The Who and Why of Bang On A Can

3. The First Bang On A Can Festival

FRAN RICHARD: But you guys, when you started, in that day marathon, Mother’s Day downtown, you also juxtaposed many styles, you did not allow yourselves to be “uptown” or “downtown.” You put things together that were very unlikely in the program. I think you should talk a little bit about that because that defines what you believe in and what you like.

JULIA WOLFE: I think part of it when we were starting, the question was, to break down barriers within music, not just “uptown” and “downtown,” but all kinds of stylistic differences, and what we were aiming for was what the three of us considered “innovation” and an “adventurous spirit.” So regardless of what the language was, that was the criteria and that still is the criteria, although I’ve been having some really interesting evolutions over the years in terms of programming and where our thinking is at. But the initial spark was, first of all, we don’t fit in anywhere. So it’s somewhat self-serving in the sense that we’re not in back of this real formal concept like uptown and we weren’t improvisationally oriented which was the basic downtown scene at that time in ’87. Aside from Glass and Reich who had already emerged out of downtown; they were all over town! So we built this festival. Part of it was to make a declaration about our idea about the lack of stylistic approaches, but also to make a new home for a whole new generation of composers. And there really were these composers out there like us, who were sort of around and, you know, started on their own to make things happen.

RealPlayer  [60 seconds]
RealAudio sound clip
Excerpt from Babbitt: Vision and Prayer
Bethany Beardslee, soprano and tape
(from CRI CD 521)

MICHAEL GORDON: When we started in 1987, one of the ways the world looked to us was that there was a war going on. The “uptown/downtown” thing which now, you know, appears less and less. Back then, it was really in the air. The problem with that for us, is first of all, you know, we were too young to be involved, you know, we were not Milton Babbitt, and we weren’t Philip Glass, and, you know, it was like we like Milton Babbitt’s music and we like Philip Glass’s music so what, what was the battle? [laughs] Right. And the other problem for us was the ideological confinement of this music. We’d go to a concert at Carnegie Recital Hall and there’d be a piece by Elliott Carter, which would be amazing, and four pieces by his students that would be people attempting to do something like it but they weren’t amazing. But they were classed ideologically instead of being classed by interest or by how good the music was. So when we put that first concert together, we put on music that we wanted to hear, music that we thought was revolutionary. And we also made some statements. We focused early on the Babbitt piece, Vision and Prayer from 1961 or something like that, you know, that is on the edge, pushing the boundaries. It’s really funky; it uses these electronics that had gone out of style. Electronics became very sophisticated and now these sounds are actually back in style because of the low-tech sound, the really rock quality and you know, it’s a very powerful piece. It’s from when he was young, when he was our age…

DAVID LANG: Well, how revolutionary for him to say, okay, here’s this new RCA synthesizer that’s really crummy and only makes these really ugly square tones and I’m going to make a great piece of music out of this really exalted machine and put a singer in front of it … I mean, it’s this really revolutionary concept.

RealPlayer  [33 seconds]
RealAudio sound clip
Excerpt from Reich: Four Organs
Performed by Bang On A Can
(from Nonesuch CD Box 79451-2)

MICHAEL GORDON: You put that back to back with Four Organs by Steve Reich which is equally revolutionary. It was also for me personally a piece that I had never heard live. It had a huge impact on me. By the time we did it, which was ’87, Steve hadn’t played it for 10 years. He came and we called him up and said, “Please come to the concert. We put these pieces back to back.” We decided not to have any program notes, because our view was that program notes tell the audience member whether or not to like a piece, whether the person is a genius or unknown. So we decided, no program notes and we asked composers to talk about their music and we told them, “Look, don’t talk about your music; tell a joke or something.”

JULIA WOLFE: Because the audience wasn’t trained in any sense. As we all know, you just can’t underestimate the impact on an audience who hears something from the artist before they hear the piece. It’s not like you have to tell them what to listen for but you just say well, I was thinking of this kind of image, or I was looking at a painting, whatever the spark was that keeps the piece up, it’s like an open door. You know, look, my mom was there and she was totally into it. It just opens up the door, oh, okay, maybe they don’t see everything or they like everything and get everything, but it was tremendous, really, the impact on the audience… I think all the composers were there.

MICHAEL GORDON: I think there were 23 pieces and 21 of the composers were there. They all spoke. But the real thing that was amazing was that there was an audience. It was packed. There were over 400 people there, which was unheard of in 1987 for this type of concert, and none out of them were composers or new music specialists. It was really an audience, people who were attracted by the 12-hour concert and were going to go check this out. So they did not know if they liked Milton Babbitt, they were not supposed to like Steve Reich. And they did not know that if they liked Steve Reich, they were not supposed to like Milton Babbitt. And you know, Milton Babbitt came in and he talked, and his piece was played and there was this huge ovation. And then he walked out the back because he didn’t want to hear Steve Reich’s piece. [laughs] Steve Reich, who did not want to hear Milton’s piece and had been waiting outside the building until it was over came in, and then he talked, and there was a huge ovation and then Steve left. And they didn’t ever meet. I mean, we didn’t fix anything. We didn’t try to create a ruckus but what we did was we proved this incredible thing for ourselves. The performances were great. These pieces were incredibly revolutionary, hard core, you know, from the complete opposite ends of the experimental music spectrum. But this audience went wild for them. And that was really a good lesson.

DAVID LANG: In a way the lesson was that people who already know something about music in a way are lost. The way that music is taught, and the way musical knowledge comes to you is, on one hand, knowledge, and on the other hand it’s an inculcation of a certain kind of value. And that value tells you how to interpret the world and that interpretation is very narrow. . . It was kind of shocking to us, actually. I think we really saw this battle as happening to people who were, you know, from some other world, who were really older than we were. And as younger composers, we had already had enough outside experiences. Most people our age grew up with pop music or playing in bands or other experiences that were sort of outside the traditional classical music value system. And it was very difficult for us and for the composers our age to actually believe those battles that were being fought by people above us because it just seemed obvious that a good idea is a good idea. And wouldn’t people hope to have concerts that organized itself around plain good music?

JULIA WOLFE: I have to say, that part of it – that part of what David is representing is basic lessons of what we all emerged from. We say young composers, I think that was not completely widespread with all young composers, but we were all at Yale. I was a little later than Michael, maybe, but basically overlapping for a period of about 5 or 6 years, studying with Martin Bresnick and there was something very special about coming out of that atmosphere. It was a very open place. It still was – you know, classically oriented. It wasn’t like we were listening to rap or funk in class but still, there was no dogma. It wasn’t like you had to write like Martin, and I think that was somewhat unique at the time. There were some other schools like that, but it was a very special place and in fact, the marathon idea itself came from an all-night marathon. Ours was an all-day marathon, but an all-night marathon took place at Yale that was started by Martin Bresnick called “Sheep’s Clothing” that we’d all seen and David was actually really in it. It was a really wild extravaganza and everyone brought pillows and sleeping bags. So there was a kind of spirit that preceded this that set the tone for us.

FRANK J. OTERI: Wouldn’t it be great to do a “Sheep’s Clothing” here in New York — an all-nighter?

JULIA WOLFE: You know, they actually just had a reunion.

DAVID LANG: We did a “Sheep’s Clothing” in 1980 in New York… 1980-uh, oh when was it, actually? I don’t remember, I think 1982. We did a concert here in an art gallery in Soho in 1983 and it was very successful, we had a really good audience, and it was really fun. We went back to New Haven all charged up; we had this great feeling. It was such a successful thing that the only thing that we could do would be disband the organization. [laughs]

FRAN RICHARD: I wish you’d do one New Year’s Eve 2000.