20 Years of Bang on a Can

The New York music collective celebrates its 20th anniversary with a 24-hour music marathon. Bang on a Can was started by composers Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolfe in 1987. Since then, they've blurred the lines between classical music, jazz and rock.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

The phrase, bang on a can, suggests noisy clattering sound produced by kids just having fun. That could certainly characterize some of the music presented by the New York organization that calls itself Bang on a Can. But over the past two decades, this composers' collective has become one of the nation's premier contemporary music organizations. And this weekend, Bang on a Can is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a 26-hour marathon.

From New York, Tom Vitale has the story.

TOM VITALE: When Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon and David Lang came to New York from Yale 25 years ago with degrees and composition, they say there was nowhere they fit in. Downtown were the improvisers; uptown, the academic modernists; and at the temples of classical tradition, says David Lang, everyone was looking backwards.

Mr. DAVID LANG (Co-founder, Bang on a Can): Music is the only discipline that says, you know, the high water mark for our field was achieved 200 years ago, and now we're going to build all these institutions to remind us of that.

VITALE: Lang says the music that was most important to him was written in the past 40 years by the likes of Steve Reich and Philip Glass.

Mr. LANG: When I came out of graduate school with my doctorate, I was a young composer like everybody else. And the music that was important to me was never getting played. My music was never getting played, and my friends' music was never getting played. And if any of it was getting played, it wasn't played in the way that I thought gave it the respect that it needed.

VITALE: And so Lang, Wolfe and Gordon decided to make a home for the music that mattered to them. In 1987, they rented a SoHo art gallery and put on a 12-hour marathon of new music that included performances by Steve Reich and John Cage.

Mr. LANG: When we had the first festival, we just called it on all the materials - the First Annual Bang on a Can Festival. And then we laughed ourselves silly because we thought, oh, man, we're never going to do this again. This is too much work.

VITALE: But they did. And for the next five years, David Lang, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe licked all of the envelopes, raised all of the money, wrote all of the grant applications. Finally, they hired a staff and assembled the board of directors.

Today, Bang on a Can includes a performing ensemble, a record label, a summer workshop, its free annual marathon concert and a program that commissions new works.

(Soundbite of music)

VITALE: Music critic Alec Ross of The New Yorker says Bang on a Can has redefined what a composer can be in the 21st century.

Mr. ALEX ROSS (Music Critic, The New Yorker): You can compose and perform. You can, sort of, be an impresario and put on concerts. So it, sort of, goes all over the map and it's been very influential in terms of the next generations of composers who've come up. They've all seen the virtue of taking matters into your own hands and not waiting for, you know, the Berlin Philharmonic to call you on the phone one day and say, yes, we want to play your 45-minute symphony.

(Soundbite of music)

VITALE: In her Tribeca loft, Bang on a Can co-founder Julia Wolfe is busy at her Apple laptop, composing the first piece for this year's marathon concert. It's a work for Bagpipe Orchestra.

Ms. JULIA WOLFE (Co-Founder, Bang on a Can): Traditionally, a lot of bagpipe tunes begin with a slow, mournful tune and then get into the more - like, the real or the faster action. So this was a little bit of what would be the slow tune with a little bit odd harmony for what we'd normally expect from bagpipes.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. WOLFE: And a little later, they start to get, kind of, wackier and they play a fast tune. Let me give you an idea what that sounds like.

(Soundbite of music)

VITALE: After the bagpipe opener, this year's Bang on a Can marathon will continue with three dozens very different groups including a percussion ensemble from Uzbekistan, the indie rock group, Yo La Tango, and the all-star jazz group, the World Saxophone Quartet.

Mr. MICHAEL GORDON (Co-founder, Bang on a Can): What we were trying to do was find the music that is really pushing the boundaries of the tradition that it's in.

VITALE: Bang on a Can co-founder Michael Gordon is married to Julia Wolfe.

Mr. GORDON: What we always imagined is that when you search for a record on Amazon or you're going through a record store, you know, everything is neatly packaged into, you know, this category or that category. And there's always music in each of those categories that doesn't quite fit. And so Bang on a Can - the Bang on a Can marathon is, kind of, the category for all of that music that's, kind of, pushing the doors open.

(Soundbite of music)

VITALE: Bang on a Can has managed to attract audiences in part because it blurs boundaries, and, says Julia Wolfe, because it draws on the rhythms and sounds of rock music.

Ms. WOLFE: I think in a way that's what defines the difference between us and let's say the minimalists. I mean, we're - some people called us post-minimalists. And I think that's because what we've gotten from them is this, kind of, immediacy and directness. And then we took that and messed it up a little bit. I think some of that messing up is about the noise that you hear in Led Zeppelin or, you know, in, you know, thousands of other rock groups where you get this, kind of, sound of distortion and blurriness.

(Soundbite of music)

VITALE: Bang on a Can was founded to give contemporary composers a chance to hear their work performed. But like pop music, the exposure may be fleeting and the performance a one-time-only event. David Lang says, that's okay.

Mr. LANG: I'm interested in who ennobles this moment the best and how that experience gets the best. It could be that nothing from this festival moves forward. It could be that nothing from this festival ever gets played again. But the spirit of openness from this festival may be the thing from it that moves forward, and maybe that's the part, which goes on into the future.

VITALE: The Bang on a Can organizers estimate that 5,000 people attended last year's marathon concert in downtown Manhattan. They expect a crowd twice that size this year.

For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

(Soundbite of music)

ELLIOTT: That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

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