Bang on a Can composer-founders Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe don’t just create music. They’ve also created a utopian environment where independent-minded young composers and performers gather every summer for three weeks to immerse themselves in contemporary and experimental music. The institute celebrated its 10th season this summer, and I traveled to North Adams, Massachusetts, to hear the culminating marathon concert at MASS MoCA. As was evidenced by the six hours of excellent performances of exciting new pieces (and a couple of oldies) by the Institute Fellows alongside the Bang on a Can All-Stars, the festival is going full-steam ahead into decade number two. I had the pleasure of interviewing “the big three” (Gordon, Lang, and Wolfe), as well as performance faculty member clarinetist/composer Ken Thomson and 2011 composer fellow David T. Little.
MASS MoCA (the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art) has been a home to the festival ever since 1998, when David Lang put on a hard hat to tour the building site and proposed the idea to Museum Director Joe Thompson. The museum provides Bang on a Can with an idyllic summer home which supports their community-based, boundary-pushing philosophy.
Programming for the summer festival is a little different from what Bang on a Can chooses to play throughout the year, in New York City and on tour with the Bang on a Can All-Stars. At the festival, the music is selected specifically to provide a well-rounded experience for the performer fellows in residence.
To collaborate with and coach the fellows, the festival has an all-star faculty cast, including members of Alarm Will Sound, eighth blackbird, and of course, the Bang on a Can All-Stars. Faculty member clarinetist/composer Ken Thomson said he was playing music with the fellows from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day, stopping only to eat! Thomson’s commitment to musical excellence clearly caught on, as the marathon performances were high caliber throughout the afternoon and evening. From the opening piece, Christine Southworth’s driving Super Collider, all the way through the grand finale, Julia Wolfe’s bizarre and dissonant tell me everything, the performers were simultaneously fearless and communicative. I especially enjoyed seeing all the fellows onstage in the Orchestra of Original Instruments, with homemade balloon horns, whirlie tubes, and Pee-wee Herman-style larger-than-life-sized instruments built by Gunnar Schonbeck.
The festival celebrates broad musicianship; this year’s festival offered improv sessions, Mark Stewart’s amazing Orchestra of Original Instruments, and African dancing/drumming rhythm seminar led by Ghana master Nani Agbeli. Kenny Salveson and Tim Thomas from the Bang on a Can administrative staff offer seminars on music business and fundraising. Community growth is fostered by relationships formed with the teachers and other fellows alike. Many fellows leave the festival and start their own ensembles or festivals (New York’s Loadbang, the San Francisco Bay Area’s Switchboard Music Festival, and East Coast/West Coast ensemble Redshift, to name a few).
But there’s also teaching by example. Aside from the musical and practical lessons built into the institute program, there is a general attitude of positivity, openness, individuality, and generosity exuded by everyone involved with the Bang on a Can organization. 2011 composer fellow David T. Little noted how the festival effectively wiped out any cynicism he had built up from a busy musical life in New York City. It is indeed an honor and a privilege to be a composer, and to continue to ask the questions that shape our creative lives.