Imagining Community at Bang on a Can’s First Marathon
Essential to the construction of community is the creation of a shared history: a rhetoric and a narrative about who the community is, and what its values are. And in order to create a new kind of community, Bang on a Can had to overplay its hand. Community had to be performed.
“Your ideology cannot write the music for you,” declared composer David Lang in a 1988 Letter to the Editor, published in the New York Times. Lang was responding to a profile of composer Charles Wuorinen, in which the elder serialist railed against the dangers of populism, minimalism, and multiculturalism. In a strong rebuke, Lang chastised Wuorinen for his doctrinaire attitude and the stranglehold that serialism had maintained on American composition. He wrote:
We must recognize that a composer’s world is divided into two major activities: writing the music and associating with those who think and write similarly. Such associations may consider themselves schools of musical thought, and members may be proud of their membership, and they may actually believe that their way of composing is the only legitimate way. It is easy to see that if such a school gets in power it might try to remake the musical world in its own image.
Lang signed his letter “Artistic director, Bang on a Can Festival, New York, N.Y.” A month before it was published, Lang and his colleagues Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe had curated the second annual Bang on a Can marathon on the Lower East Side. And in the twenty-eight years since that letter, Bang on a Can has grown into a multi-faceted umbrella organization that sponsors marathon concerts, an All-Stars ensemble, and the Cantaloupe record label, not to mention a summer festival, marching band, commissioning fund, and State Department partnership. The expansion of Bang on a Can—from its first scrappy marathon in SoHo in 1987 to its presence at Brookfield Place near One World Trade Center today—is remarkable in an age of arts austerity. And the Pulitzer Prizes awarded to Lang in 2008 and Julia Wolfe in 2015 might confirm that it is a movement, if not a school, currently in power; one could similarly argue that Bang on a Can has remade the musical world in its own image.
What might that image be? From the beginnings of Bang on a Can, the collective emphasized community. If for Wuorinen, serialism represented the only legitimate way of composing, then for Lang and his colleagues, community might have represented the only legitimate way of being a composer. The “About” section of the organization’s website declares “Bang on a Can has been creating an international community dedicated to innovative music, wherever it is found.” Or, as Wolfe told an interviewer in 1995:
When David Lang, Michael Gordon, and I found ourselves in New York in 1986, we didn’t see an exciting outlet for our music. Things were very polarized—academic music uptown, with audiences filled with new music specialists, a very critical atmosphere, and everyone in tuxes, and downtown, another uniform, black t-shirts and another serious pretension. Neither side was really fun, and there was a whole new generation of composers who didn’t fit in anywhere.
We wanted to provide a place for new music in society. It wasn’t like other art. People knew who the new painters were, the writers, the filmmakers. But music was perceived as this really elitist thing—academic, clever, scientific, inaccessible. Nobody cared if people came to the concerts. And the music reflected that. It got so removed from life. It was important to us to find a new audience.
So we decided to make a happening. As a joke, we called it the First Annual Bang on a Can Festival. We didn’t think there’d be another one. We put pieces together that were really strong and belonged to different ideologies or not to any ideology, defying category, falling between the cracks.
It is worth examining, then, how exactly that communal ethos came about. If you’ve kept up with our NewMusicBox series, you have already read about several ways in which community is enacted in new music: in the activities of experimental collectives, in the privileging of listening practices, in the aesthetics of avant-garde operas, and in the labor of administrators. Equally essential to the construction of community is the creation of a shared history: a rhetoric and a narrative about who the community is, and what its values are. And in order to create a new kind of community, Bang on a Can had to overplay its hand. Community had to be performed; it was not enough to bring people or musical styles together, they had to be continually emphasized, made a part of the story and eventually the history of the institution.
Bang on a Can’s first marathon, at the Exit Art gallery in SoHo in May 1987, represents an origin point for the kind of community that the founding composers sought to build. So for this essay on new music and community, I’d like to briefly meditate on one particular time slot in that marathon, which has played a perhaps oversized role in the history of Bang on a Can. At 11 p.m., Milton Babbitt’s Vision and Prayer is followed by Steve Reich’s Four Organs–total serialism juxtaposed with early minimalism, uptown next to downtown.
The music of the first Bang on a Can marathon was, as a whole, fairly eclectic: John Cage’s Ryoanji and George Crumb’s Black Angels, Igor Stravinsky’s Agon and Pauline Oliveros’s Tuning Meditation, Lee Hyla’s In Double Light and Lois V Vierk’s Manhattan Cascade. But Reich next to Babbitt wasn’t just a natural result of this mixing of musical styles; it represented a strategic move, one that constructed a specific mission for the nascent organization. In a New York Times review of the 1987 marathon, critic Bernard Holland observed that “the program was arranged with contrast in mind. Thus, as the organizers note with satisfaction, Milton Babbitt’s Vision and Prayer rubbed shoulders with Steve Reich’s Four Organs.” [Emphasis mine.] Bang on a Can not only placed these pieces into juxtaposition, they performed that juxtaposition, making it unmistakable to their audiences. Babbitt himself was certainly aware of his odd-duck status at the concert, as archival audio of his introduction to the Vision and Prayer performance reveals. Following healthy applause, Babbitt slyly remarks:
I’m delighted to hear that my reputation hasn’t penetrated this far downtown, even though I went to school right around the corner. The quiet little piece of mine which you’re about to hear, Vision and Prayer for soprano and synthesized tape, is almost certainly the oldest piece on the program – I say almost certainly because we have no chronologies on the program, but I’m almost certain because it’s almost certainly written before many of the composers on the program were born.
And for the Bang on a Can directors, the Reich/Babbitt juxtaposition also had aesthetic implications. As Wolfe put it in 1995, she and her cohort sought out music that fell between the cracks. But they also attempted to program music that they felt represented strongly disparate idioms. In her 2012 dissertation, Wolfe describes the Reich/Babbitt encounter—or non-encounter—of 1987:
Reich entered as Babbitt left, or possibly Babbitt left as Reich entered. There was clearly no interest in meeting on either side. At that point, to our knowledge, no one had programmed the music of Milton Babbitt and Steve Reich on the same event. Babbitt and Reich represented two very different points of view, American Modernism and American Minimalism, or what was called Uptown and Downtown. When Babbitt introduced his piece he joked, “sorry I got here late, but I got lost––Iʼve never been this far downtown before.” At that first marathon concert we embraced this clash of disparate philosophies. We wanted contrasting musics––powerful in their own right regardless of style or aesthetic.
Wolfe titled her dissertation “Embracing the Clash,” and that early “clash” became an all-encompassing metaphor for Bang on a Can, extending out into its programming of non-Western music, rock, and free improvisation. Indeed, the word “eclectic” has clung to the institution more closely than perhaps any other descriptor (the first marathon was billed as an “eclectic supermix,” a phrase that has endured in the organization’s marketing). It is also striking that Wolfe recalls Babbitt as having said that he had never been that far downtown, given that—as Babbitt actually remarked in his introduction—he went to school right around the corner. But the downtown of the 1930s, when Babbitt attended NYU, was quite different from that of the 1980s; it is unsurprising that, in associating Babbitt with the uptown world for which he was later known, Wolfe assumed the composer’s geographical purview did not include SoHo.
The Reich/Babbitt juxtaposition, though, wasn’t only about clashing. It was about resolution: imagining a new kind of new music community, one that would bring together two disparate scenes. As Lang told Kyle Gann in 1993:
When we started BoaC, we looked around and the concerts we saw weren’t exciting. If you went to hear Speculum Musicae, there was invariably one composer doing great stuff in an ugly language, and the others were bad composers working in the same ugly language. Same thing Downtown: there’d be a free, sonic piece by a really good composer and a bad sonic piece right behind it. Pieces were being grouped by ideology, not quality. We thought, “What would happen if you had the best academic piece, the best static piece, the best minimalist piece, the best improv piece, whatever, all next to each other?” At the first festival we played Milton Babbitt’s Vision and Prayer next to Steve Reich’s Four Organs. Musicians knew that if they liked one they weren’t supposed to like the other, but the audience didn’t know that.
Stepping past ideologies, placing oneself not only not within an uptown or downtown camp, but also beyond any squabbles between them, became a core mythos of Bang on a Can. It’s notable that neither the Reich nor the Babbitt was released on the early Bang on a Can albums on the CRI label, which drew from live recordings of the marathons; thirty-five minutes of music within a twelve-hour concert became essential to the history of the institution, not as a tangible sonic document but as a story. Programming Reich alongside Babbitt imagined a musical world in which uptown and downtown were irrelevant, a community that Bang on a Can went on to create in its image.
Many factors contributed to a sense of community at the early Bang on a Can marathons: a cohort of Yale graduates, beer for sale in the back, composers informally introducing their pieces, the motto “Come and go as you like, or stay all day.” But symbolic gestures create communities as well. And this is, in a way, an ideology, if not the pernicious kind that Lang suggests about Wuorinen. Ideology is part of what constructs communities, sustains them, and keeps them together. The ideology of Wuorinen foregrounded a narrow conception of art music as privileged above other styles and genres, what Lang called in his Letter to the Editor “rooting out dissent with the ardor of holy warriors on a serial jihad”; the ideology of Bang on a Can is that of, as its website declares, “building a world in which powerful new musical ideas flow freely across all genres and borders.”
William Robin is a Ph.D. candidate in musicology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Two days ago, he defended his dissertation “A Scene Without A Name: Indie Classical and American New Music in the Twenty-First Century,” and in the fall he will begin an appointment as assistant professor of musicology at the University of Maryland. In spring 2015, the Journal of Musicology published his article “Traveling with Ancient Music: Intellectual and Transatlantic Currents in American Psalmody Reform,” which reassesses the Europeanization of American sacred music at the turn of the 19th century by examining the impact of transatlantic travel. Robin is a regular contributor to the New York Times, and received an ASCAP Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Award in 2014 for the NewMusicBox article “Shape Notes, Billings, and American Modernisms.”