary music: the battle between uptown academics and downtown experimenters. They selected Reich’s “Four Organs” rather than one of the composer’s later works because of its austerity and harshness. As Lang later put it, “I like the fact that, here’s an ugly sound, you know—listen to it.”
Lois V Vierk: “Go Guitars”
A number of composers were regularly showcased in Bang on a Can’s early festivals. Among my favorites is Lois V Vierk, whose music builds cacophonous textures from massed ensembles, similar to the work of Julius Eastman. Her twangling, grueling “Go Guitars” was featured at the 1989 marathon; the score indicates that “The entire piece should be quite LOUD.” Electric guitar and amplification were, and still are, a cornerstone of the Bang on a Can ethos.
Julia Wolfe: “Lick”
One of the turning points in the organization’s history was the 1992 founding of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, an amplified sextet that brought together some of the top virtuosos who had played in previous festivals. The ensemble served several purposes: It allowed Bang on a Can to tour internationally, unlocked new income streams in an era of shaky funding, and opened up artistic opportunities for its founders. These are best articulated in Julia Wolfe’s “Lick,” an iconic Bang piece from the 1990s in its fusion of funk and postminimalism. Inspired by James Brown and late Beethoven, “Lick” represents a turn in Bang on a Can’s narrative from an interest in bringing together uptown and downtown to an interest in bringing together pop and contemporary classical.
Henryk Górecki: Symphony No. 3
You’ve probably heard this symphony before, because it’s sold more than a million copies. Although Henry Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 had been recorded a couple times since its composition in 1976, its 1992 Nonesuch recording, with Dawn Upshaw, became an unexpected smash hit. It dominated the classical charts and even ascended onto the British pop charts. Throughout my book, I situate Bang on a Can within a broader web of institutions in the 1980s and 1990s that were participating in what I call new music’s “marketplace turn”: a new belief that contemporary music could, and should, reach a mass audience.
The Górecki moment is an emblematic example of this: Once the CD became a hit, every major label tried to find its own Górecki, signing contemporary composers in the hopes that some minimalist, holy minimalist, or postminimalist would become the next Three Tenors. In this mid-’90s moment of rampant speculation, Bang on a Can signed a contract with Peter Gelb’s Sony Classical and released two albums with the major label before the partnership, inevitably, fell apart. Although they were quite successful in selling out their New York festivals, Bang on a Can—like almost everyone else in new music who wasn’t Philip Glass—couldn’t sell the hundreds of thousands of albums that the industry demanded.
Brian Eno: “Music for Airports”
Buoyed by the post-Górecki moment, Bang on a Can produced one of its most intriguing artistic endeavors: “Music for Airports,” a new version of Brian Eno’s canonic 1978 ambient album re-orchestrated for the All-Stars to perform live. Released on Point Music, an imprint created by Philips to capitalize on the new-music recording boom, “Airports” became a big touring project for Bang on a Can in the late 1990s. Eno wrote to Bang on a Can describing it as an “unexpectedly beautiful offspring” that moved him to tears. That said, critical reception was mixed: though the New York Times said it had “remote grandeur,” the Village Voice called it a “mammoth publicity stunt.”
Dai Wei: "Lo-Re-Lei"
Industry ends in the early 2000s, when Bang on a Can started a summer institute for composers and performers at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA). I’ve been lucky to hang out at the summer festival more recently as part of the faculty for its Media Workshop. One of the composers at the 2019 festival whose music I really enjoyed was Dai Wei, whose work brings experimental vocal techniques, throat singing, and pop into a rich space that resists categorization. ¶