The Who and Why of Bang On A Can
10. The Identity of BOAC vs. the Identity of its 3 Directors
FRANK J. OTERI: One of the things that’s so amazing about the Bang On A Can Festival, is, in a way, it’s like a radio show.
DAVID LANG: Well, yeah. It’s a variety act.
FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah — it’s sitting and listening, or it’s sitting with a bunch of friends together and listening to a bunch of really interesting records. “These are the records that I bought this week.” And, you know, that’s the energy that should be on the radio and there are people who do this stuff on college radio stations. But that’s not what’s happening straight across the board. I want to turn to a whole other area completely 180 from where we’ve been so far, because each of you are composers of significance in your own rights and you each have separate careers and are doing separate things. It’s this amazing juggling act having Bang On A Can and then having your own individual projects, a lot of which are really starting to blossom. How do you separate the two? How do you work on your own individual projects and shepherd this entity, Bang On A Can?
JULIA WOLFE: The question is, how do we survive every day? [laughs] It’s pretty tricky. I think that we’re all very giving, and that helps a lot. Whenever someone’s really busy, they don’t go to every meeting. When someone’s got a workshop, or a deadline, or a record, or whatever’s going on, two of us meet.
FRANK J. OTERI: So the everyday meetings aren’t all three of you.
JULIA WOLFE: No. Pretty much most days we see each other, just mostly out of friendship. But it’s definitely a juggling act. The nice thing about it is the organization has evolved to where we’re not running the logistical things – we’re very close to it, we’re talking to the two guys in the office every day. We do have a two-person office for that, it has been a three-person office and it will become a three-person office again. In the past, we’ve just had some great, great people who are totally just music nuts, like they have more records than any of us, more CDs than any of us. So we’ve been at least weaned off that part of it, you know, we still do a lot of stuff, we’re always doing copy, you know, all the words for everything, and all the press releases and the grants. We’re sort of overseeing stuff and a lot of fund-raising stuff, not necessarily grant-writing now, which is great…
DAVID LANG: We oversee it.
JULIA WOLFE: We oversee it. We’ve moved closer and closer to being true artistic directors, which means of chunk of your energy here, and not 2/3rds of your day, I mean, I know David can talk on the phone, but I won’t. Both Michael and I turn the ringers off, and that’s it, you know, check the machine a certain time of the day and that’s it. Otherwise you’re not getting anything done. You have to certainly be vigilant about guarding that space out for yourself. But all of us plan and project in all kinds of worlds.
FRANK J. OTERI: How do you feel when you have a work presented, a major piece, and it’ll say “David Lang, one of the co-directors of Bang On A Can,” and Bang On A Can is always there with your name?
DAVID LANG: I love it. Because it’s a really beautiful thing that we made.
MICHAEL GORDON: If I can jump in, we have a very fortunate situation. It’s not so much the time or work we put into it. It’s all here. I have Julia, David and Evan who’s also a composer, my three closest friends, and the rest of the Bang On A Can All-Stars. We talk about music all the time. Every single day one of them will call me, or I will call them or see them and say, “Oh, what do you think about this, that I’m working on.” And I’ll play them something I’m working on. So we have a really active musical exchange and it’s something that’s really rare, because as artists get older, you get more and more isolated. They have developed their style and they are surrounded by a group of people who are fans and supporters, and they’re never challenged. It was funny, when I first met Ligeti back when I was in school, I said to him really naively, “So, what’s your relationship with Stockhausen?” “Oh, I’ve never met Stockhausen.” [laughs] “So, how do you know, since when do you know Boulez?” “Oh yes, Boulez, he has conducted a couple of my pieces.” And you realize, these people don’t talk to each other. And Philip Glass and Steve Reich don’t talk to each other, and they don’t talk to Elliott Carter or Milton Babbitt, and they don’t talk to each other. So people are very isolated and you go through this world by yourself, and I feel like we have this very warm life where we’re constantly exchanging musical ideas. And then we have this incredible group of musicians. It’s amazing to be writing for some group, to be writing for Ensemble Modern and you have a problem and you call up an advisor and say: “Oh, is this possible.” You call Steve Schick and you say “Can you do this?”
FRANK J. OTERI: It really is about having a new music community. And this is really striking a chord — back 60 years, to what Copland was doing when he founded the Center with Otto Luening, Howard Hanson, Marion Bauer, Harrison Kerr and Quincy Porter.
FRAN RICHARD: It’s one of the problems when you go to any isolated place and hear a piece of music whether it’s for orchestra or whatever. . .
FRANK J. OTERI: Right, because each one’s trying to push their own agenda.
FRAN RICHARD: The issue of professionalism makes very bad propaganda. You need leadership. You need people to make choices. They have made a choice [Fran points at all three composers], which is a fascinating one, and it’s not just gratuitous, it’s well deserved because it was against the grain of what anybody expected. Now I’m sure it’s difficult trying to figure out how to juggle teaching and writing music… You know, then you stand for each other and you put on events which feature other people. Which is why this thing is so credible. But you don’t go around saying: “Oh, let’s just do each other” because you need to be able to be free to express yourself. And that’s the leadership: if we had some more of that, people could make up their own minds if they like it or not.
FRANK J. OTERI: None of you teach. Each of you makes a living from writing music.
DAVID LANG: That’s correct.
FRANK J. OTERI: Talking about balancing your career as a composer with this whole Bang On A Can thing, David, you have an opera that’s premiering this weekend…
DAVID LANG: I’ve got this opera called Falling and Waving. The workshop premiere is tonight, it’s designed to be a high-tech situation where there are monitors and video projection and the music is actually a soundtrack which accompanies the action on stage. There are all sorts of incredible things, the technology for the workshop is a bit rudimentary but the eventual program for it is really ambitious. And next week I have a workshop of an opera I just finished with the Kronos Quartet.
FRANK J. OTERI: Now to turn back on an audience question. . . In terms of the audience for these non-Bang On A Can events, when you’re doing an opera, what sort of audiences are you finding there?
DAVID LANG: I wrote a traditional opera for Santa Fe, Modern Painters, which was for a very normal audience and was really fun, I’m really proud of it. These are specifically designed for theater audiences. They’re done with theater singers, not opera singers, and the presenters are theater presenters, not opera presenters. . . not that I have anything against opera presenters. . . I’m composer-in-residence at ACT, so a large part of what I do is for the theater. That friction is really interesting for me. I think it’s more interesting than to go into the traditional opera world and try to blow it up.
FRANK J. OTERI: Just like you have the All-Stars; you have this ensemble that’s amplified and doesn’t sound like a classical music ensemble. You’re not writing something that sounds like opera.
DAVID LANG: Right.
FRANK J. OTERI: You’re inventing a new thing that is opera in the sense that it’s this tradition, but you’re not playing into the stereotypes.
DAVID LANG: Well, it’s an interesting negotiation you always make with the singers in this situation because most of them are theater singers. You’re writing something and you actually sort of go through this weird process of trying to figure out how close you can get. How can you change things to take advantage of what it is they can put across? Their theater skills put things across that their music skills don’t necessarily put across. I think that’s one of the things that makes it fun for me; it’s calling on something I don’t necessarily know how to do.
JULIA WOLFE: I’m working on figuring out a second record, I have a record contract with Point. The first record came out a couple of years ago, and just today I had a discussion to try to figure out what to do. It’s really an exciting way of working because in a certain sense I’m writing for the record. It’s a very different head to get into, I just think of who the players are going to be…
FRANK J. OTERI: It’s not going to be a collection of other music…
JULIA WOLFE: It’s going to be one piece. It may be sectional, but really, it’s, I don’t know. I don’t really want to go into all details about it because I just talked to them. The thing I’m excited about is it’s very political and it uses voices. For me it’s a new thing, samples, it’s a concerto of car skids and glass breaking, so this piece is basically going to be made up of political material taken from interviews with political figures, music for ensemble.
FRAN RICHARD: What time, our era, this century?
JULIA WOLFE: It’s right now. It’s people alive today. It’s very current. I’m excited about it.
FRANK J. OTERI: Looking forward to hearing it. Maybe we can get a sneak audio preview that we can put up on the website before the album gets released.
JULIA WOLFE: Yeah. I’d love that.
FRANK J. OTERI: That’d be great. Michael, I know you have a recording of a major piece on Nonesuch.
MICHAEL GORDON: It’s a string orchestra piece. it’s a collaboration with this artist, Elliott Kaplan. He got the idea that the orchestra should be vertical, because that was the best thing for video. I told him it wasn’t possible, because you can’t stack the orchestra on top of each other. But he said: “Oh, you’ve gotta do it, and so they did.” I just wrote the music and then when we went to rehearse. In every rehearsal they turned around and faced the wall so they couldn’t see each other. So they got used to it over a period of 6 months. They got used to playing without seeing each other, then we finally did it, and it’s great. We did 16 performances in Germany. We recorded it after the tour for the British division of Warner, and that record company actually folded, and Nonesuch decided to release it. The record, I think, was 63 minutes, the piece was actually 75 minutes.
FRAN RICHARD: Did they cut it?
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RealAudio sound clip
Excerpt from Gordon: Weather
(from Nonesuch CD 79553-2)
MICHAEL GORDON: You know, I worked with a pop producer. I worked with this guy, Gregg Jackman, who produced the Sex Pistols, and all these rock records. He actually was also classically trained. He comes from a whole family of trained musicians, and he makes his living producing pop records.
FRAN RICHARD: Do you have a video of it?
MICHAEL GORDON: I have pictures.
FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah. That’s another way. That’s how alternative rock music really got off the ground is video. Well, the question I wanted to ask everybody but I may as well ask you, this whole question of the canon and forebearers — doing Music for Airports was such an interesting project. I know, for me as a listener it was amazing to hear the music live and I’ve gotten to hear the All-Stars do it twice and it’s extremely exciting. I was at a concert that you did which was combining Music for Airports with Terry Riley’s In C. And In C sounded more like rock than Brian Eno, and it was more aggressive and more confrontational and certainly part of it was the instrumentation you chose.
MICHAEL GORDON: It was a great performance. It was really fantastic.
FRANK J. OTERI: But a very different reconceiving of that piece than any performance that I’d ever heard, whereas the Brian Eno was really almost pure. Certainly things had to be changed, but it sounded like a Brian Eno record that I’ve known and loved for 20 years. I guess the question is, down the line do you see yourselves doing more projects like this? Are there other transcriptions of unnotated music that you’d like to do?
MICHAEL GORDON: I think the reason for transcribing the Eno exactly is because the point basically was, the point was really questioning what is rock music, what is classical music? So for us to play with it and be free with it, in a sense, would not be making the same point. The point was to do it exactly the way he did it, to treat it like a composition.
FRANK J. OTERI: And also, what’s so interesting is, it’s not just the classical and rock divide, but he was creating a piece that was talking about the issue of passive listening versus active listening. You took a piece that he designed for passive listening and made it active listening, by making it a live experience, by having people focus on it in a concert format in real time, not as background. . . it was no longer background. . . but as foreground.
MICHAEL GORDON: In C‘s really related to a lot of pieces from the 60′s. It’s part of a whole school of music where you can choose what the instruments are or choose the length of time; all these factors are open. We tried to take a more aggressive stance on that than what is traditionally done. Our performance of Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet on Saturday night isn’t going to be aggressive, but I think it’s something that Gavin Bryars would not necessarily have originally conceived. I don’t know if Terry Riley would feel like In C was too aggressive or if Gavin Bryars would feel that our version of Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet is too ambient. We’re trying to reinterpret the spirit of that music.
JULIA WOLFE: I think we’re making it up.
MICHAEL GORDON: We’re making it up.
JULIA WOLFE: That’s what we’re doing with all this stuff. That was the really fun thing about working with Meredith Monk. It’s the first time she worked with an outside ensemble. She’s doesn’t get near anybody except for her own players so it was really a radical introduction. And a couple of the All Stars are really great singers. It really sounds like Bang On A Can meets Meredith Monk. And she has this incredibly beautiful solo music, generally soft, the performers are soft, and suddenly we have Evan and Mark doing these contrapuntal singing lines, it has this kind of maniacal feel to it. I think it is a matter of taking this music because it had a huge impact on all of us and making it our own.
FRANK J. OTERI: Do you ever see doing this with older music? Where is the line?
MICHAEL GORDON: We’ve thought about it. We thought about it for a long time… A Beethoven symphony or something like that. Who knows?
FRANK J. OTERI: There are lots of other people out there playing Beethoven. No one’s out there playing Music for Airports.