Happy all night

From time to time, I’ve talked about new ways of giving concerts that seem guaranteed to work — new ways of giving concerts that reliably attract large, new audiences. So here’s another one. Put on a new music marathon in an attractive public place. Don’t sell tickets. Make it free, let people come and go. Then stand back and watch your success.

New Yorkers will recognize this non-formula — it’s the Bang on a Can marathon, which has been going on for 20 years, but this year and last was presented in the Winter Garden, a relaxed and spacious atrium (it’s tall enough to fit more than a few full-sized palm trees) in downtown Manhattan. I’m calling it a non-formula, because obviously you can’t just plan the concert, and then sit back and expect success. Bang on a Can is a brand name in New York new music, has a following, sets up expectations, builds loyalty (I’d call myself a fan, way beyond any professional allegiance I might have). They can attract terrific musicians, along with funding enough to bring off a giant event.

Still, they succeeded maybe beyond anybody’s expectations. This marathon was 26 hours long. It ran from 8 PM June 2 straight through to 10 PM June 3, or in other words from Saturday evening to late Sunday night. (It may have ended long after 10 PM, because long before that it was running late.) In a brilliant stroke of programming, Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians — an hour-long piece, and a true musical high, if ever there was one — was scheduled for 4:30 AM, and felt “like an epiphany,” according to someone I know who was there. 400 people heard it, I was told, by someone who says he counted them.

I heard maybe two hours Saturday, and maybe three hours Sunday, from around 11 AM till 2. I would have stayed later Saturday — in fact, I was longing to — but my leg was hurting. I can walk, these days, but it’s not easy, and if I do it too much, I get tired, and the leg starts to hurt. By late Saturday night, I was feeling all of that, and while my heart longed to stay, my body demanded to go home.

This was more than a concert. It was an event, with a capital E. One of the three composers who run Bang on a Can came with his wife and kids. The kids — who’d been passing out programs when the show began — bunked down on sleeping bags when they got sleepy. Sunday morning, I saw a very well known composer arrive with his own family, his two small kids on bicycles. Kids were everywhere, in fact. Saturday night — in the midst of what must have been 1000 people — I saw one little girl, maybe three years old, dancing. My wife and I watched her. She danced between performances, when no music was playing. But she danced differently when the music was on, so she was clearly listening.

Sunday morning, a little boy, maybe four or five years old, very solemnly went up toward the performing area with his parents’ camera, to take a picture. People were taking pictures everywhere — from the crowd, from an upper level where you could look down on the proceedings. And I can’t stress enough that this wasn’t a professional crowd. I was surprised, in fact, that I didn’t see more people I know from the music business. On Saturday night, I asked one of the organizers who the people all around us might be. “I don’t know!” he said, with complete delight.

And I also can’t stress enough that people applauded all kinds of music. Sunday morning there was a lovely calm guitar piece by Dominic Frasca, which (in video form) has gotten more than three million hits on YouTube. It’s hardly a surprise that the live audience liked it, too. But the audience also cheered some slashing music from the World Saxophone Quartet, full of dissonance.

This year, Bang on a Can extended their reach by including two rock bands, the Books and Yo La Tengo. I heard the Books. It was quickly clear to anyone with ears that new music of the Bang on a Can variety overlaps really strongly with alternative rock. Same kind of sounds, same kind of textures, often the same rhythms, same non-mainstream approach (Bang on a Can’s music isn’t like to show up in classical concert halls; the Books aren’t going anywhere on the pop charts).

But there also are differences, which I might express like this. The language of new music, as Bang on a Can speaks it, has many dialects. The Books (and other rock bands with a new music tilt) tend towards the dialects with comparatively regular rhythms, comparatively clear harmony, and something at least approaching pop-song melody. (Or at least fragments of it.) The rock bands also head toward the dialects that are less immediately accessible, but maybe they spend more time than the other music on the marathon in the clear-chord territory. Which is no criticism of them, just an observation. The music I write is full of bright, clear chords. (Well, often not so bright, even if they’re triads.)

This was one of the happiest musical events I’ve attended for quite a while. I felt like a fan. I bought a t-shirt. And one thing I liked was the presentation. The space was huge (and also surrounded by upscale shops and restaurants). But the presentation was always low-key. Nobody tried to whip the crowd up between pieces. There was never any hype. The hosts — the people who announced each act from the stage — were the three Bang on a Can composers, David Lang, Julia Wolfe, and Michael Gordon. (Well, to be absolutely accurate, I heard Julia and Michael making these announcements, but since David of course was there, I assume he made some, too.) They made no effort to fill the huge space with their personalities. They were just themselves, as they always are. Which helped the music speak for itself.

For a really nice live blog of the event, go here.

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  1. says

    Greg, that sounds really interesting; I wish it weren’t so far away.

    The idea sounds a bit like an artistic version of geekdom’s mind camps (e.g., http://www.fullcirc.com/weblog/2005/11/seattle-mindcamp-10.htm) but on a really big scale.

    I should have mentioned that the Bang on a Can marathon will be in San Francisco on February 5. I don’t know what kind of venue they’ll have, or whether it’ll be free, or whether it’ll last all night. (The single date they give makes me think it’ll just last for one day.) But even in a more limited format, the event has been fabulous in New York in past years.

  2. says

    And I should have mentioned that there are other such events. There was an overnight “Relay for Life” here last month (http://www.kintera.org/faf/home/default.asp?ievent=191671).

    There’s the Ragnar Relay Series (http://www.ragnarrelay.com/). Are we becoming less interested in long-term relationships with arts and other non-work-time events (I realize music is work for many) but willing to put in long hours and even overnighters for a good and exciting one-time cause?