Bang on a Can 2008

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.

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  1. says

    Do you think that this sort of scene/event can thrive outside of New York? Owen Pallett (AKA Final Fantasy) and Dan Deacon almost definitely helped bring in some of that non-new-music feel. They aren’t New York-based (Toronto and Baltimore, respectively), but they do have a big following in indie rock scenes all over the country.

    When I’m optimistic, I feel that indie rockers are going to open up to a lot of new music. When I’m pessimistic, I feel that this is limited to downtown New York nostalgia. This is in part (if I may generalize) because indie rockers tend to branch out into different types of music via a couple of artists without delving deeply into the separate style. (For example, how much of a big deal is it that Thurston Moore interviewed Steve Reich at South-by-Southwest recently? And that So Percussion played a lot of his pieces? Is that a notable shift, or a quirky one-off?)


    Thanks back to you, Colin, for these important questions. First, about the indie-rock feel of the Bang on a Can Marathon — that’s an interesting point. There were, as you say, a couple of people with indie rock followings. And certainly the Bang on a Can composers know about indie rock, and take it seriously. And certainly the Bang on a Can touring ensemble, the Bang on a Can All-Stars, plays music with a beat. New composed pieces, that is, but (as Mark Stewart, their guitarist once said to me) by composers who owe as much to Jimi Hendrix as to Ligeti. (Fill in whatever rock and classical names you like.)

    But the indie rock connection wasn’t, as far as I know, a selling point for the marathon, and certainly the indie rock people weren’t headliners, the way indie rock bands are at the Wordless Music concerts in New York. So the connection — especially when we talk about attracting the audience — seems indirect.

    And about replicating this elsewhere — very, very good point. During that evening, I was talking to someone with a major music job, someone who runs an operation that fosters art music of various kinds. He said he’d love it if there were events like this one all over the country. We talked about that; I thought about it a lot. And I suspect that it’s possible to make this happen, but not easy. I suspect there’s an audience — or certainly would be in certain cities (starting with the obvious ones: Boston, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Philadelpha; I’m sure it’s my ignorance that stops me from listing another three or four places just as quickly). But the problem, I think, would be the locally grown music. I’m not saying that it’s bad, that all the good stuff comes from New York (especially since some of the good stuff in NY comes from elsewhere). But I wonder if other local scenes are as highly developed as the one in NY. Because NY is so large, it’s easier to get traction for various indie phenomena than it might be elsewhere. But then of course we see indie rock scenes growing up in other cities, so why couldn’t an indie classical scene emerge, too? In any case, we should remember that Bang on a Can has been around for 20 years, so they have a headstart in launching their marathon to the spectacular point it’s reached now. Still — I can’t see why it’s not possible elsewhere. I’d love to see people try.

    And as for Steve Reich happening at South by Southwest, I wondered about that, too. I think it’s a little more, at least in intent, than a quirky one-off. But I wonder whether the people who made it happen really had a strategic plan, larger than those couple of events, to develop an indie-rock audience for Steve Reich. I’m concerned that they didn’t, though maybe I’m too pessimistic. I just know how rarely people in classical music develop really thorough strategic plans. (If I’m wrong in this case, I hope my friends involved in the operation will set me straight.) So this might turn out to be a quirky one-off, despite better intentions on the part of the people doing it.

  2. Robert Gordon says

    You really should have Los Angeles on your list, the main difference from New York being that the classical music establishment (i.e. Disney Hall/LA Phil) also puts on big events like this, in addition to the usual suspects: Monday Evening Concerts, Piano Spheres, Jacaranda, Ojai Festival, Calarts, etc.

    A few weeks ago Disney Hall turned over the big pipe organ to Terry Riley for a couple of hours of quasi-improvised, uh, Riley-ism. The concert was a sell-out, with a sizable cancellation line out front, and the crowd looked about 50% indy-rock.


    Do the usual suspects draw a new kind of audience? I don’t think this happens in New York. Zankel Hall, for instance, will host concerts this new audience would probably like, but the crowd is mostly the familiar in-group. Only BAM, of the major institutions, can draw the kind of audience I saw at Bang on a Can, and of course that’s because they’ve been successfully drawing that kind of audience for more than 30 years, and have made it a priority in their programming.

  3. David Lang says

    Thanks for nice note, Greg – I am glad you enjoyed the show – it is always a pleasure to see you at Bang on a Can because you go through the whole concert with such a big grin on your face! About the ability to do this kind of work in other places, I just wanted to mention that this past year we have started doing marathon concerts on tour. We are still working out the formula for how to make sure they are all great, with the right mix of music from the community, rockers, and outsiders. So far we have done them in Lincoln, Nebraska, Baton Rouge, SUNY Purchase, and in San Francisco, the latter being the one that came the closest to feeling like the one in New York, and we have several more coming this season. I think the biggest issue about whether or not they are successful is not so much the program but how the message about the program gets presented. It is true that we have oddballs who want to hear this stuff in New York but there are oddballs everywhere – I think the difference is that New York is our community so we know where all the oddballs are – in other places we have to depend on the venue to find them and they may not know. But I am confident that they are there. I want to follow up on Colin’s comment, if I may. It is true that a lot of what we do takes some energy and spark from indie rock. I do think that the interesting thing is not what we are taking from them, but that there is a lot of strange music in indie rock that has no idea what classical music or experimental music is or does. They are curious and innovative for the most part without us – classical music education has become so weak and the pull of the rock world is now so strong that thoughtful, restless young musicians learn to express themselves as rockers because that’s the only world they know. I think that’s the real reason why there was a Steve Reich concert at South by Southwest. I don’t really know, but I suspect that that world isn’t familiar enough with the hierarchies of experimental music to care about building a bridge to it – it’s just that if music is cool it is on the radar screens of a new generation of music makers, whatever it means and wherever it is from. That seems like a good thing to me! Best, David

    Thanks so much, David. And so how can these venues find out where the Bang on a Can audience is in their cities? I mean that as a question for everyone, not just for you. I wonder, too, how many of these venues really know that there is the audience you’re talking about, in their cities. I’m not sure they could reach it immediately. But they ought to be able to figure it out — if they wanted to try.

    As for the big grin on my face — that’s first of all because so much of the music makes me happy!

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