A year ago I gushed about the annual Bang on a Can marathon, the crucial new music event in New York that had moved to a new space and attracted a new, excited — and exciting — audience.
This year (the performance was two weekends ago) the space was the same, the Winter Garden, an extravagant, comfortable public space downtown, with ceilings high enough to accommodate full-sized palm trees. It’s right on the Hudson River, in the miles-long stretch that’s been developed as a walkway (and skate- and bikeway) and a park. So you’ll always have people walking there, and maybe popping into the World Financial Center (the building that the Winter Garden is part of), to eat or have a snack or do some shopping.
Which gives Bang on a Can a readymade audience, especially since their marathon was part of an established downtown arts series. But that didn’t mean that the audience would be as large as it was, or would stay as long as it did. Because this marathon was long. Last year’s was longer — 26 hours — but this year’s, at 12 hours, was long enough to run all night.
I got there at 8 PM or so, two hours after things had started, and the first thing I noticed was that the audience was larger than it was the year before. I’m not good with estimating numbers, but the figure thrown around last year was 1000 people, when things were at their height. This year there were more than that, quite a few more, I’d say.
And who were these people? Last year, the organizers didn’t know, which is to say that this wasn’t a new-music insider audience, but instead what I’ll call (in whatever tone of view you choose) a real one, an audience of people who either came or wandered in and stayed becuase they liked the music, not because they had a professional connection to what was going on. They were mostly young. So here again — as I mentioned in my post about the Wordless Music orchestra concert — was the new, young audience the classical music world says it’s looking for, alive, in the flesh, larger than life, but maybe striking out in directions of its own, toward new music and away from standard classical repertoire and concerts.
I didn’t mention that the event was free, which of course helped to draw people. I stayed for seven hours. Among much else, I loved the music. Well, not all of it, of course. I must have heard a dozen pieces, maybe 20. How could I love them all? But overall I did love it, and could cite many highlights, though the highest one for me was Julia Wolfe’s Strong Hold, for the astonishing ensemble of eight double basses (played by The Bass Band, students from the Hartt School in Hartford, CT). Julia, of course, is one of the three Bang on a Can composers, and her music often digs into edgy, weighty, thick, and complex textures, so a piece for eight basses might be natural for her. Except, of course, that it’s hardly natural for anyone, and that the sound gets quickly muddy in the lower register, where the basses are at home.
Julia, I thought, aced that problem triumphantly, and the piece was pretty much mesmerizing, throbbing through time absorbingly, always keeping me wondering what would be next, until it ended on a major chord so richly scored that it felt like it came from the bottom of the earth. This, with any mainstream audience, would hardly have been a hit, but alternative rock has changed the rules here, and the audience at the Marathon whooped and yelled.
When I left at 3 AM, So Percussion had just finished David Lang’s the so called laws of nature. By this time, there might have been 600 people there, still this new and avid audience. David, of course, is another of the Bang on a Can composers, and this ye, ar’s Pulitzer Prize winner. The piece, again by mainstream standards, wouldn’t exactly be a crowd-pleaser, since it’s long (at least 20 minutes), rigorous, and, within each of its large sections, pretty much unchanging, with nothing in it that you’d expect to wow an audience (except maybe the pulsing rhythm, though that would start and stop). But, again, the rules have changed. This audience whooped, and as I headed toward the exit, David was greeting people who’d line up to have him sign CDs.
I wonder how many other Pulitzer Prize composers have faced a line of happy fans at 3 AM? This marathon remains a miracle, and, if you ask me, it’s the most important classical music event in New York, both for the quality of its music and the excitement of its audience. Recently, in a private blog about orchestras that I was asked to take part in, some eager orchestra professionals got rhapsodic about performances their orchestras had done (which I’m willing to believe were wonderful), and offered them as wistful proof that classical music will never die. To me that’s essentially a statement of faith, and while I respect the faith, I don’t see how it answers questions about what might well be diminishing interest in standard orchestra performances in the future. I feel more confident in what Bang on a Can evokes, because the hope for the future I think they offer is tangibly, visibly, andn audibly supported by an excited new and growing audience.