The Who and Why of Bang On A Can
1. What is Bang On A Can?
FRANK J. OTERI: On behalf of NewMusicBox, the American Music Center‘s new web magazine, I’d like to welcome you all here at ASCAP today. I think it’s very symbolic that we’re meeting with you to launch this, because this year is the 60th Anniversary of the founding of the American Music Center which was an organization founded by 6 composer/advocates of new music back in 1939 just as the three of you are composers and advocates of new music now. I guess for all of us the most obvious question that a lot of us are still asking and people who are going to visit the site will ask is: What exactly is Bang On A Can? Is it a presenter, an ensemble, a style of music or a way of life?
MICHAEL GORDON: Everything but the last one. [laughs]
JULIA WOLFE: I thought it was only the last one. [laughs]
DAVID LANG: Am I supposed to say something witty now? [laughs]
RICHARD KESSLER: Not now. [laughs]
FRAN RICHARD: Profound. [laughs]
DAVID LANG: Basically, Bang On A Can started because we were three young composers. We got out of school. We came to New York. We looked around, and there were 5 million things that just off the top of our heads we thought we could change. Most of them are really obvious things.
MICHAEL GORDON: Wait a second. The first thing is,…
DAVID LANG: Oh yeah . . .
MICHAEL GORDON: …before that…
DAVID LANG: I’m sorry.
MICHAEL GORDON: . . .is that we liked each other…
DAVID LANG: We were all friends.
MICHAEL GORDON: …and we all wanted to get together.
DAVID LANG: Well, we were already getting together every day and we were just wasting our time. We would get together every day and we would talk all day about how, you know, the world wasn’t set up to do a lot of the things that we wanted to do. Basically, a lot of what we were doing was. . . we got out of school, we’d sit around, we’d meet every day for breakfast or coffee or whatever, we’d show each other our music and we’d complain about how the world sucked, basically. And then you go, well, it’s easy to identify lots of things that need to get changed in order to make sure that, you know, interesting music always gets played, and the right audience knows about it, that music actually can mean something large in society, that young composers get treated well…
MICHAEL GORDON: The people who are interested in dance and theater and poetry, you would know who you are. . . I think fifteen or twenty years ago, it was not inconceivable — it’s not inconceivable now — that an intellectually curious person would think that the contemporary equivalent of Bach was Stevie Wonder, or someone like that. Not to take anything away from Stevie Wonder, but. . .
JULIA WOLFE: I mean, the point about Stevie Wonder isn’t that he isn’t a great artist, but that in other areas of the arts people are pushing boundaries. . . I think more of the equivalent would be the Talking Heads; they’re kind of experimental in a rock band. . . but that’s as far as many people would go, and, you know, these are our good friends, college friends, who go to see very avant-garde art films, and really “out there” dance, and really strange exhibits of new sculpture, but there’s no relationship to music. So that’s something that really bugged us. And, actually, the first year, the very first year, Bang On A Can, to answer your question, initially, was only a one-day festival. It was a sort of like a marathon, and since, of course, it’s expanded…
FRAN RICHARD: Mother’s Day.
JULIA WOLFE: Mother’s Day, right… [laughs] But that very first year one of the things we did was get mailing lists from the dance workshop, get some lists, get the dance list. I don’t even think we took a music list.
DAVID LANG: No, we didn’t do it on that year. And we did it in an art gallery in SoHo. The whole point, was basically, I mean… The people that we know, our friends in other disciplines, the people who are in the arts, it’s just part of their life to go, “I want to know what’s exciting, what’s new, what’s fresh,” and all these different things. They want to read the most difficult book. They want to see, you know, the really strange foreign film, you know, they really want to be able to read the totally incomprehensible poetry. There are people who sort of have a circuit of knowledge that’s important, and music wasn’t even on that circuit.
MICHAEL GORDON: That’s really the whole thing. [laughs]