'Bang on a Can' finds fresh music

In 1987, three young Yale University-educated composers got tired of sitting around complaining about the miserable state of experimental music. They came up with a plan to put their idealism where their gripes were with one perfect concert - an all-day marathon at an art gallery in New York's SoHo district.

Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe named their enterprise Bang on a Can (BoaC), in reference to "a return to something elemental in music - simple, meaningful, percussive," Mr. Lang explains. "And it signals not taking itself too seriously."

The concert sold out, and for 12 hours, audiences could hear an eclectic mix of classics from such highly regarded contemporary masters as John Cage, Milton Babbitt, and Steve Reich, next to a wide spectrum of ground-breaking music by more than a dozen emerging composers.

Fourteen years later, that scruffily irreverent, do-it-yourself one-day fest has turned into a year-round nonprofit enterprise with a budget of nearly $1 million, four full-time employees, its own record label (Cantaloupe Music, which debuted in March), and a resident chamber ensemble, the Bang on a Can All-Stars.

The sextet (clarinet, cello, electric guitar, piano, bass, and percussion) tours internationally and has an annual New York season, with performances at small downtown spaces and outdoor venues often complemented by prestigious engagements at the Brooklyn Academy of Music or Lincoln Center.

In the summer of 2002, BoaC hopes to start a month-long music program for young composers and performers at MASS MoCA, a contemporary arts museum in North Adams, Mass.

But perhaps BoaC's most radical project is the People's Commissioning Fund, whereby audiences can pool donations to help commission new works. This year, more than 300 adventurous souls donated from $5 to $5,000 to help commission new pieces by composers Jeffrey Brooks, Sussan Deyhim, James Fei, and Keeril Makan, all of which will be given their world premieres June 20 at a free concert at New York's Merkin Hall.

The project owes much of its success to the ardent support of BoaC's diverse fans, who extend well beyond the cloistered "new music" set.

"We're looking for a different audience, not just music specialists," Ms. Wolfe says. "We're going through mailing lists for dance, art, poetry. And in keeping with that spirit, we wanted to forge the relationship further and have the audience involved in the process."

Unlike most patrons who commission a new work (most likely to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars), BoaC commissioners are invited in on the process of the creation and preparation of the music, through open rehearsals.

"Some composers wait for rehearsal to form a large part of the piece," Wolfe explains. "That's one of the beauties of the group. The players can give so much in rehearsal, and the composer can get so much back." And the commissioners get a bird's-eye view.

After rehearsal, the commissioners are invited to hang out and chat informally with the group, offering commentary or asking questions.

That philosophy of casual exchange also filters into the concert hall, where biographies and program notes are replaced by informal talks by each composer.

"It gives the audience a little window into the piece," Wolfe says.

Composers commissioned or programmed by BoaC tend to be emerging voices exhibiting a fondness for the offbeat and a rigorous sense of structure and form.

Not surprisingly, those aesthetic interests reflect those of BoaC's three artistic directors. Each in their early 40s with young children (Wolfe and Mr. Gordon are married to each other), they make their livings not from the group (Lang says they get only "teensy honorariums and health insurance"), but as successful independent composers for a variety ensembles, in genres ranging from opera to symphonies.

Perhaps the strongest underlying thread in their work is that while all are classically trained, their first musical language was rock, pop, and folk.

"Some people think we're the second generation from the minimalists, but our work is edgier, more sped up, more gritty," Wolfe says. "The earlier work had a purity and clarity. We're messier."

"From the very beginning, we've been interested in making a home for people whose music has no home, music that is in danger of falling through the cracks," Lang explains.

Works are chosen after marathon listening sessions.

"We spend a huge amount of time listening to music and concerts and rumors and chasing down leads," Lang says. "We are always on the prowl for things that might be interesting ... something really fresh, something nobody else is doing. "

The group's open call for scores, tapes, and proposals elicits 300 to 400 submissions every year, which the trio considers anonymously, trying to avoid being swayed by impressive credentials. As cofounder Gordon once put it, "What we're primarily interested in is whether a piece adds something to the world that wasn't there before."

And in a nutshell, that's what Bang on a Can is all about.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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