Spent a few hours listening to the performances at the BANG ON A CAN Marathon 2009 with a friend of mine who has little patience for la sonorité artistique. She described much of what she heard as “beehive music.” I had to laugh. She wasn’t wrong. (One composer, Jeppe Just Christensen, played two pairs of amplified coffee grinders. Watch the video.)
Even so, The Smith Quartet seduced me with “White Man Sleeps,” by Kevin Volans:
Repetition breeds familiarity. Maybe familiarity breeds the opposite of contempt … narcosis? Anyway, it was Phil Kline‘s “John the Revelator” — performed by the vocal ensemble Lionheart and the string quartet ETHEL — that turned out to be what I liked best, even though I’m no fan of churchy music. (Sorry, no video.)
Incidental intelligence: During the performance of Gavin Bryars‘ “The Sinking of the Titanic,” also played by the Smith Quartet, news came that the Titanic’s last survivor had just died. I presume the music had nothing to do with it.
Postscript: “Look at these photos,” a friend writes, “and think of a bunch of dipshits making music with coffee grinders or Volan’s arty little piece appropriating South African tunes to make another of the limp-spined Left’s innocuous, feel-good, PC statements (and written about 30 years ago which makes its status as new music rather questionable). Beehive music is a good term for Bang on a Can. It’s a collective of yuppie drones and worker bees legitimizing blinkered Honkiness with cute Kultur.”
June 10 — When More Than One Way to Bang That Can appeared on The Huffington Post, it drew a string of comments that turned into a debate between “boombox” and “infidelapostate,” which I think is more interesting than the original item itself. Read on …
First off, kudos to you for bringing a friend to such a festival – more folks should do so. However, I can’t tell whether or not you brought her to introduce her to music she hadn’t heard before or to give you an excuse to unload some snark.
I’m gonna have to lean towards the latter, since I understand that your blog purports you to bringing some ‘tude to arts and culture and since you seemed too happy to cherry-pick the one truly avant-garde performance in the festival…I’ll admit, a solo performance on tuned coffee grinders isn’t my cup ‘o tea either, but I wouldn’t bring it up first as representing the entire series. Todd Reynolds, Signal, Victoire, Wu Man and the Bang on the Can All Stars…and you point to the guy experimenting with kitchen appliances.
I’m not sure what puzzles me more – the fact that your friend was surprised at what she heard considering the copious YouTube examples of the various acts on the BoaC website, the fact that your other friend can’t see how their rant couldn’t be about any number of other musical, theatrical, literary, filmic or artistic endeavors (people are dying, ergo there should be no art), or that HuffPo can’t find anyone else to act as a music critic. That one such as yourself has access to such a mechanism in which to discuss our own quickly disappearing culture might suggest a little less ‘tude and a little more clue.
— Posted 07:36 PM on 06/03/2009
— Posted 12:55 PM on 06/04/2009
Dear Rob Deemer — You’re right when you say my friend’s comments could apply to any number of other “artistic endeavors.” But you’re wrong when you draw the conclusion that he’s saying, “people are dying, ergo … no art.” What he’s saying is, “People are dying, so let”s have meaningful art.”
PS — To linernotesdanny: Winner takes nothing.
–Posted 01:39 PM on 06/04/2009
Which is still a lame and loaded comment. You can’t prove a direct correlation between society’s ills and what artists will or should do. Comedy works pretty well in bad times, as tragedy does in good ones. And what, pray tell, is art supposed to “mean” anyway?
–Posted 06:52 PM on 06/04/2009
What should the music mean? Politically, for BoaC, absolutely nothing. They evolved during the Reagan Era. One of the hallmarks of their work, with rare exception, has been its spectacular obedience.
–Posted 11:24 AM on 06/05/2009
You mean the founders of the festival? Or are you referring to the “spectacular obedience” of Meredith Monk, Philip Glass, Glenn Branca, and all those other Reaganites that are regularly featured?
Some serious player-hating goin’ on here…
–Posted 01:46 PM on 06/05/2009
One thing I failed to mention but should have, because it is a weird contraction: The Bang on a Can Marathon 2009 was held at a glitzy, glassed-in, marble monument to corporate Manhattan, the World Financial Center Winter Garden. (The Wall Street Journal, for instance, had its newsroom at the World Financial Center for years until Rupert Murdoch bought the paper and moved* it to midtown.) With its indoor palm trees and ornate marble interior, the WFC Winter Garden could [also] double as a Southern California shopping mall. Indeed, the Winter Garden “hall” is surrounded by shops designed to delight a shopaholic tourist. (Have a look at the main hall: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Winter_Garden.JPG )
Locating the Marathon there seems to me a contradiction of Bang on a Can’s claim to fame. Proof, if you like, that mainstream “brand” has triumphed over “avant-garde” edge.
–Posted 12:37 PM on 06/05/2009
(*The move actually occurs on June 12.)
hmmm… that should be “weird contradiction” … also Paste the URL for the Winter Garden photo in your browser to see it, i don’t think it works from the comment box:
–Posted 12:46 PM on 06/05/2009
I wonder if this URL will work: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Financial_Center
Note the list of tenants. So many strange bed partners do indeed seem to say something.
–Posted 01:05 PM on 06/05/2009
–Posted 01:47 PM on 06/05/2009
The founders of Bang on a Can have always been shrewd at finding their way as arts presenters within the capitalist system. Not an easy thing to do when your product is not strictly mainstream. Over the years they’ve been driven from venue to venue, but they’ve never been shy about their desire to expand and succeed. 12 years ago the Marathon was at Lincoln Center, which last I looked was indeed a temple of commerce with major corporate sponsors. Tickets then were 20-30 bucks apiece. That they’ve managed to get the Winter Garden, which seats thousands, made available for a free 12 hour new music concert, and then actually fill the joint…now that would seem a good thing, wouldn’t it?
–Posted 02:05 PM on 06/05/2009
In the process they help legitimize aspects of corporate Manhattan that would be better strongly criticized. We need more artists who would not allow their work to be appropriated in this way. And even more, critical work that the World Financial Center would not even want around. (As an example, one might think back to Diego Rivera and the destruction of one of his murals at the Roosevelt Center.) The Bangers are not naïve; they know what”s going on. There are many views of artistic integrity and social responsibility, but BoaC defines an extreme.
–Posted 05:07 PM on 06/05/2009
They don’t legitimize anything. They’re trying to thrive and prosper in the city they live in. I believe their first festival was in an abandoned gas station on Avenue B. And who is appropriating whom here? I think they’re taking advantage of a real estate situation.
What’s strange here is your constant insinuation that the festival is somehow in league with…well, what? You don’t really say. The International Financial Cabal? The War Machine? Sounds like a lot of warmed over 60s dormitory radical talk. Smash the State, man!
–Posted 06:07 PM on 06/05/2009
Culture has always been used to legitimize political and economic systems. We see it from the crown of Charlemagne to the Versailles Palace of the Sun King to the literature glorifying British colonialism. To ignore this is a form of willful denial that has become strongly characteristic of the American classical and post-classical music world. History is replete with examples of the negative effects of this denial. For extreme examples in recent history, we need only look at composers such as Richard Strauss, Hans Pfitzner, and Carl Orff — or by contrast the integrity of Paul Hindemith and Karl Amadeus Hartmann. Fortunately, we are not dealing with such extremes, but it would be foolish to ignore these historical lessons. With the current corporate oriented war we are suffering through, it would be ridiculous to write these concerns off as 60″s dorm talk, or to assume the the lack of politically oriented art is not a problem, or to think that we do not have obligations to respond or to take a stand. Sadly, many have come to expect these convenient rationalizations when talking to the BoaC crowd, though I must admit it extends well beyond them in the classical/post-classical music world.
–Posted 07:16 PM on 06/05/2009
What, do tell, are the negative effects of the music of Richard Strauss? And, given that one could list dozens of artists frequently featured in BoaC events who are passionately involved in political causes and reflect that in their art, what is your point here? Do you bear some other animus toward the organizers of the festival? Had a work turned down by them?
–Posted 08:35 PM on 06/05/2009
I have never had direct contact with BoaC and I have never submitted a work to them. I have, however, followed their work for years.
Strauss was President of the Reichsmusikkammer. He was one of the most extreme collaborationists in the music world of Nazi Germany, including high publicized speeches prasing both Hitler and Goebbles. His life is an excellent object lesson concerning collaboration and the loss of artistic integrity.
And back to America, go to the wiki article about the World Financial Center and click on the links for the tenants. Almost every American firm is involved with several simultaneous major ethical scandals including massive befrauding of investors, child labor, union busting, securities fraud, and war profiteering. It is far more extreme than even I had realized — and excellent material for an article about aspects of our music world. I would list them here but it would go far beyond the word limit.
One astounding example is that tenant Merrill Lynch gave its executives $3.6 billion in bonuses using bailout money under the Federal TARP program. That’s over 100 times higher than the scandal-plauged AIG bonuses.
–Posted 11:30 PM on 06/05/2009
We all know Goebbels appointed him to that post without asking him, and that after a brief tenure he was forced to resign because he refused to remove the name of his Jewish librettist, Zweig, from the credits for Die Schweigsame Frau. He was also concerned about the safety of his Jewish daughter-in-law, who was eventually arrested by the Gestapo. His intervention saved her life. Your statement of Strauss pro Nazi activities is exaggerated to say the least.
But I asked about his music, to which you had no response. In 1938 he wrote a one-act opera, Friedenstag, which is clearly critical of the Reich. His last great composition, Metamorphosen, is an elegy to a doomed civilization. Whatever his personal dealings, on behalf of family and friends, or for any reason, it is difficult to find a loss of integrity in his art.
The attempt to link BoaC to supposed Nazi collaborators is absurd. And not only that, you accuse them of promoting shopping! Can we give you this month”s slippery slope award?
–Posted 08:43 AM on 06/06/2009
Strauss could have, and should have refused the Presidency of the RKK from the outset. No one at that point had any illusions about what the Nazis stood for. There is no question he deeply compromised his integrity. That his music might not contain specific political meaning is beside the point, and another attempt toward rationalization. The music world of Nazi Germany is replete with examples like Strauss. So many were willing to jump on the band wagon until their positions became untenable. We should learn from this.
Read the wiki article about the Iraq War and the horrific effects it has had on the country. Look at the photos of the dead children in the link in the above article. We should not give valuable PR to deeply immoral corporations by allowing them to so prominently host our concerts. If it were just their fraud that would be one thing, but murderous behavior is another. This isn”t 60s radicalism, its just basic human decency.
–Posted 10:22 AM on 06/06/2009
Legitimizing what? This is an important question, so here is some more information.
For one example, the Iraq War was initiated for financial reasons that serve the interests of significant parts corporate America. Several of the tenants at the World Financial Center are among those corporations. The 2006 Lancet survey of casualties of the Iraq War estimated 654,965 Iraqi deaths. An Opinion Research Business (ORB) survey conducted August 12-19, 2007 estimated 1,220,580 deaths due to the Iraq War. (These numbers include all excess deaths due to increased lawlessness, degraded infrastructure, poorer healthcare, etc.) The War has cost about 3 trillion dollars. Over 4100 Americans have been killed. Malnutrition rates in Iraq rose from 19% before the invasion (the levels due to the embargo) to a national average of 28% four years later even without the embargo. As many as half of Iraqi doctors have left the country since 2003. The numbers for homeless Iraqi children are astounding, though I do not have them at hand. Disease is spreading rapidly due to the destruction of infrastructure. World opinion of the US is at its lowest levels in history. We should consider carefully what sort of behavior we legitimize with cultural adornments.
Boombox, even though we disagree, I thank you for the useful and important discussion.
–Posted 09:14 PM on 06/05/2009
And I look forward to your book, “Downtown Death Trip: How Bang on a Can Feeds the Corporate War Machine.” Should be about 2000 pages, I guess.
–Posted 09:07 AM on 06/06/2009
How about an article exploring how BoaC was, in part, a manifestation of the Reagan era and to a considerable degree reflected the social and aesthetic philsophies of the economic system known as neo-liberalism? And perhaps show how this move by the artistic community in NYC was a response to the massive social and economic collapse of the city in the 1970s.
–Posted 11:40 AM on 06/06/2009
A somewhat shorter tome, one hopes. Go for it!
–Posted 11:54 AM on 06/06/2009
There are many alternative venues for the BoaC marathon like Symphony Space on the Upper West Side, BAM, or even Miller Theater at Columbia. BoaC might have to slightly alter their format or finances to accommodate these venues, but it would not be a significant problem. They do not have to use the World Financial Center. It is not that BoaC has not been helplessly driven from venue to venue over the years. From the outset, they have consciously catered to the corporate world — and far more than most other new music organizations,. This ethos has strongly affected their aesthetic and social philosophies. The Reagan era, with its suppression of dissent and strongly commoditized culture, is coming to an end. Downtown Lite has seen its day. A fresh wind is rising.
–Posted 09:31 AM on 06/06/2009
Could you possibly cite an example of this fresh wind?
–Posted 10:29 PM on 06/07/2009
Briefly, three examples:
1. The collapse of neo-liberalism and its belief that the marketplace should be the ultimate arbiter of all human endeavor.
2. The election of an African-American president that over time will strengthen new forms of social consciousness that will affect the arts. This new social consciousness will run counter to the aesthetic of narcosis the Downtown has developed over the last 30 years.
3. The increase in funding of the NEA by 50 million which help move America toward the same sort of comprehensive public funding of the arts that ALL other major countries already have. This will weaken the isolated and unrealistic American notion that modern classical should somehow be positioned in the marketplace (which is also part of the Banger ethos.) The music industry will try to stop these developments, but I think the tide is turning against them.
Of course, the changes won”t be very large. Wasn”t it Cage who said that Republicans and Democrats are two branches of the Business Party? American plutocracy will remain intact, but even small changes are better than nothing.
It would be fun to discuss how developments like these and many others might shape the arts world to create a fresh wind, but it is pointless when the intention of the dialog partner is specious, sarcastic condescension. It is exactly this arrogant insularity that has ossified the Downtown scene. Perhaps someone else would like to talk to you.
–Posted 02:42 PM on 06/09/2009