Bang on a Can: Bringing Downtown Uptown
We all fight against “The Man,” until one day we wake up to find we’ve become Him (or Her!). Three decades in, the avant-garde classical group Bang on a Can are happy to be passing on their mantel of rebellion.
Bang on a Can is a New York–based contemporary classical music group best known for its daylong Marathon Concerts.
The organization was formed in 1987 by married couple Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon and their friend David Lang; all three were graduates of the Yale School of Music’s composition program. Created with the goal to break down traditional boundaries between musical genres, Marathon Concerts present a range of contemporary classical compositions in an informal atmosphere, with guests free to dress how they like and come and go as they please.
All acclaimed composers in their own right, Gordon, Lang, and Wolfe have composed several staged works jointly as Bang on a Can, including The Carbon Copy Building, a “comic book opera which won the 2000 Obie Award for Best Production. The company has also commissioned and premiered pieces by numerous other composers, including Pulitzer winners John Adams and Ornette Coleman.
Since 2002, the organization has organized the annual Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.
Avant-garde classical group Bang on a Can is a primal clang in a world of metronomic conformity. The group has been interrupting norms since 1987, when members Julia Wolfe, David Lang, and Michael Gordon saw a need for refuge for people who didn’t align with the ideology of classical music at the time.
Julia Wolfe: When we came into the music world, there were very narrow bands.
AJC: The uptown and the downtown.
Wolfe: Uptown, downtown, there was this kind of heavy dogma coming from, at least from academia and from a lot of the major venues in the country. So that was frustrating to us, because we were children of many musics.
Michael Gordon: I think back then, everything was so polarized, and you were either… It was like “red state, blue state” in composition. You were on this team or that team, and they were at odds with each other.
David Lang: Part of our desire, when we started, was to think of ways to get people to look past those boundaries, so that people from different categories would find things and like things.
In lieu of trying to fit into an available box, these young composers made their own by forming a collective, and naming it, aptly, Bang on a Can.
Wolfe: Part of the title for Bang on a Can was also, we were motivated by, again, getting rid of the formality, but what tells everyone, “This is for everyone” or “It’s open to everyone”? So Bang on a Can is just very basic, I guess, one-dimensional. It’s just hitting a can.
In order to be heard, they realized they would have to create space for people who, like them, could probably describe themselves as renegades.
Lang: We started the first Bang on a Can Marathon, and we called it the “First Annual Bang on a Can Festival,” and we laughed ourselves silly, because we just thought, “We’re doing all this work ourselves. This is huge effort. We’re putting this whole thing together. We’re never going to do this again.” And by the end of the concert, it was really clear to us that people had showed up, that it had meant something. We’re three o’clock in the morning, we’re cleaning up, we’re trying to get out, and we just can’t believe that we’ve done it, and we sort of realized that we were going to have to do it again.
30 years later, the Bang on a Can Marathon is still held annually. Since its inception, the group has expanded to include not only Wolfe, Lang, and Gordon, but also a loose musical collective called the Bang on a Can All-Stars, the Asphalt Orchestra, a radical marching band, and a summer festival for young composers, held in rural northwestern Massachusetts. Their only guiding force over the past three decades has been in making interesting music, which they’ve learned often requires a blatant disregard for rules and boundaries.
Gordon: We just started out with curiosity. Everybody said, “No one wanted to listen to this music,” and we sat around and said, “Well is that really true?” And I think that’s how we started. And, for me, I think we exceeded expectations the first year.
Today, Gordon and Wolfe, who are married, live in the same Manhattan neighborhood as Lang, where they spend their days in their studios and on the telephone with each other, sometimes from within the same apartment.
Lang: And a lot of times, what happens with all of us is we sort of know what we want to do in a piece, but what we really need is someone who gives us permission to do it as much or as long as we would like. So what usually happens to me is I play something for them, I say, “I wrote this, it’s a minute long, and I really just want to do it for half an hour, but I think everyone’s going to hate it.” And then Michael goes, “They’re going to hate it anyway. Do it as long as you want.” And then I go, “Great, I’m going to do it for half an hour!”
Now that they’re a part of the establishment they once wanted to dismantle, the members of Bang on a Can realize a certain responsibility to younger people who think like they once did.
AJC: I hate to say this, but you guys are now “The Man.” You are now the middle-aged people who say things about the way the world can be in music. They are probably some upstarts around Brooklyn, looking at you and going, “Ugh, Bang on a Can. I’ve got your…” You know? You now are part of “the establishment.”
Wolfe: That’s good. That’s good. They should do that. We want to be a part of that connection to the next generation. I think composers that keep themselves isolated in their own generation is a big loss. You really want to have that dialogue with the next generation coming up.
Lang: We had a certain polemic when we started, and the polemic was basically, “Old people should not tell us to stop.” And now that we are the old people, we like the idea of not telling other people to stop.
And by simply being themselves, Bang on a Can have turned a void into a symphony.