Tag: Bang on a Can

Diversity, Inclusion, and Funding New Music in the ’90s

In May 1989, the Republican Senator Alfonse D’Amato took to the floor of the senate chambers to angrily denounce the artist Andres Serrano’s photograph Piss Christ—which depicted a crucifix submerged in urine—as what he called a “deplorable, despicable display of vulgarity.” What made D’Amato particularly furious, and what led to his protests along with those of his fellow Senator Jesse Helms, was the fact that Serrano’s photograph had been touring as part of an exhibit indirectly funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. “This is not a question of free speech,” D’Amato proclaimed, as he waved a reproduction of the exhibit’s catalog. “This is a question of abuse of taxpayers’ money.” And then, unceremoniously, he tore the catalog in half, threw it on the floor, and declared, “What a disgrace.”

Worried about similar controversies, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington preemptively cancelled a large-scale exhibit of photographs by artist Robert Mapplethorpe, who had died of AIDS earlier that year, which included several explicit depictions of gay sex acts as well as nude children. Serrano and Mapplethorpe became the scapegoats for an uproar among Republicans in Congress, who debated whether the Endowment should be defunded or significantly restricted, as well as a newly galvanized evangelical movement, who accused the Endowment of promoting profanity and pornography. Avant-garde art, and its government funding, was conscripted into the sweeping referendum on post-’60s society, waged between left and right, known as the Culture Wars.

American composers, however, seemed to have little to fear: the focus of right-wing anger was directed towards the radical photography of Serrano and Mapplethorpe, as well as the performance art of figures like Karen Finley. The music that became subject to Culture Wars controversy––such as the rock and hip-hop targeted by the PMRC and Christian fundamentalist organizations––seemed far from the world of contemporary composition. Indeed, in an October 1989 article, the young composer David Lang expounded on the apparent lack of significance of the so-called “Helms amendment”––an attempt by the right-wing senator Jesse Helms to restrict federal funding to art that was deemed obscene or indecent––for the world of new music. “Artists like to feel that their work is challenging enough to be controversial,” he wrote. “Photographers, painters, filmmakers and the like can imagine victimization at the hands of Congress as a badge of honor. They are Art-martyrs to the First Amendment.”

“With all of the excitement,” Lang fretted, “it is disturbing that so little of this controversy is aimed at composers. Are we not controversial? Why isn’t Congress rushing to censor the subversive power of modern music? It is possible that we are doing something wrong.” Later in the article, Lang ultimately singled out one central culprit, what he called “A colossal loss of nerve.” As the academic avant-garde faded, Lang wrote, composers were looking to work with mainstream institutions and reach large audiences, and thus “there are a lot of people we can’t afford to offend.” Lang’s principal scapegoat was “polite music,” music “designed to impress an audience, not to provoke it. “Congress says we are dangerous,” he concluded. “It is up to us to prove it.”

David Lang fretted, “Why isn’t Congress rushing to censor the subversive power of modern music?”

But in utilizing the Culture Wars as a backdrop for making a perennial argument––that composers needed to make their music more aesthetically adventurous, to re-embrace avant-garde impulses––Lang may have overlooked the very real consequences of the Culture Wars on contemporary music. New music was not only swept up in the decimated public funding landscape that Helms and the religious right set into motion. Its institutions were also the subject of their own specific controversy, within the press and among granting panels, that centered on attempts to enact multicultural arts policy and promote the work of women and composers of color.

This three-decade-old episode of an attempt to diversify the world of contemporary composition––amidst a landscape of increasing arts austerity, loud Congressional battles over avant-garde art, and public backlash from prominent composers––has much to offer today’s attempts at fostering inclusion. It is one of many stories from my recent book, Industry: Bang on a Can and New Music in the Marketplace, which draws on interviews and archival research to reconstruct a crucial, turbulent, and oft-overlooked moment in American music.

The cover for Will Robin's book Industry


In the late 1980s, “multiculturalism” was a buzzword in the American arts world: promoted by foundation and government administrators, detested by conservatives, and made an explicit if only partly realized goal for arts institutions. In these contexts, multiculturalism was typically understood to signify the advocacy for art created by minority groups as well as outreach programs by traditional institutions to minority communities.

Multiculturalism became a lightning rod for debates on how NYSCA should adjudicate its funding.

And multiculturalism became a lightning rod for debates on how the New York State Council on the Arts (hereafter NYSCA) should adjudicate its funding. Established in 1960 as a public funding body for the arts in New York State, NYSCA preceded the NEA and served as a model for some of its programs. Under the direction of James Jordan—the cousin and longtime manager of Ornette Coleman—NYSCA’s Music Program increasingly supported new music, including adding a priority for programming living composers to its guidelines in 1985, and running a statewide touring program intended to grow audiences for new work. Jordan maintained a strong commitment to funding experimental jazz and the work of Black composers, and also viewed public funding as a means for new music to reach new listeners. “Can you sell experimental music?” he asked in a 1991 interview with EAR Magazine. “I think you can. But you have to sell its humanity, its spirituality…It’s the marketing that sells, whether it’s experimental or not.”

In this period, NYSCA attempted to address the issue of multiculturalism, partly in response to political pressure. In 1987, it launched a program to diversify audiences for large cultural institutions like the New York Philharmonic via funding for outreach programs. But in a series of public hearings conducted by the New York State Black and Puerto Rican Legislative Caucus, the “new audiences” programs were critiqued for subsidizing established institutions at the expense of smaller organizations within minority communities. The caucus organized a task force which produced a 1989 report, “Towards Cultural Democracy,” lambasting NYSCA for excluding people of color from its staff and panels, and for awarding grants primarily to “Eurocentric” institutions; its minority-aimed Special Arts Service Division, for example, was continuously underfunded and required lobbying simply to stay afloat. NYSCA’s panel review system was itself suspect, as its “experts” were typically only familiar with Eurocentric art forms and perspectives: “People of color are always outnumbered on panels and have little or no input in that decision-making process.”

“This is not a purely symbolic debate,” sociologist Samuel Gilmore wrote of multicultural arts funding in 1993. “Rather it is a battle over the current and future allocation of scarce artistic resources.” Public agencies were continually and rightfully pressured by their constituents to wrestle with how to allocate arts funding across different ethnic and racial demographics. As they attempted to do so—often poorly and unfairly, as the critics in “Towards Cultural Democracy” argued—they also faced critique from conservatives who felt that the organizations were abandoning the “permanent values” of the supposed canon of high art in favor of serving political interests.

The terms of this debate mirrored contemporaneous political battles over affirmative action, in which liberals argued for the necessity of acknowledging racial difference and conservatives instead made a case for purportedly “meritocratic” colorblindness. And what unfolded at NYSCA reflected national trends in arts funding; in the final years of the 1980s, as Gilmore points out, NEA programs in multiple categories steadily increased grants awarded to minority-based initiatives (though, in proportion to the agency’s total budget, such efforts still remained paltry). In 1990, President Bush’s NEA chairman described multiculturalism as an NEA priority, and language around it was incorporated into grant making guidelines.

Some of NYSCA’s new policies led to an uproar in the world of contemporary music, most vociferously voiced by the composer Charles Wuorinen. With the composer and flutist Harvey Sollberger, Wuorinen had co-founded the Group for Contemporary Music in 1962, among the earliest American ensembles specializing in contemporary composition. It was initially housed at Columbia University and received significant early funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, which had been seeding ensembles and electronic music studios at universities across the country. (Michael Uy’s fascinating new book Ask the Experts tells the full story of this moment.) The Group participated in a broader network of emergent Cold War institutions, including Princeton’s PhD program in composition, the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, and the journal Perspectives of New Music, which codified a new support system for contemporary music, strongly underscored scientific expertise, and were backed by university and foundation patronage.

A paradigmatic modernist Cold Warrior, Wuorinen had a forbidding reputation as an advocate for serial composition. And through the 1980s, he increasingly articulated a pessimistic, neoconservative worldview, expressing concerns about populism, pluralism, and the decline of “serious culture.” In a 1988 profile in The New York Times, on the occasion of Wuorinen’s fiftieth birthday, writer Joan Peyser focused on the composer’s concerns that minimalism was overtaking twelve-tone music, driven by institutions such as NYSCA prioritizing audiences over art. Like the neocon art critics who filled the pages of The New Criterion such as Samuel Lipman and Hilton Kramer, Wuorinen traced the plight of the present moment to the late ’60s: “That was the turning point. Art became capitalized, a Good Thing, something to be brought to everyone. With that came the promoting, the merchandising, the marketing––the change from art to entertainment.”

And Wuorinen apparently told the Times that the Group for Contemporary Music’s next season might be scrapped in part because of NYSCA: the composer “says the council’s money is going to organizations specializing in Minimalist music and that members of its music committee have told him of their wish to help promote the work of women and blacks.” The composer attempted to resist such efforts, steadfastly refusing to take any such considerations into account when programming his ensemble’s repertoire.

Grant application materials, held in the New York State Archives, further clarify both NYSCA and the Group’s positions. Reviewing the ensemble’s 1986–87 NYSCA grant application, a Council administrator noted concerns about its failure to program women and minority composers. In the preceding years, the Group programmed no music by women composers, and only one work by a Black composer. Wuorinen and the Group’s staff met with James Jordan in fall 1986. In a response to NYSCA that November, the ensemble’s executive director wrote that the Group had received few scores by women or minority composers in the past, but it would issue a public call, emphasizing that women and minorities would be encouraged to apply. Still, he noted, “We will continue to select the most worthy ones for performance without respect to gender or ethnic background.”

Reviewing the ensemble’s 1986–87 NYSCA grant application, a Council administrator noted concerns about the Group for Contemporary Music’s failure to program women and minority composers.

NYSCA was set up in a similar fashion to the National Endowment for the Arts: an internal staff helped adjudicate grants, in dialogue with independent panels of peer artists. And the peer panel that voted on the Group’s funding application later that month was not convinced: “That the Group has received only one score from a woman and none from minorities in the past two seasons had more to do with the history of not performing the works of women and minorities, creating an unwelcome atmosphere.” Its annual funding was cut substantially, from $16,000 to $10,000. Other ensembles faced similar scrutiny: reviewing an application from another group, Speculum Musicae, panelists discussed the “insularity of its programming, and the lack of evidence of any real effort to include women and minorities,” and its funding was cut by $3,000. In a 1985 review meeting, administrators from the downtown venue Experimental Intermedia told a NYSCA officer that they would feature more women and minority composers going forward.

Still, the Group refused to play ball. In June 1987, the ensemble held a board meeting in which it decided that “affirmative action programs had no place in artistic endeavors,” and “agreed that The Group must continue to maintain the integrity of its programming, despite the consequences of NYSCA funding or lack of it.” Its NEA funding had been cut back, too, and its New York seasons shrunk; the Group did, however, program music by two women, Michelle Ekizian and Barbara Kolb, in 1987 and 1989.

Beginning with its 1990 handbook, NYSCA’s guidelines included a new section stating that “The Council is particularly interested in offering assistance to worthy artistic activities that serve traditionally underserved communities or populations.”  The policy advocated for applicants to increase the diversity of their staff and program for culturally diverse audiences. To evaluate these new criteria, NYSCA asked questions of applicants “relating to participation in and service to traditionally underserved populations.” There were no pre-determined answers it sought, but it wanted to see a given applicant demonstrate good-faith effort. “We don’t punish those who don’t program women, minority, and American composers,” Jordan told EAR in 1991. “We reward those who do.”

After skipping applying for NYSCA funding for two years, the Group applied again in 1990 for a modest $5,500 for a three-concert, free series comprising music by Wuorinen, Milton Babbitt, Olivier Messiaen, and other composers––all of whom were white men. Responding to one of the new application questions––“Do you include artists who are representatives of minorities and special constituencies in your programming?”––the Group reiterated what had now become familiar rhetoric, that it was interested in programming minority composers “of merit” and that its artists “are selected on the basis of ability.” The peer panel reviewing the application debated whether to reduce requested funding based on its failure to address past concerns over diversity, and the state ultimately awarded $5,000. But the Group only presented one of its three proposed programs and in 1991–92, the ensemble’s thirtieth season, it ended its live concert series entirely, instead dedicating its resources exclusively to recording.

“The State Council of New York attempted to tell me what I should program,” Wuorinen told the scholar Richard Douglas Burbank around this time. “That’s why the Group for Contemporary Music doesn’t exist anymore, except on paper. The Arts Council wanted affirmative action.” He added that “They were taking artistic control from us and I wouldn’t have it.”


One peer organization in new music had no issues complying with NYSCA’s requests. Founded in 1987 by the composers David Lang, Michael Gordon, and Julia Wolfe, the freewheeling Bang on a Can festival brought together rock-inflected postminimalism, uptown serialism, downtown experimentalism, and world music. They had easy answers to the questions that the Group had protested. In a 1990 NYSCA application, Bang on a Can described in detail its marketing and publicity work to reach diverse audiences, and noted that “our commitment to women and minorities has been, and remains, very strong,” providing a list of more than twenty women and minority composers featured in the past four years.

Back in 1988, Lang had actually written a letter to the Times rebuking their profile of Wuorinen, in which he accused the composer and his uptown compatriots of “rooting out dissent with the ardor of holy warriors on a serial jihad.” He added, “Only by encouraging diversity can music hope to stay vital.”

These priorities also made Bang on a Can an appealing candidate to foundations that supported diversity-focused initiatives. In 1990, it successfully applied for funding from the Meet the Composer/Reader’s Digest Commissioning Program to commission three new string quartets written by women, which the organization pitched as helping rectify the fact that “women composers are under-represented” in standard repertoire. (In terms of gender, an average of around 22% of works presented on the Bang on a Can marathons between 1987 and 1993 were by women composers—not representative numbers, but better than many peer organizations.)

An average of around 22% of works presented on the Bang on a Can marathons between 1987 and 1993 were by women composers—not representative numbers, but better than many peer organizations.

In a 1991 funding request to the Jerome Foundation, Gordon wrote that “In the past five years we have presented on our marathon concerts works by 82 emerging composers, of which 34 were by women and composers of color,” and that all of its commissioned works for 1992 were by women and people of color. He further noted that during its process for evaluating works submitted for performance at its marathons, following an initial blind review to see if the music fit the “artistic vision of the Festival,” there was a second review with a number of considerations including “whether the composer is an emerging, woman, or minority composer.” This clear acknowledgement that the organization took gender, race, and ethnicity into account in its programming would have been anathema to Wuorinen, who saw such efforts as a form of social engineering that jeopardized his notions of a modernist, individualist meritocracy.

And NYSCA program reviews and panel comments on Bang on a Can applications were consistently positive. “It is rare to find an organization which programs the works of women and minorities in representative numbers in a way that is natural to the goals of the organization,” a NYSCA staffer wrote in his evaluation of a 1991 funding proposal. As NYSCA funding for the Group for Contemporary Music was cut, Bang on a Can’s increased.


Ultimately, though, state program reviews were not what jeopardized new music in the 1990s. The decade began with massive reductions to NYSCA’s allocations, in response to the 1990 economic recession, which caused a deficit crisis in New York State. In 1991, Governor Mario Cuomo requested a 56 percent cut in NYSCA’s budget, prompting outrage in the arts community. James Jordan told EAR Magazine that the proposed cuts were the “worst shape we’ve been in during the last 20 years.” The budget was ultimately cut by 44 percent and, by 1992–93, the state arts budget was at its lowest level since the early 1970s. And new-music organizations across the board faced major state cutbacks, to which Bang on a Can was not exempt.

But some prominent composers would remember the culprit of this moment not as the recession, or a state government that deployed arts cutbacks to balance its budget, or even the paleoconservatives like Jesse Helms fighting at the national level. Invited by The Musical Times in 1994 to respond to the question “Music: the next 150 years?” Milton Babbitt took a bleak outlook, lambasting “pervasive and invasive populism” that endangered the future of what he perennially called “serious music.”

According to Babbitt, the National Endowment for the Arts “has imposed through its appointed panels a censorship of egalitarianism, regionalism, sexism (some may wish to term this ‘reverse sexism’) and racism (some may wish to term this ‘reverse racism’) which has had far broader and harsher effect than the publicized attacks and threat of censorship by a yahoo legislator and his fellow protectors of the public morality.” (“Yahoo legislator” was a reference to Helms.)

Arguing that the “NEA’s ideological correctness has trickled down to other public and private benefactors”—likely referring to NYSCA, although Babbitt does not name the Council—the composer recapped the Group for Contemporary Music’s funding woes and its cessation of live performance. And he repeated Wuorinen’s claims that the ensemble’s funding had been threatened by its failure to program music by minority composers. Instead, Babbitt argued, “There is apparently little concern that the most threatened minority groups are the composers and performers who have been on the programs and on the stage.” New music itself, in other words—rather than new music by composers from underrepresented groups—deserved affirmative action.

Like Wuorinen, Babbitt wrongly believed that Helms and his yahoos were less of a threat to serious music than liberal multiculturalism. His claims of the NEA’s reverse racism and reverse sexism in panel adjudication echoed conservatism’s “colorblind” opposition to affirmative action and other social programs that attempted to address inequality. Babbitt and Wuorinen had both benefited from Cold War–era foundation and university patronage, and their approach towards modernist music’s individuality, and distaste for what they saw as a politically correct government bureaucracy that threatened it, was steeped in the rhetoric of that time. If they saw themselves as heroically embattled figures during the Cold War, they assumed an even more embattled position during the Culture Wars.

Like Wuorinen, Babbitt wrongly believed that Helms and his yahoos were less of a threat to serious music than liberal multiculturalism.

And by no means did Babbitt accurately capture the state of public funding. Conservatives inflated what they disliked about the arts bureaucracy into a grand critique that assumed that the NEA and NYSCA exclusively funded the multicultural, the populist, and the obscene. At the federal level, “multicultural” arts funding was more rhetoric than reality: federal support for minority artists was largely concentrated in NEA programs like Expansion Arts, which had a much smaller budget than the Music Program.

And NEA granting for composers was indeed sexist, but in the more conventional, non-reverse fashion. In 1987, for example, composers Sylvia Glickman and Tina Davidson launched an official complaint after their Endowment proposal for a consortium commission of all-female composers was denied funding; in researching their case, they found that women had received only 9% of Composer Fellowships over the past eleven years, and that in 1987 only 3.26% of Endowment funding for the consortium and fellowship categories was awarded to female composers (a total of two grants). They noted that very few peer panelists were women, and even fewer were women composers. “The Endowment, by ignoring women composers’ excellence, effectively bars them from other funding sources, performances and continued artistic growth,” they wrote.

By 1996, the National Endowment for the Arts’ budget shrunk drastically from $162 million to $99.5 million and it eliminated nearly all fellowships awarded to individual artists.

But the granting programs would not have much time to take these critiques into account––to become actually multicultural, as Babbitt and Wuorinen feared. The “yahoo legislators” soon had their say: a year after the 1994 midterm elections, when Republicans won House and Senate majorities by campaigning on Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America,” Congress slashed NEA funding by 40%. By 1996, the Endowment’s budget shrunk drastically from $162 million to $99.5 million, it cut almost half of its staff, and it eliminated nearly all fellowships awarded to individual artists. By the early 2000s, public funding had been decimated at both state and federal levels.


What David Lang wrote in 1989 was not wrong: no senators took to the floor to tear up scores by Philip Glass or John Cage. New music was ultimately collateral damage in the Culture Wars, not directly targeted by congressional Republicans but still subject to the same devastating public funding cuts that the controversies over Serrano and Mapplethorpe inaugurated. But the controversies over NYSCA’s funding of new-music organizations—relatively tame in comparison to what unfolded on the floor of the senate—tapped into the same partisan rhetoric as the more famous ones that played out on the national stage, and did in fact conscript American composers into the battles of the Culture Wars.

Equally significant was what this tumultuous moment in culture indexed for American composition. When paleoconservative Pat Buchanan—who frequently railed against the NEA—ran against George H.W. Bush in the 1992 Republican primary, he declared in his convention speech that he was launching a “war for the soul of America,” one “as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.” As the Cold War ended and the Culture Wars began, the world of scientific, university-based modernist composition that had flourished among institutions like the Group for Contemporary Music gave way to the market-friendly postmodern eclecticism of organizations like Bang on a Can—a transformation facilitated by the shifting priorities of funding agencies who reflected a new national climate.

As the Cold War ended and the Culture Wars began, the world of scientific, university-based modernist composition gave way to the market-friendly postmodern eclecticism of organizations like Bang on a Can.

This story is part of what I call new music’s “marketplace turn,” a period in the 1980s and ‘90s in which presenters, funders, advocacy organizations, record labels, and upstart festivals pushed for American new music to reach a broad, non-specialist audience. Bang on a Can is one of the most significant victors from this period: today, with its touring ensemble, record label, and summer festival, it commands significant influence in the world of contemporary music, not to mention a multi-million dollar budget.


In her book On Being Included, Sara Ahmed cogently identifies pernicious gaps between how diversity is advertised and promoted and how it is actually enacted and exercised in practice. Here we see the enaction of relatively tame state policies to promote a more diverse world of new music inciting vehement pushback. For those currently engaged in such efforts at their own universities or within their own ensembles, the fearmongering of Wuorinen and Babbitt may not be all that surprising. Even long after the Cold War, many musicians still perpetuate ideologies of autonomy that view even the mildest forms of affirmative action as a pernicious encroachment on artistic independence.

One of the principal problems that Ahmed and others have identified is that the work of diversity—and ultimately, and more importantly, the work of anti-racism and anti-sexism—is that it is continually under-resourced, often serving as tokenistic PR instead of actual redistributive justice. The story of NYSCA in the 1980s and ’90s is thus prescient, or at least unsurprising, in this regard. Just as public granting agencies began to enact multicultural arts policies, their funding was massively cut, and, as the Babbitt essay demonstrates, some even blamed the policies themselves for those cuts.

“If you’re giving an organization $10,000, you can say, ‘In return to that we expect you to have a social face,’” David Lang recalled in a conversation we had in 2019. “If you’re cutting them from $10,000 to $1,000, you can’t say, ‘Oh by the way for this $1,000 we’d like you to change your organization’ . . . That social action, at least from government organizations, was ascendant as the funding was ascendant, and when the funding got cut a lot of steam went out.”

Similarly, in a 1996 NYSCA grant application, when asked how its programming reflected “efforts to broaden and diversify its audience,” the venue Experimental Intermedia did not mince words: “Frankly, we have to state that continued federal, state, corporate and foundation arts funding cuts have stripped most organizations to the bone. We continue our open invitation to and interest in minority artists, but there are no funds with which to explicitly address these issues beyond what it possible in regular programming.” James Jordan had claimed that NYSCA would reward organizations that programmed women and minority composers, but they were left with few resources with which to undertake new projects. Budget cuts compromised transformative change.

Today, renewed and necessary advocacy for diversity and inclusion—whether in the petitioning of major institutions to program works by underrepresented composers, the crucial labor of organizations such as Castle of our Skins, or the proliferation of equity committees—can only go so far on the limited resources of our neoliberal landscape.

Instead of petitioning a robustly funded NEA to enact policy that advocates for BIPOC composers, we instead understandably find ourselves yelling at orchestras on Twitter.

In an era of public arts austerity, these diversity efforts often represent individual, entrepreneurial projects rather than broad social endeavors sustained by government support. Which is to say that, instead of petitioning a robustly funded National Endowment for the Arts to enact policy that advocates for BIPOC composers, we instead understandably find ourselves yelling at orchestras on Twitter. As we continue to talk about diversity, the American people need to put our money—and, especially and crucially, our public money—where our mouths are.

From Avid Fan to Media Fellow

A man sitting on a bench reading a newspaper

In the music world, being a fan isn’t a bad gig. Unlike musicians, you can book yourself, so to speak, at any venue you want. You don’t have to go on the road unless you want to. You can avoid promoting yourself, finding a record label, and coming up with music to play. Of course you’ll never be applauded by an audience, yet you’ll almost always be thanked for “coming out tonight” by the musicians you go to see.

  • You’ll never be applauded, yet you’ll almost always be thanked for “coming out.”

    Stan Tymorek
  • Most of my friends are music fans but have never even heard of the new music composers I’ve raved about.

    Stan Tymorek
  • John Schaefer objected to the use of “gorgeous” to describe a piece of music.

    Stan Tymorek
  • All writers could benefit from spending time in a musician's rehearsal room.

    Stan Tymorek

I’ve been enjoying these benefits of fandom for more than 50 years now. So why would I want to take on the more arduous role of writing about hard-to-describe new music, especially since I’m enjoying retirement from a career writing about other topics? It has to do with the great variety of music I’ve discovered as a fan and a basic desire to spread the word.

It was my good fortune to start listening to music seriously during the sixties, when rock and roll was developing by leaps and bounds. The shapeshifting Beatles alone showed me the surprising possibilities beyond pop, as their intentions went from holding our hands, to taking us down, to taking us away, to turning us on—all set to such precipitously changing music that in “Revolution #9” they urged us to “hold that line.”  Much has been written about expanding minds in the sixties, but the Beatles were surely expanding our ears long before the term “big ears” came to signify openness to new kinds of music.

Closer to home, in the late ‘70s my neighbor in Evanston, Illinois, was the multi-instrumentalist and composer Howard Levy. Howard is a virtuoso harmonica player and one of the original members of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, as well as a student and performer of music from other cultures. With some neighbors, you have to ask them to turn down their music; with Howard, you asked about what he was playing and got an enlightening tutorial.

Inside my own home, my son Sam started playing viola and composing music at age six, and later went on to get a master’s degree in electronic music composition. Sam not only introduced me to new music composers such as Steve Reich and Harry Partch, but he was my partner at adventurous performances where friends feared to tread.

If fans can be evaluated quantitatively by measures like how many performances they attend and how far they travel to do so, then, like every child in Lake Wobegon, I’m above average.  But I’ve also worked on the quality of how I listen to music. I’ve aspired to what Ben Ratliff has called listening “with purpose.” In his book Every Song Ever, Ratliff describes this as paying “just enough attention to it (music) so that it could change our lives,” and posits that “listening is a creative act, and at a certain point it, too, can be virtuosic—if you develop a heightened sensitivity to current and past standards of excellence.”

As a professional writer, I’ve always tried to learn from other writers whose work I’ve admired. In music, I have looked to Ratliff and The New Yorker music critic Alex Ross to school me. You could say I’m a fan of both men. But in addition to their writing chops, I’ve also envied how much more these two pros get out of the music than I do. Could trying to articulate just what excited me about a piece help make me a better listener?

What’s more, I’m motivated to write about music for a more generous reason. Most of my friends are music fans but have never even heard of the new music composers I’ve raved about, like Phil Kline, Adams (both John and John Luther), and Terry Riley. I started to resent all the media attention that just a small percentage of music makers have garnered, and wanted to correct this imbalance.

Then there’s the undeniable fact that new music is much more interesting to me than the products like mattress pads, clothing, and nametags that I had to write about as a catalog and internet copywriter. Earlier this year, my transition to music writer got a big boost from a coincidence that John Cage, the great consulter of the I-Ching, would have appreciated. For the first time, Bang on a Can—the original and most thrilling new music organization I’d discovered—was offering a media workshop for writers during their annual summer festival at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts. In past years, I had made the trek from my home in Wisconsin to the MASS MoCA event several times. Now I would spend a week hanging out with the composers who founded Bang on a Can, the six-member Bang on a Can All-Stars who played such great music, and dozens of young music and composition “Fellows” from around the world learning and performing every day. It was a fan’s dream come true!

Yet the pinch-me quality of my time with Bang on a Can was tempered by the real demands of the workshop. Since there were only four of us Media Fellows, our writing received close attention from our instructors—John Schaefer, the host and producer of WNYC’s radio popular series New Sounds, and William Robin, a musicologist who teaches at the University of Maryland and is a contributor to The New York Times and The New Yorker.

John and Will critiqued our daily pieces about music performed at the festival and made suggestions for revisions con brio.  John in particular objected to the use of “gorgeous” to describe a piece of music, saying it’s overused and too vague. (I’ll never be able to see this word in print without thinking of his disdain for it.) Both instructors stressed that even the short articles (400-600 words) we were writing should tell an involving story. One memorable example was their reaction to a profile I wrote about one of the composition fellows in which I noted the fellow’s earlier volunteer work translating for victims of torture just in passing. Even though this experience didn’t involve music, fleshing it out would have revealed more about his personality and could be interesting to the reader. At the same time, “Tighten up the structure of the piece” was a refrain I heard throughout the week. New music composers experimented with all manner of nonlinear forms, but their music was best described by well-organized prose.

Although my fellow Fellows in the media seminar were considerably younger, I came to accept that I could learn from their writing. After all, seasoned composers don’t turn a deaf ear to a Mozart masterpiece just because he wrote it at an age when they were in grad school. On example was this clear, informative excerpt from piece by Maggie Molloy, editor at Second Inversion radio station in Seattle, on composer Eve Beglarian’s Play Like A Girl: “The unusual collection of timbres made for a modern take on the distinctively close harmonies of Bulgarian folk music, with a restless stream of piano and glockenspiel melodies circling above a growling synth drone. While the driving rhythms propelled the piece closer to the world of minimalism, the more subtle modal ornaments embodied the emotive folk traditions of Eastern Europe.”

I also learned that all writers could benefit from spending time in a musician’s rehearsal room like the one where I revised my articles at MASS MoCA. “OK, let’s try it again,” an ensemble leader said for the fifth time in about as many minutes.  Then once more I heard the frantic jangle of strings, a piano, other percussion instruments, and a soprano singing staccato syllables. I realized that writers aren’t the only ones who have to do their work over and over to get it just right, and was very impressed by how quickly musicians do their kind of revising.

So now when I begin writing a third or fourth draft of an article on new music, I’ll say to myself, “OK, let’s take it from the top—just like the musicians who are even cooler than music writers.”

Fierceness Devoted to Truth—Remembering Glenn Branca (1948-2018)

Ed Note: It has been more than two months since the music community mourned the passing of Glenn Branca, but he still remains very much on the minds of many of us. Among the many composers who have been deeply affected by Branca is Michael Gordon who not only dedicated his seminal 1988 composition Four Kings Fight Five to Branca but who also, in his capacity as one of the three artistic directors of Bang on a Can, was responsible for presenting his work at BoaC’s annual marathon several times over the last 30 years as well as recording it for BoaC’s Cantaloupe Music label. So we asked Michael to share his unique memories of this unique musical creator.—FJO

In the post office on Prince Street that is now an Apple Store, I walk in and there’s a long line. I see Glenn Branca. He’s farther along in the line and he’s in an intense conversation with a woman. It’s Reg Bloor. I know that only later. I hadn’t met her then. I watch. It’s New York. Glenn Branca is in line at the Post Office. How can that be? Hasn’t he been able to commandeer the laws of physics and just get his package there?

Imagine a sound that is the black hole of sounds.

Scientists say that black holes are so dense with matter that light isn’t able to escape. Such fierce density is theorized but not experienced. Imagine a sound that is the black hole of sounds. Every possible location on the sound spectrum has been filled. There is more sound than can be heard. There is so much sound, the sound itself is creating more sound. It is an over-saturation of sound. And all that sound is a by-product of music. You hear the music and you hear imagined musics simultaneously. Perhaps they are choirs of heavenly bodies. You are at a Glenn Branca concert in the 1980s. You are at Symphony #3. I ask around for cigarettes, tear off the filters and stuff them in my ears.

It was actually earlier—the picture says 1979. Is that possible? I was going out every night to hear music. The concert said ‘experimental’ or something like that, but to me it sounded like a bunch of not-so-great bands. I can’t remember anything about it except being trapped. I can’t leave, because maybe the next thing is worth listening to. It was the final thing. It looked like another band. Four guitars? Drums, bass? Is there a keyboard? Was someone conducting? No. Branca is in front of the band, back to the audience, faster, louder. Someone with a sledge hammer starts slamming a metallic object. Dissonance. This is why I’m here! This is why I moved to New York!

Ten years later, I call Branca. Mr. Branca. I know his name is Glenn but when we talk about him, we call him Branca. “I want you to play Symphony #6 on the festival.” Branca starts yelling at me. I love this guy. I know he’s fierce, and I know that all that fierceness is devoted to truth. We do the concert. Branca is unhappy with how it went, and afterwards he locks himself up somewhere backstage. People are waiting after the show to congratulate him. Someone big is there. Was it Bowie? But Branca is miserable and won’t come out. The following night we do it again and things go well. He’s relaxed and he talks to people.

Michael Gordon and Glenn Branca (photo by Stephanie Berger, courtesy Bang on a Can)

Michael Gordon and Glenn Branca (photo by Stephanie Berger, courtesy Bang on a Can)

Branca is a sensation. He’s touring and he must be making money because he has a studio to work in. Was it in a basement? I visit him there, and he explains his theories. It must have been a while back because the paper in the printer had little holes on the sides and the numbers, lots of numbers, had that unsmoothed, undigital look. He has charts, he has graphs and more numbers. He fits in with those brainy people in Europe who think a lot. When you are at a performance, you are at a primal scream ritual. People could be throwing themselves into the flames. But in his studio, Branca is thinking about overtones. He is mapping large movements of harmonics.

When you are at a performance, you are at a primal scream ritual.

“We have an orchestra,” I tell him. “It’s called Spit Orchestra. We want to play your orchestra music.” The World Upside Down. Branca is very practical. It’s all written out, it all works, it sounds like Branca, but there are no guitars. The precise markings of overtones have been replaced with conventional signs indicating 1/8th tone or 1/4 tone flat and sharp. He explains: they can’t get any more precise than this and it sounds good. It does sound good.

I’m at LPR to hear Branca. It’s Symphony #15. The lines down the block are a distant memory. There are people seated at tables, ordering drinks. But not enough people. I am embarrassed. But not Glenn. He is as always. There are movements, about seven of them. Not sure. One of them is totally bizarre. They are throwing things through the air that make sound. It’s whimsical. It is funny. I don’t get it. After, Branca says, “Did you get it?” I didn’t get it. Later I get it. Branca has written a Scherzo. Branca must be happy.

The last time I see Branca, it’s 2015. He is playing on the festival again. The Ascension Three. Is Glenn a Catholic? Does he pray? Does he have visions? He is just as extreme as 1979. Thirty-six years later, he is extremely extreme. He has channeled those visions into sound, and the sound is still too big for human consumption. The airwaves are soaked, and there’s so much music that it’s flooding the system. The merchants at the Winter Garden complain about Branca. We’ve been there for ten years, and they’ve never complained. Branca is too much. We get kicked out of the venue for good. Branca was the last act we did there.

Glenn Branca "conducting" an ensemble of electric guitars in a performance of his Ascension at the World Financial Center's Winter Garden during the 2015 Bang on a Can Marathon (Photo by Stephanie Berger, courtesy Bang on a Can)

Glenn Branca “conducting” an ensemble of electric guitars in a performance of his Ascension at the World Financial Center’s Winter Garden during the 2015 Bang on a Can Marathon (Photo by Stephanie Berger, courtesy Bang on a Can)

Are we going to hear this music again? I thought that then, that night in 2015, and I think that now. The Symphonies were created, and sometimes recorded, in a process that isn’t easily recreatable. Many of the musicians were taught by rote. Were scores left? Is anyone going to take this on? Even if they do, can anyone channel the energy that Branca summoned during a performance? Are these like great buildings, designed, built, destroyed? Is all we have left a picture?

In my tiny corner of the universe, listening to Branca’s music meant that your soul had been purified or purged and had knelt before God in humility and glory. And that by some upending of the laws of nature, you manage to bottle a scent of it and bring it back to earth, and turn that scent into music, and that music, which is just a sound of a scent of something holy, is all that you have and everything that you have.

Symphony #6, sub-titled Devil Choirs At The Gates Of Heaven, is all of it in a nutshell. It’s the dichotomy of Branca’s music: by excessive use of loudness, grungy guitars, microtonal tuning, dark and heavily tuned drums, maniacal energy, and erratic onstage persona, his music manages to alienate almost the entire classical music world. By excessive large scale musical form, lack of vocals, microtonal tuning, abstractness, non-narrative-ness, and complete un-commerciality, it manages to alienate almost the entire popular music world. It is a marriage of Heaven and Hell that repulses all and demands expulsion. About what kind of art can you make a statement like that?

I took comfort knowing that Branca lived a subway ride away.

I wake up and have the feeling that New York City isn’t the same. We build the Glory of Civilization on the backs of our most expansive minds. There is nothing about this city that makes it a Great City except the people who live here. Now there is one less. If I didn’t see Glenn every day, or every year, I took comfort knowing that he lived a subway ride away. It might seem strange to say that, more than anyone I know, Glenn was an uncorrupted soul. How artists hang on as they navigate through the maze of those who buy, criticize, and analyze, applaud, and ignore, is a measure of a life. To me, Glenn was a pious monk and a messenger of holy sounds, and I hope that there was a choir of angels singing for him when he arrived at the gates of heaven.


Ed. Note: In 2012, NewMusicBox published an extensive conversation with Glenn Branca. Here are some of the highlights:

Glenn Branca in conversation with Frank J. Oteri at Smash Studios in New York City
October 3, 2012—7 p.m.
Video filmed by Alexandra Gardner
Video edited by Molly Sheridan

Julia Wolfe Named 2016 MacArthur Fellow

Julia Wolfe is among the 23 recipients of 2016 MacArthur Fellowships. She was recognized for the creation of music that “combines influences from folk, classical, and rock genres in works that are grounded in historical and legendary narratives. Often described as post-minimalist, Wolfe demonstrates an openness to sonic possibilities, with choral elements and instruments such as the mountain dulcimer, bagpipes, and body percussion often augmenting string and orchestral arrangements.”

The Bang on a Can co-founder and co­–artistic director is noted for the integration of music, movement, and visual elements in her work. Currently associate professor of music composition at the Steinhardt School at New York University, Wolfe won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for her piece Anthracite Fields, which explored the complex history of the coal mining industry.

The MacArthur Fellowship is a “no strings attached” award that comes with a stipend of $625,000 to the recipient, paid out in equal quarterly installments over five years. More information about the 2016 MacArthur fellows and the awarding process is available on the MacArthur Foundation website.

Imagining Community at Bang on a Can’s First Marathon

Bang on a Can poster
What is a community in new music? A panel of musicologists attempted to answer this question at the second annual New Music Gathering last January. Community might be manifested in an experimental commune, in the practices of minimalist music, in the radical identity politics of an opera, or in the labor of administrators and institutions. Rather than provide a singular answer to what a new music community might be, our panel provided many. Over the coming weeks, you can read our examinations of new music and community from a variety of historical and ethnographic perspectives. We are very grateful to NewMusicBox for hosting this weekly series, to the organizers of New Music Gathering for sponsoring a thought-provoking conference, and to our home institutions for supporting our research.—Will Robin

“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.[1]

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.[2]

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.

Bang on a Can program

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.”[3] [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.[4]

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.[5]

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.[6]

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.

Bang on a Can poster

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.”[7]


will robin

Will Robin

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.”



1. David Lang, “Body Count,” New York Times, 26 June 1988.


2. Julia Wolfe, quoted in program brochure for Great Performers at Lincoln Center Bang on a Can All-Stars, 15 March 1995.


3. Bernard Holland, “Music: The Bang on a Can Festival,” New York Times, 14 May 1987. Emphasis mine.


4. Milton Babbitt, spoken introduction at Bang on a Can Festival, 11 May 1987. Author’s transcription of archival audio materials from WNYC archives, printed with permission of WNYC.


5. Wolfe, “Embracing the Clash” (PhD diss., Princeton University, 2012),


6. Lang, quoted in Kyle Gann, “After Ugly Music,” Village Voice, 1 June 1993.


7. Lang, “Body Count”; Bang on a Can, “About Us,” http://bangonacan.org/about_us.

Follow the Bang on a Can Marathon and Make Music NY on NewMusicBox

We’re tweeting from both the 2015 Bang on a Can Marathon and various Make Music NY concerts all day today. Tune in to this page to watch the Bang on a Can live stream and follow our coverage. You can also join the conversation on Twitter by tweeting at us (@NewMusicBox) with #BangMarathon2015 and #MakeMusicNY.

Watch the Bang on a Can Marathon below:


Bang on a Can Marathon, FREE for the public at the Winter Garden at Brookfield Place (230 Vesey Street), co-presented by Arts Brookfield and Lower Manhattan Cultural Council as part of the River To River Festival. This annual incomparable super-mix of boundary-busting music from around the corner and around the world features ten hours of rare performances by some of the most innovative musicians of our time side-by-side with some of today’s most pioneering young artists.


Lead support for the 2015 Bang on a Can Marathon is provided by the Howard Gilman Foundation and by ASCAPprotecting, supporting, and fostering the work of composers worldwide.

Ken Thomson: Energized Complexities


Mention composer and sax/clarinet player Ken Thomson in conversation or seek out his work online, and you’ll pretty quickly get to some description of the intense physicality of his playing (he has been known to jump around some on stage) or his impressive work ethic (he’s involved in more than a few projects, including Slow/Fast, Gutbucket, Asphalt Orchestra, and Bang on a Can All-Stars).

Yet while he’s too easygoing and good natured to actually roll his eyes at me when I open our conversation with a question about this slightly manic characterization, it’s understandable that the pigeonholing is starting to wear thin. “It’s sort of the first thing that people say—’Oh, usually he’s the guy jumping up and down, blah, blah, blah’—even when I’m not!”
Still, he doesn’t deny that he likes to use his body in performance, both for musically expressive purposes and to deal with the more practical aspects of leading a group in often high-decibel environments without the use of his arms. A first violinist’s standard sniff cue will just not cut it.

“I like being physical when I’m playing, and I think that’s really important actually to show that you’re in it,” Thomson explains. But while his onstage persona might—at least sometimes—communicate a high-energy, in-your-face kind of guy, he actually feels much more reserved when away from the stage lights. A consideration of his scores deepens this view—his often-complex work is carefully designed and communicates powerfully in live performance without exhausting the audience. During a recent tour stop promoting his ensemble Slow/Fast’s release Settle, crowd attention never seemed to waver.


It’s a live consumption situation Thomson is careful to facilitate. “I obviously like music that’s exciting, that kind of keeps you on the edge of your seat in a lot of ways,” he points out, and during performance, he’s continuously monitoring the room to make sure the audience is still with him. “I’m really good at seeing yawns,” he admits, “or if I start feeling like we’re losing some kind of touch, it’s a very palpable feeling for me.”

He carries those concerns about attention back to his desk when first crafting music, a process that he has learned to be patient with. Sometimes pieces simmer along slowly for a while, and at other times they must rest entirely some months before completion. “I used to write too quickly, I think, and then I would come back the next day and think, ‘God, this is terrible!’ I’m a better editor maybe than a writer, and sort of give myself time to have fresh ideas along the way.”

Photo by Naomi White Connect with Ken:On TwitterOn FacebookOn YouTubeOn SoundCloud

Photo by Naomi White
Connect with Ken:
On Twitter
On Facebook
On YouTube
On SoundCloud

Thomson’s compositional output, showcased by the scores and media presented on his website, now spans a broad range of contexts. One thing that his online reputation is light on, however, is the typical list of schools attended and commissions fulfilled, something he suggests he doesn’t find “super relevant.” When asked, the Columbia grad doesn’t diminish his educational experience, but credits the opportunities it allowed him to learn and perform outside the classroom—both on stage and at his campus radio station, WKCR, where he was jazz director for two and a half years.

Columbia was also where he met and began playing with guitarist Ty Citerman, with whom he works in the collaborative, genre-mashing quartet Gutbucket to this day. When the group was first getting off the ground and exploring their sound, they had a weekly gig at the Knitting Factory where they would try out material. “We started getting better when we started getting beyond adding this plus this plus this,” Thompson recalls, noting that this more complete fusion is still something he’s always looking to do. “I never want to have something sound like, ‘Oh, this is the moment that’s the rock moment, or this is the jazz moment, or this is the contemporary classical moment’—ugh. To me, everything has to make sense.”
But for all the vital diversity his various project lineups and genre influences provide him, Thomson says that in many ways he feels a bit out of touch with the current zeitgeist. “I’m writing music for human beings without electronics. I haven’t done multimedia; I’m not using Max. I feel like I’m totally losing every grant!” he jokes, bursting into laughter.
“It’s really so much about the sound of the instruments and what they do together, and that’s what I love about music. So in that way I think I’m really hopelessly old school, and I don’t know how to fix that. Maybe I shouldn’t.”

Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival: A Sandbox of Sounds


A montage of concerts, rehearsals, and random happenings from throughout
Bang on a Can’s 2013 Summer Music Festival.
Video footage by MASS MoCA and Zach Herchen, edited by Zach Herchen.

This past July I was fortunate enough to attend Bang on a Can’s Summer Music Festival as a 2013 fellow. The three-week event was held at MASS MoCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art), a huge modern art museum in North Adams, Massachusetts. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, but a distinct vibe quickly developed during the first week: non-stop youthful creative energy.

Right this way to MASS MoCA

Right this way to MASS MoCA’s 110,000 square feet of contemporary art galleries.
All photos by Zach Herchen.

During our time together, faculty and fellows performed a large amount of music. This doesn’t simply mean that Bang on a Can programmed a lot of pieces, though we certainly dug into plenty of great works. The festival is structured in a way that encourages everyone to explore and collaborate. Think of it as half festival, half artist retreat. Daily lunchtime recitals were open for fellows to perform anything we liked in the art gallery of our choice. These concerts included improvisations, commissioned works, modern repertoire, and numerous new compositions composed by fellows during the festival. In our free time, fellows often met up for jam sessions, readings of compositional drafts, and one or two unscheduled concerts. After-hours hangouts included two karaoke nights at the local bar with a live backing band of festival participants.

Bang on a Can fellows improvise

Bang on a Can fellows Brendon Randall-Myers (left), Lucie Grugier (center), and David Sánchez García (right) improvise music alongside artwork by Joseph Montgomery during a lunchtime recital.

Faculty and fellows were placed into several structured groups ranging from standard quartets, to chamber orchestras, to bands mirroring the Bang on a Can All-Stars instrumentation. These groups performed ten premieres by composition fellows, daily evening recitals, and a seven-hour concluding marathon. In addition to these concerts, fellows learned and performed African drumming, Latin jazz, a sign language for conducting improvised music called sound painting, and new ways of creating music in the Orchestra of Original Instruments.

An evening recital in a gallery of Jason Middlebrook’s painted hardwood planks.

The Bang on a Can All-Stars present an evening recital in a gallery of Jason Middlebrook’s painted hardwood planks.

By asking fellows to learn and perform so much new music within a few days, we were pushed to absorb and explore, often in ways we weren’t used to doing. African drumming was taught by ear with no discussion of rhythm or meter. Latin jazz involved quick arrangements and comfort in following new ideas on the fly. Sound painting required attentive improvisation to understand directions in a sign language that was new to most of us. The Orchestra of Original Instruments asked us to explore sound creation through tubes, balloons, humming, Québécois clogging, and a variety of original instruments made by Gunnar Schonbeck. Here the music wasn’t just new—it was sounds we’d never heard and instruments we’d never played. In this environment it was natural to broaden our self-image from a specialist in one instrument to a general sound-maker. The overlapping theme of each day? Forget your expectations, discover what your peers can offer, and be surprised by what you can create.

Fellows explore Gunnar Schonbeck’s original instruments.

Fellows meet in an undeveloped section of MASS MoCA to explore Gunnar Schonbeck’s original instruments for the first time.

While these ideas are not completely new, it was the fellows and faculty that made them so compelling. Every style performed throughout the festival (contemporary, funk, classical, hip-hop, jazz, folk, and classic rock, to name a few) was presented with the same passion and interest. Fellows were often found trying out new lessons such as drumming patterns, sound painting symbols, and clogging in our free time. While performance technique was of the highest caliber, technical perfection was not an end in itself. Instead, presenting the best art you can and enjoying the moment was at the heart of each concert.

Festival fellow Joe Tucker performs a work for vibraphone and playback.

Festival fellow Joe Tucker performs a work for vibraphone and playback next to one of 105 large-scale wall drawings designed by Sol LeWitt.

We were asked to shed restrictions, open our ears, and return to a place of youthful excitement where we found our love of music; take risks, share that idea we’d kept to ourselves, and always say yes. Whether it was a rendition of “The Old Castle” from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition over a 3/4 drumming rhythm, playing a trumpet into a bowl of water, or overlaying Stevie Wonder’s “Superstitious” with The Beatles’ “Day Tripper,” this year’s festival was a breeding ground for projects, ideas, and new experiences. It’s easy to miss the utopian feel of a three-week music festival, and difficult to keep that energy and excitement as I reintegrate to normal life. I can say with certainty, though, that I look forward to hearing what my peers create next and feel ready to get a dream project off the ground.

Performance under Xu Bing's Pheonix. a Can Summer Music Festival

Festival fellow Ben Willis sings into his bass during a performance under Xu Bing’s Pheonix.

Venue Reflections

This past weekend I live-blogged my third Bang on a Can Marathon concert experience. I’m lucky enough to have a New York State School Music Association young composer call-for-scores judging session the two days following the marathon every year, so I’ve made it a point to come in early and let folks who aren’t in Lower Manhattan know what’s going on during the massive concert. This year in particular was interesting because of the change in locations, as this presented the opportunity to compare and contrast the same event in two very different performance spaces.

This was the fourth marathon I’ve attended in a row, with the first three having been presented at the Winter Garden Atrium in the World Financial Center. A cavernous space illuminated by thousands of windows facing the Hudson River, the Winter Garden has a high-end shopping mall-like quality that exemplifies the concept of an “alternative venue.” It is big enough to give one the freedom to get up and walk around the edge of the audience, go get a bite to eat in the adjoining food court, or traverse the balconies during the concerts. Acoustically, the venue is a mixed bag—the cathedral-like room is challenging when a detail-oriented piece is being performed, but loud volumes aren’t distracting and the amplified nature of the music being presented allows for audience members to talk freely during the performances.

Due to renovations at the Winter Garden, Sunday’s marathon was forced to move to a substitute location in the Schimmel Center for the Arts at Pace University, a 700-seat traditional theater, and the shift in tone both in terms of the concert itself and the audience watching it was, from my perspective, quite stark.

For much of the event, the sound quality of the performances was much clearer than in the Winter Garden, and nuances and subtleties that would have been lost were quite strong here. The extensive use of amplification made for a slightly uneven experience at times, especially with such a wide variety of ensembles and instruments—many groups were balanced perfectly, but a few of the larger ensembles had uneven mixes and at least one group was painfully loud for the space. In general, performances in which detail was important were enhanced while performances that relied on broader gestures did not have as much impact as they might have in the larger space.

The array of audience seating allowed those in attendance to be much closer to the artists on stage as well, providing a more intimate experience. That being said, the change in feel from the audience’s perspective throughout the marathon was visceral; the audience seemed to be more subdued and less mobile, resulting in a much more “traditional” concert experience. Lighting design, not really an option in the sunlit atrium, was also used to a great degree and was quite effective.

Overall, the marathon was a successful and enjoyable experience, especially for those of us who stuck around through the entire event. (I stopped blogging before the penultimate performance but stayed till the end.) It was also an education for those of us interested in how venues affect the concert experience as well as how various musical styles “play” in different spaces.

Bang on a Can Marathon 2013 Live Blog

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[Ed. Note: New posts will be added to the bottom of the page with a time stamp. Please refresh to see new posts.]

Ready for nine hours of new music? For those who can’t be in the crowd for the 2013 Bang on a Can Marathon in New York City on Sunday, June 16 (Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts @ Pace University), we’ve embedded intrepid NMBx columnist Rob Deemer to keep you apprised of the goings on. So get ready, get set…
12:59. One minute to go and the audience is still filing into the hall here. Christina Jensen explained that, while normally the Marathon would be held at the World Financial Center, that venue is currently under contruction. The Schimmel Center at Pace University is an excellent venue – I saw David T. Little’s performance of his Soldier’s Songs earlier this year and it works great for both acoustic & amplified genres. I’ll be curious how the traditional setting affects the feel of the Marathon throughout the day – if you have questions or comments, please leave them below! 
1:19. The Marathon kicks off with Alarm Will Sound performing “El Dude”, the first movement from Derek Bermel’s Canzonas Americanas. This is my first time hearing AWS live, so check one more item off that particular bucket list! The ensemble is tight as they maneuver through Bermel’s serpentine counterpoint and backbeats; while it doesn’t swing per se, it comes mighty close at points. The luscious harmonies are well-orchestrated throughout the ensemble and overall the performers seemed to enjoy chewing into this piece. Acoustics have always been tricky with these concerts in the past – this performance was balanced well on stage, from my bearing, but some of the strings and other instruments are being amplified while others aren’t, which makes for a slightly off-kilter experience from the audience.

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Alarm Will Sound
(Photo by Thomas Deneuville and used with permission)

1:28. Alarm Will Sound continues with a work by Minnesota-based composer Jeffrey Brooks entitled After The Treewatcher. I’m not sure if it’s the particular way this piece is textured (it’s much thicker overall than Bermel’s with synths and electric guitar prevalent throughout), but the balance issue seems to be fixed. Brooks’ work is big and brash – very tasty piece!

1:38. In a complete contrast to AWS’s two big pieces, trumpeter Peter Evans comes out to perform a solo work of his own. Performing into a microphone, the virtuosic skitterings slowly morphed into a distorted sound mass…I’m not sure what kind of electronics are being used from the back of the hall (if there’s no electronics on this, then color me gobsmacked), but the performance as whole is very effective. Whispering in jazz-tinged lines that don’t ever seem to settle in one direction or another, Evans builds into something that could only be described as an Arban etude from hell. Scary chops and supremely musical performance.
1:51. Both Bang on a Can and Alarm Will Sound have been active in cultivating emerging composer talents – BOAC with their Summer Festival at MASS MOCA and AWS at the Mizzou New Music Festival at the University of Missouri – and the next piece has connections to them both. British composer Charlie Piper has attended both festivals and wrote Zoetrope for Alarm Will Sound last year. With its emphasis on cross-rhythms, insistent pulse, and fanciful colors, this piece is definitely within the BOAC oeuvre, but Piper’s use of light textures and transparent textures makes it stand out.
1:53. Christina Jennings just handed me a URL that you’ll want to check out: www.ustream.tv/channel/littledogtv – this will be in tandem with an upcoming piece by Lukas Ligeti!
2:07. Conductor and Artistic Director Alan Pierson announced from the stage that Caleb Burhans, one of the ensemble’s core members and composer of the next piece, got into a pretty serious accident last night after AWS performed an all-Burhans concert at Le Poisson Rouge last night. With hopes that he recovers fully, they lay into Caleb’s o ye of little faith…(do you know where your children are?) with conviction. o ye… relies less on constant pulse (though it is never missing) and more on slowly-evolving chordal gestures that build to a rumbling crescendo.
2:08. UPDATE: The link above will be a livestream of the Ligeti piece in a few moments…there will be a handful of performances that will be livestreamed today. Stay tuned!
2:16. As I mentioned before, the feel of this Marathon is pretty different – not bad, just different – than the previous ones in the Financial Center. The pace seems to be much quicker between pieces and you see less of the relaxed atmosphere than in the mall-like venue across town…again, no criticism, just an observation. I’ve wondered how well these concert Marathons would connect in a more traditional, enclosed space – time will tell.
2:36. Lukas Ligeti has been exploring the music of African and incorporating its concepts into his music for quite some time now and his new work for two drumsets, Iakoni in kazonnde, is a very impressive example of this integration. Inspired by Ghanian agogo bell traditions, Ligeti pits one drumset against another with intricate cross-rhythms overlaying on top of one another. It’s not as flashy as one might expect a double drumset piece to be, but infinitely more interesting.
2:48. Proof that the rock band/chamber music combination is not just an American concept, Cabaret Contemporain seems to have picked up the idea and ran with it in their homeland of France. They’ll be starting in just a few minutes…

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Cabaret Contemporain
(Photo by Thomas Deneuville and used with permission)

3:05. Wow – wasn’t expecting that. Not sure what I was expecting, but I’m liking it nonetheless. I’ve seen BOAC have DJ’s perform during past Marathons and this performance reminded of that – except it’s a live group with keyboards, electric guitar, drumset and two upright basses (though one had to leave the stage due to technical difficulties beyond his control only to emerge minute later to the delight of the audience). Not very subtle – it wasn’t meant to be – but quite satisfying in a visceral way. Their attention to timbre, balance, and texture is pretty impressive – it’s not often you see a bass player playing beneath the bridge and a pianist playing inside the piano while a guitarist and drumset lays down a complex techno beat. If you haven’t heard of this group – now’s the time.
3:32. After the first of several pauses, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus performs two new works, the first one, Before the Words, is an a cappella work by Shara Worden (she of My Brightest Diamond). Joyous in nature, Shara’s first foray into choral repertoire is deceptively challenging for the choir, but the young singers do a wonderful job of executing the interlocking textures – kudos to the two solo singers who came out front! All of these singers seem about 12-15 in age…really glad to see composers working with younger performers in such a high-profile context.
3:40. The 45-member choir is now being joined by a string quartet and piano to perform Nico Muhly’s Respect of a Storm. This piece pushed the envelope in different directions than Worden’s and didn’t fare as well…the textures seemed blurred at times and while the string quartet didn’t get in the way, it didn’t seem necessary either. The Chorus’ performance was solid, however, and one hopes that more choirs take this group as a model for working with new literature and living composers.

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NYUSTEEL w/ NYU Contemporary Music Ensemble
(Photo by Thomas Deneuville and used with permission)

4:10. From Michael Gordon’s comments, Kendall Williams’ Conception is the first instance of a steel band – in this case NYUSTEEL along with the NYU Contemporary Music Ensemble) – that they’ve had at a BOAC Marathon. The work combines a six-piece steel pan ensemble with a 10-piece mixed chamber ensemble and the result is quite good – I’d be curious to hear what it sounded without the amplification (which made sections almost unbearably loud from my perch in the balcony). Williams mentioned that he’s played steel pan for over 20 years and is a graduate of NYU, so he knew the group well and wrote a damn fine piece for them.
4:19. You’ll probably notice that I mention the use of pulse, repetition, ostinati, etc. a lot today…I’m gonna stay away from labels, but safe to say we are at the Bang on a Can Marathon, so there are several threads that tend to run through much of the repertoire  during the day that I’ll try to explore as we go along.
4:33. One of the  characteristics of the BOAC Marathons are their penchant for sudden stylistic “left turns”, and we’ve just took one. Yungchen Lhamo and Anton Batagov (voice & piano respectively) are performing two works (entitled White Palace and Medicine Buddha) that are much more relaxed and tranquil than anything else we’ve heard so far. Batagov’s effective accompaniment serves as an undulating foundation upon which Lhamo meanders utilizing the vocal techniques she learned in her native Tibet. It is mysterious at times, listless at others, and ethereal throughout.

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Brooklyn Youth Chorus and TILT Brass
(photo by Thomas Deneuville and used with permission)

4:58. The Brooklyn Youth Chorus returns to the stage along with members of the NYC-based TILT brass ensemble for Astral Epitaphs, a work John King composed for the final performances of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company at the Park Avenue Armory two years ago. From what I can tell, the work is completely aleatoric, with each instrument and the choir being picked up by microphones that are being fed into a computer and relayed back through spatial speakers throughout the room with various elctro-acoustic transformations. With an array of 45 singers in a half-circle around the stage and three trumpets and three trombones lined up in front, the work is as visually stunning as it is aurally. I can imagine this piece was scheduled before the move to the Pace Center was necessary – the effect in the Financial Center’s Winter Garden would not be quite so harsh at points and more expansive in others…but overall the impact of the piece was very strong, especially as the choir began to sing in (relative) unison at the conclusion.
5:20. In-yo-face duo Talk Normal is about half-way through their set of three pieces…I’ll talk more about the music in a sec, but I’d like to point out that we’re sitting in a 700-seat theatre and not a stadium…I have the utmost respect for viscerality in performances, but I also like my eardrums. Taking the risk of sounding like an old man – it’s a little too loud. Just a touch. UPDATE: Ok, rant over. Talk Normal was actually quite inventive in their concept – they obviously wanted to make an impact with the audience and they most certainly achieved that.

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Asphalt Orchestra
(photo by Thomas Deneuville and used with permission)

5:30.  It wouldn’t be a BOAC Marathon without the Asphalt Orchestra bringing their front line attitude bear. As the only new music marching band, they really do have a vast latitude with which to push & pull their repertoire. Today they’re  playing arrangements of several Pixies tunes arranged by the members of the ensemble as a sneak peek of their concert next week at Lincoln Center. Ken Thomson in particular is on fire during this set and Ken Bentley stands out in a great way on sousaphone.
5:54. Going on five hours planted in one spot…luckily I’m being easily distracted by the beautiful solo violin performance of Monica Germino. More soon…
6:07. I’ve seen a fair helping of works for solo instrument and electronics, but Julia Wolfe’s With a blue dress on may be my new favorite…a major work for solo violin (expecting the violinist to sing) along with looping and other digital effects based off of the folk tune “Pretty Little Girl with the Blue Dress On”. Germino was awe-inspiring in her performance of the work and the sound design by Frank van der Weii was just right…definitely one of the highlights of the concert so far.
The next work is Schnee by Hans Abrahamsen performed by the Talea Ensemble…Michael Gordon just warned us that it was an hour long and suggested those of us who have been here for a while might want to use the opportunity to grab a bite. I shall do just that…

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Talea Ensemble
(Photo by Thomas Deneuville and used with permission)

7:38. Alright – just was able to grab some dinner with Alexandra Gardner, so we’re both much more with it (6 hours in one place is a long time). I’d like to take this opportunity to give special props to Thomas Deneuville, the force of nature behind the online new music magazine I Care If You Listen. This is the second year that Thomas and I have sat next to each other as we live-blogged our way through the Marathon and while I was able to offer my power strip for his equipment, he’s been nice enough to share his photos of the concert (which are much better than anything I can get with my iPhone). When you get a chance, check out ICIYL!
7:45. A newcomer on the NYC new music scene, Hotel Elefant makes their debut performance on the BOAC Marathon by performing Angélica Negrôn’s trio for flute, viola/mandolin, and harp,  Drawings for Meyoko. Audacious, since the work was composed for another not-ancient ensemble – the Janus Trio – but also because the ensemble is so much bigger than this trio. Made up of 20 performers from NYC, Hotel Elefant is one of many new groups combining strong performers with an entrepreneurial mindset. It was a pleasure for me to hear the work, since I was already familiar with it from the Janus Trio’s recording and it’s so rare that we get to hear new works performed by more than one ensemble. The three performers, Domenica Fossati (alto flute), Andie Tanning Springer (viola and mandolin), and Kathryn Andrews (harp), were equally audacious and unafraid in the face of technical difficulties when they abruptly and calmly stopped the performance because they had lost their click track. A few minutes later and the second try came across quite strongly…Negrôn’s delicate electronics and intricate writing is top-notch and the trio performed beautifully in the face of adversity.
8:12. BOAC was nice enough to bring back the French quintet Cabaret Contemporain for a second set and while I think this set is even stronger than the first one (which was pretty amazing), it’s still a little disjunct to hear a group playing music that seems to scream to be danced to in front of 600+ audience members sitting there politely. Not a criticism, but an interesting observation…not sure what to make of it.

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Bang on a Can All-Stars with Shara Worden
(Photo by Thomas Deneuville and used with permission)

8:56. Almost eight hours in and the Bang on a Can All-Stars with their newest member, Ken Thomson, on clarinet and guest vocalist Shara Worden, have taken the stage. Introducing the next work is the composer, David Lang, as he describes his process of scanning through all of Schubert’s vocal works to find instances of Death being portrayed as a sentient being speaking about the afterlife, organizing them into a sensible order and setting them for the All-Stars. As with many of Lang’s other works, each section within the work seems to have one primary mood and texture with subtle changes shifting constantly. Worden’s voice is hauntingly beautiful in this context and the timbre of her voice soon becomes necessary – even a requirement – to make the full impact of the work come through – it’s hard to imagine anyone else supplying so much character while hewing to a narrowly limited melodic range. The ensemble as a whole gels effortlessly with no one sticking out or fading into the woodwork.

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Maya Beiser with the Provenance Project Band
(Photo by Thomas Deneuville and used with permission)

9:46. After taking a quick break to wish my dad “Happy Father’s Day” (hi, Dad!), I got back in time to hear cellist Maya Beiser perform Tamar Muskal’s Mar de Leche with the Provenance Project Band. Beiser sang magnificently through Muskal’s Arab-infused melodies while her compatriots on oud and hand drums all demonstrated their mastery on their instruments throughout the work. Beiser, more than almost anyone performing today, demonstrates a persona and an energy onstage that is difficult to define but definitely becomes an important part of not only her playing but of the work itself.
10:16. Blown away by the All-Stars’ performance of Annea Lockwood’s Vortex – great to hear the new version of the group with Ken going freakin’ nuts on bass clarinet. It’s been 10 hours since I got here and as much as I want to suck the marrow out of this bone to the very end, I am cashed out. I hope you’ve enjoyed my musings throughout the day and hope you get to come experience the Marathon at some point soon yourself.