The Who and Why of Bang On A Can

5. Audiences and Venues

FRANK J. OTERI: We mentioned Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth. I went to their show at the Hammerstein Ballroom; it was fantastic. A huge crowd was lined up around the block, getting frisked for tape recorders because everyone wants to bootleg the show. It was this amazing energy. Here they are playing this really complex music, really “out there” chords, screeching guitars, big extended microtonal harmonies, and everyone is listening to this. And it’s young people. Why can’t we get this audience for a new music concert?

JULIA WOLFE: You can.

FRANK J. OTERI: So twelve years into Bang On A Can, I guess the question really is: What is your audience? Who is attending your events? Are you getting the people who are going to the Sonic Youth concert? Are you getting the people who are going to the Gerhard Richter exhibition?

JULIA WOLFE: I think every project we do attaches us to a different audience. The move to Lincoln Center was our biggest jump in audience numbers. Every concert was sold out. That was probably due to the location of the facility. Some of the audience came from that area. When we did Brian Eno, there were a lot of Brian Eno fans there that we

FRANK J. OTERI: I would daresay probably you got people to Lincoln Center who haven’t been to Lincoln Center before. Lincoln Center doesn’t play Brian Eno’s music generally!

JULIA WOLFE: I think that with all our different activities, we’re actually trying consciously to tap into this audience.

FRANK J. OTERI: Let’s take it out of New York City for a second, because all these terms are New York: “uptown,” “downtown,” Lincoln Center vs. the Kitchen, or Cooper Union, or the Knitting Factory. The Bang On A Can All Stars travel a lot. They were headliners in Atlanta and are appearing in Northfield Minnesota and Burlington Vermont. Talk a little bit more about you three versus the All-Stars and what that represents. What are the receptions like in the rest of America? Then we’ll talk internationally. It’s interesting, there’s this other audience for music that’s out there, and then there’s the mainstream classical music audience, and you get booked in a town outside of New York. Where are you getting booked outside of New York? Where are these concerts happening?

DAVID LANG: Colleges and clubs.

MICHAEL GORDON: Mostly colleges.

FRAN RICHARD: When you go to colleges, what part of the student population attends?

JULIA WOLFE: I think it’s not only the student population, but a lot of the colleges have intellectual centers and art center. They get also get people from the town, the community of people who go to all the art events in that town, because that’s where they happen – at the university. There are some places where they are particularly enthusiastic about music.

DAVID LANG: We played at a rock club in Los Angeles, and we played in a club in Vancouver. I think one difference between New York and the rest of America, is that in New York, there’s so much happening that it’s really possible to be jaded. You go: “Well, there are 10 things happening tonight that I want to go to so I’m not going to do anything, I’m going to watch TV.” [laughs] And the rest of the country, you go someplace, you know, it’s an event when somebody comes in, it’s an event when somebody plays any kind of contemporary music, good or bad. So I think we have very good responses in these places, people are really hungry for different kinds of things. You go to San Francisco, people know us from our records. That concert was crazy, there were two very well attended concerts and people seem to know everything we have done. And they were hungry for it.

RICHARD KESSLER: Who else do you think they listen to?

MICHAEL GORDON: I think the audience is really really diverse. We were talking about Sonic Youth. That music is really amazing and it’s really difficult to listen to, but if you took that music and put it in an album that said “new music” and had a bunch of people wearing jackets and ties holding a pair of bassoons no one would buy it.

RICHARD KESSLER: They’d never see it.

DAVID LANG: So our Symphonic Sonic Youth record isn’t coming out? [laughs]

MICHAEL GORDON: Part of the reason these people are hits – they have cool haircuts and they hung out in New York in the East Village…

DAVID LANG: . . .And they get really hip artists to do their record jackets. They’re totally connected to the alternative, kind of dangerous art scene – I mean, they’ve really insinuated themselves into a circuit which is the way it has to be. It’s kind of, you know, the blood is flowing a different way in that world, which is really kind of cool. And that’s the problem with what you’re saying, Michael. The problem is that music got stuck over here someplace, and all the people who want it to be over there weren’t people we want over there, and the rest of the people are over here, and how do you figure out how to tie into all these things which went together naturally. I don’t think of it in terms of marketing. I think we can ask questions about who comes to these concerts. Maybe we should be thinking about…maybe we can break down the demographic and find out which people buy which kind of toothpaste. I think what it really is that all people are hungry for interesting things. All people are hungry for something that makes them feel like their life is worthwhile. And people create these other vast mechanisms of things that allow information to pass through them that help them feel that they’re grounded in the world and that their life has purpose and that their little corner of the world is not a little corner of the world but it’s connected to all the other little corners of the world. So I think that’s really what we’re trying to do. I don’t really care where the Kronos Quartet plays. I don’t really care where any other music group plays.

RICHARD KESSLER: It’s more an issue that there are certain forms, classical forms, that have become disconnected. . .

DAVID LANG: Right.

RICHARD KESSLER: …and that are searching for ways to make connections, that are dealing with all sorts of issues having to do with labels, having to do with perception. It seems that so clearly in this issue that I have talked briefly to Steve Reich about. You can go to Philip Glass, you can go hear the Philip Glass Ensemble at Avery Fisher and you can go hear a Philip Glass piece with the ACO, and you will see two distinctly different audiences. What does that tell you about the people, and also the ACO and the Philharmonic? How do they reach out? How do they break down those barriers? Why do those barriers even exist? These are some of the questions – the larger institutional questions – they may have very little to do with individual artists, or composers and ensembles, but in the industry, they are big questions.

JULIA WOLFE: I think I can answer some of that. I guess that the audience that comes to Bang on a Can is a mix. It’s not a Kronos audience. It’s not like everybody who runs to Kronos comes here. What they’re doing is they’re reaching a string quartet audience and I think there’s crossover, but I think that what Bang on a Can is speaking to is a kind of art crowd. It has to do with how we present ourselves. It’s very informal. It has to do with what the flyer looks like. These things sound superficial but they are visuals that are conveying a philosophy. I mean, we are so picky, we are so tied to our copy and our art design, it’s ridiculous…

RICHARD KESSLER: That says something. As ridiculous as it may seem, you pick up that flyer, for that second, it represents you. Nobody is listening to the music at that second – that picture is you.

JULIA WOLFE: And it all has to go together. I mean, there are some groups that are, let’s say, more formal, and they have a cool flyer, but it all has to be organic. That’s what I am saying. A symphony, if they are a symphony and they are wearing tuxes it’s great if they still have a certain audience.

RICHARD KESSLER: The interesting part is to describe this music. I’ve had this discussion with Fran many times, but I can tell you that I have so many times bitten my tongue, bitten my tongue saying “contemporary classical,” or “new music,” “new American music,” “American new music,” none of these terms work very well, “classical music,” “contemporary classical composer.”

JULIA WOLFE: Whenever someone asks you, what kind of music do you write?

RICHARD KESSLER: Other music. [laughs]

DAVID LANG: I always used to say, “I write post-ugly music.” [laughs]

FRANK J. OTERI: Getting back to the Kronos, for a second. They are an interesting example. Everyone said; “You play new music and that’s death in the concert music community.” They said: “We’re going to play nothing but music written since 1900.” Then they dressed a certain way, they took music to certain venues, they did transcriptions of Hendrix, and they did a lot of really successful things, they did things that weren’t as successful, but they had an audience. People attend those concerts and people buy those recordings, and they’re very visible, and they look like a rock band, they look like an alternative rock band. We’ve all heard the clichZþs about them, but we’re living in a post-Kronos world.

MICHAEL GORDON: They don’t look like a rock band. They look like the closest, hippest thing in the classical music world.

DAVID LANG: I think so, too.

MICHAEL GORDON: I mean, just, they’re taking their marketing cue from the way rock bands are marketed. They were maybe the first people ever to have a good picture on the cover of their album which was amazing and revolutionary. I think if you are someone who is interested in rock music, you don’t look at that album and go, “Oh, this is a rock band.” But if you walk into the classical department and you’re looking for something hip or something new or something different, you can look at that CD and go, “Oh, this is cool.”

RICHARD KESSLER: Why dress up a group like a rock band and then play Beethoven?

JULIA WOLFE: I think Richard is saying that it has to be organic. In other words, I think it is really fascinating to see a group playing Beethoven with some rock energy. Maybe if there are things about their performance of Beethoven that are really brash, really edgy, if it’s miked really closely, whatever. All kinds of stuff like that but, it’s got to be in the product (. . .I hate to say product. . .); it’s got to be in the art, no matter what you look like. Everybody does that now. We’ve got sexy, nymphet, rock-star looking violinists, you know.

FRANK J. OTERI: I think that, if anything, that stuff has hurt classical music because people listen to it, and it’s just a lackluster performances of standard repertoire. You might have gotten a larger audience to buy this stuff and then they hear it and they say “Gee, this is really boring. Yeah, classical music is boring. Goodbye.” And you’ve lost them.

MICHAEL GORDON: The thing is, when you say “hurt classical music,” when you talk about the recording industry and you talk about music, you know, you’re really talking about basically two different things. Everybody knows that classical music no longer sells. Every single thing on the classical Billboard chart is a packaged, marketed thing. It’s either Bach with your cereal or it’s the latest tenor…

FRANK J. OTERI: Even those don’t sell anywhere near compared to a pop recording. They’re not real numbers. You can sell like 300 copies of a recording a week and get on the Billboard chart so it doesn’t really mean anything…

MICHAEL GORDON: The Three Tenors, though, was a major…

FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah, that actually sold…

MICHAEL GORDON: But that’s also generic.

FRANK J. OTERI: Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 was a piece of repertoire that sold…

FRAN RICHARD: The third time it was recorded! People want to know what made it successful, and they can’t help trying to make it a formula. And you’re right, it has to be organic, but they can’t help trying to figure out why and if they want to be different, how can they make it?