My whole life has been dedicated to innovation, both as a composer and as a concert producer. I co-founded Bang on a Can out of the need to innovate, the need to take a fairly esoteric and hidden musical genre—experimental contemporary music—to a larger audience.
Bang on a Can was started when my composer friends Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe and I got out of graduate school in the mid-1980s and moved to New York. We would meet every day for breakfast and do what young composers do everywhere—complain bitterly about our fate.
The musical world was not built to do what we wanted it to do. Our music and the music of our friends and the masters we respected wasn't getting played, and if it was getting played it wasn't getting played well, and if it was getting played well it wasn't in front of a lot of people, and if it was in front of a lot of people they weren't the people who really wanted to hear it.
The music world was built to do many exciting and wonderful things but not the things we needed it to. So after a year of complaining we decided to do it ourselves.
Taking the Concert Apart
We began by examining carefully and methodically all aspects of the new music scene, looking for the things we thought needed changing. Some of these were the big things—what music got played, who played it, how did it sound?
But some of these were the small ones—where the concerts were held, what people wore, how the concerts felt (could you drink beer while listening?). We had this utopian idea that everything, big and small, needed to be pulled apart so we could tell what needed to be fixed and then put it all back together again.
The music scene in New York back in the mid-1980s was Balkanized into little communities, each with their own composers and acolytes and players and listeners and venues and funders. There was the uptown serious music scene with Elliott Carter and all the composers who wished they were Elliott Carter, and the knitting factory improv scene with John Zorn and all the composers who wished they were John Zorn, and the minimalists downtown with Steve Reich and Philip Glass and all the composers who wished they were Reich and Glass. What we realized was that this way of organizing the world sorted music by style. You went to each of these places and heard the best composer in that style and then a bunch of lesser music in the same style.
We grouped together all the innovative composers, regardless of what scene they were in—that way you would hear a concert that was about risk and freshness and adventure, and not a concert pitting one style of music against another.
We looked for another way to sort music, one that would allow music to be heard with fresh ears. We knew there was innovation happening in each of these communities, with both innovative and conservative composers.
We thought it would be interesting if we grouped together all the innovative composers, regardless of what scene they were in—that way you would hear a concert that was about risk and freshness and adventure, and not a concert pitting one style of music against another. There is also innovative music in the worlds of pop, jazz, and even world music. We hit upon an idea that allowed us to cross many boundaries to present the music that was falling in the cracks between the categories.
We Wanted Our Audience To Feel Optimism
Most of the things we thought about had to do with the experience of our audience. We wanted our audience to hear each piece fresh. Usually when you go to a new music concert you hear four pieces and everyone goes out afterwards and compares notes: the first piece was okay, the second hung a dog, the third we all agree was the best, and so on.
This feeling that each concert is a contest, that people are supposed to agree with each other about artistic tastes and that composers fight each other for your love and attention, is not helpful.
To get away from the comparison shopping way of listening we came up with the idea of marathon concerts, concerts that would be 12 hours long with listeners invited to come and go as they pleased so that no two people would have the same experience.
Mostly what we wanted our audience to feel was optimism—that the music world was full of interesting music and dedicated people doing important things, and that even if the music was challenging it was accessible to everyone. We wanted to do everything we could to support this feeling of openness and optimism, so we chose an offbeat name to keep the event from sounding too stuffy.
We decided to present the music in an art gallery to keep it from being influenced by the associations that would have come from a more traditional musical venue, and we made it as informal as possible, with no program notes and performers dressing down.
We chose a concert format so long that listeners coming and going all day and night would each have a different experience. Most of all, we chose an eclectic super-mix of musical styles and ideas. The first marathon featured appearances by such leading lights as Steve Reich, John Cage, Pauline Oliveros, and Milton Babbitt, but most of the music was by the young and unknown. It is a formula that Bang on a Can has followed to this day.
We chose a concert format so long that listeners coming and going all day and night would each have a different experience.
In the 20+ years since the founding of Bang on a Can we have continued to fix as many of the problems in the music world we could. We still do the marathon concerts and have produced over 40 of them in places around the world. We have a touring ensemble, the Bang on a Can All-Stars, and a record label, Cantaloupe Music (which has released an excellent choral CD, the amazing microtonal piece Chrysalid Requiem by Toby Twining). We also have a school for young professional composers and performers from around the world that meets for three weeks each summer in the Berkshires.
But there is still a lot more to do and a simple reason why. We inherit our musical institutions. We think that the world we grew up in was always this way and that the way music is made now is the way it was made from the beginning. It is a comforting and seductive thought but totally untrue.
Only by looking carefully at every assumption can you tell which ones are worth keeping and which ones you should change. It goes without saying that everyone would change something different, in his or her own way, and that is a very good thing. It is our duty to innovate, to refresh our worlds, to challenge the past, and to build new audiences and new opportunities. This is a responsibility we all share.
This article is adapted from The Voice, Spring 2008.