The Who and Why of Bang On A Can

6. The Success of Bang On A Can

FRAN RICHARD: Do you think you’re a success?

JULIA WOLFE: I think we’ve been thrilled about the growth of our organization. I guess that’s success in a certain sense. I mean, there are things we still want to do, there are things that haven’t worked. If you take an average day what happens in that office – it’s really unbelievable — we’re getting faxes and phone calls, the group is traveling worldwide, and…

FRAN RICHARD: What is really exciting about going there and playing another season or going in there another day and not finishing a piece you have a deadline for? What is it that keeps you so charged up?

JULIA WOLFE: That’s a really good question…

MICHAEL GORDON: We’re just getting our publicity for our festival coming up, and we were just working on it and we were looking at the marathon concert. There are still 10 or 12 composers that we’ve never done music by before. A couple who just got their tapes in the mail…

DAVID LANG: The reason why Bang On A Can is successful is that we are incredibly romantic about it, you know. We are really good friends, and we are all very different people but we have some things that we share in common and we are best friends and we see each other every day, and we have also very high standards. So, every day we meet and every day we talk to each other and we figure out how to get each other excited about different things. And we have very high standards about it and we only do things that are interesting to us and are exciting and charge us up and that make us feel very excited and feel good. And that’s, I think, how everything’s made honest. When we get together and we have a conversation, if we can’t get excited we have to stop. Today a composer called me out of the blue, who is somebody who sent us in a score blind, and we listened to it and we programmed it. The guy called me up on the phone and he was almost in tears on the phone that we were playing his piece. It’s just so amazing. Essentially, we didn’t know who he was, we put on his music, we liked it, we programmed it. You know, it seems so obvious that the world should work like that.

FRAN RICHARD: So the politics that usually predestine what will be played here or there or in that venue, you don’t think that you have that. . .

DAVID LANG: The pressures are there.

FRAN RICHARD: Oh, I’m sure there’s pressure.

JULIA WOLFE: We do consciously want to reach a very broad spectrum of the community. So I think there are things that push us to look in different areas. There are issues pushing us around, but the basic thing is you just have to like it. It’s definitely there. When we listen to these several hundred tapes that come in, we’ll listen quietly, and afterwards we’ll know who it is, and for at least half of them, I go “Oh,” if they’re a really nice person, and I love them personally. But it’s totally about whether it was something that was written with integrity and creativity and if we’re interested in the piece; that’s the bottom line.

MICHAEL GORDON: I don’t think that we’re saying anything about this music except that there’s something of interest about it. In other words, I don’t really feel like we’re saying that this is the great music of our time or these are the great composers. But what we’re really interested in is: “Is this is a fresh idea, or is this a new sound I haven’t heard before, or does this have something that makes it worth listening to, because there’s something I’ve never heard before in this?” But that doesn’t mean that it’s good. I always get charged because I go to a marathon and I listen to all this music – I designed it for myself to go and get charged!

FRANK J. OTERI: So do all three of you have to be into it for it to get on? Can one of you hate it?

DAVID LANG: It’s something we have done from the very beginning which I think is also one of the reasons why I think we’ve been successful, is that if that one person does not want something to happen, it’s not happening.

FRANK J. OTERI: And that’s happened with you?

JULIA WOLFE: Yes. It’s not really that…

DAVID LANG: It’s not like it’s a war…

JULIA WOLFE: It’s not a fight, but it has to be unanimous. But somebody will always like some stuff more or less than the others. Maybe someone loves one piece, and one likes it okay, and the other really likes it… Usually we listen to all 200 or 300 tapes and it’s cut down to maybe 40. In that initial listening, I would say that most of those 40 affected all of us in some way, whether or not it then makes it to the next round. I don’t know why, maybe we hang around each other too much, I think there is a common art that jumps out at you.

RICHARD KESSLER: Throughout the new music community, there’s a question about audiences. In the orchestra community, there are apologists who say: “Where are we going to put that new piece – the second to last piece in the first half right before the intermission?” You know, in their heart they support the music but they’re afraid. They know they have some people in the institution who don’t like it. They can’t sell it and they worry about what’s going to happen to the seats. I’m concerned about that morale, that sort of psychological impairment. I have this sense that none of that exists for you. My question would be, has it always been that way? When you guys first started out, did you just sort of blindly go into it and say: “We’re just going to do what we want and we’re going to have some fun and we have something to accomplish”?

DAVID LANG: Okay, I’m going to answer that first. My answer – I don’t know if my answer is the same as yours…

MICHAEL GORDON: If it is, I’ll think of a different one. [laughs]

DAVID LANG: I personally don’t feel that there’s anything wrong with having a concert for a smaller audience. And I personally feel like I never imagined doing something with Bang On A Can that I didn’t believe in strictly because I felt like it was important for us to have x number of people at a concert. The only thing that’s tragic is if you don’t have the audience you want. I think what’s beautiful about Milton Babbitt’s article “Who Cares If You Listen?” is that he says, you know, we are like scientists and we’ve discovered this incredibly beautiful thing and there are only 10 people in the world who are smart enough to know it. And what are we supposed to do, I mean, this is an incredibly beautiful gift for those 10 people. And I think that’s great; I think that’s fine. The tragedy is that if you think you would rather have 1000 people and you only have 10 people. I guess the reason I got a little touchy when we were talking earlier about demographics is I don’t care if 100 people come. I mean, I’m really happy if lots of people come, and I think it’s great. But I really care mostly about making the concert that I want to go to. And if there are a lot of people who are like me, then there will be a lot of people there. And if there aren’t a lot of people who are like me, I’ll still be happy!

MICHAEL GORDON: I feel like we’re not burdened by having to perform classical music. We’re classically trained musicians and we work mostly with classically trained musicians. We’re basically coming out of the classical tradition. But we’re not burdened with having to perform classical music; we’re only performing contemporary music. And the big problem with putting that piece of contemporary music on a classical music program is the audience doesn’t want to hear that piece of contemporary music. So the question is, are you really doing something for the world by having that piece of contemporary music there or not? The traditional idea is we are doing our duty and a service to contemporary music by commissioning this piece for this group that doesn’t want to play it and by performing it for this group that doesn’t want to listen to it. But I propose, and this is my personal view, that we’re not doing any service of any kind by doing that. Who else in the world would go: “Oh, you’re going to a country music concert? Well, I’m going to put aside 15 minutes of this country music concert so you can hear music you don’t want to hear!” Or, you know: “I’m going to put aside 15 minutes of this rock concert aside so you can hear…”

RICHARD KESSLER: The Monkees did it, though. Jimi Hendrix opened up for them. . .

MICHAEL GORDON: When you’re talking about the rock world that’s a whole different thing because those opening spots are sold. Those are spots that record companies buy to promote their acts. There’s a story that Frank Zappa, when he first played in Vienna, got this really known quartet to come out, and he put them all in robes and hoods, and they went out and played a Beethoven string quartet. The audience, you know, sat there for a while and then they started booing, by the time the string quartet was over, the entire audience was throwing things and booing. The quartet bowed and walked off the stage, and then Frank Zappa’s band put on these hoods and took the violins and went back out to take a bow, as if they were the quartet, and the whole audience was sitting there booing and throwing things, and Zappa just pulls off the hood, his whole band pulls off the hoods. . . I think the success of the Kronos Quartet, the success of the Philip Glass Ensemble, Steve Reich and Musicians, and you know, what we’re doing, is basically when someone comes to hear a Bang On A Can concert, they know that they’re going to get weird music. They know they’re not going to get country music. They know they’re not going to get classical music. We don’t have to deal with people who don’t want to be there. It’s really simple. We don’t have anyone at our concerts who doesn’t want to be there. I mean, it happens that people don’t know what it is, but they’re not there thinking, you know, well, it’s a classical music concert and I came here to hear beautiful music. I personally, I’m against it, you know, I think that the orchestra. . . classical music. . . is a beautiful thing. But if I’m going to an exhibit of Rembrandts, I don’t want to see, you know…

JULIA WOLFE: I don’t think it’s that simple. I think that, what really matters is the intentionality. What are they trying to do, what’s the ensemble or the orchestra presenter trying to do. I think it’s great if a classical music has some new music; I think it’s totally fine. I think that what matters is that the orchestra, or the administration of the orchestra, knows what they’re about. You know the Kronos, and that’s great. All these people who have listened to Kronos records all this time and all the records they’ve made suddenly hear this very strange music and they’re really open to it and that’s fantastic. The Brooklyn Philharmonic plays new music. They played Stravinsky, and Bach, and Reich. What got the huge ovation? The Reich. And I think that that’s because the Brooklyn Philharmonic gives that concert – that was their intention, and they’re committed to it, and they’re behind it, and that’s what they’re about. I think the problem is when you have something, like the Philadelphia Orchestra, who are a fantastic orchestra, and they’re kind of trying to do this duty or they’re trying to add something to their programming, but their audience is very staid. They’re all going out to a very fancy dinner and a social phenomenon, which is really the case with most orchestras that it’s a whole class or milieu that goes to it for a very particular reason. It’s like a hammer, a slam in their faces. I don’t think that’s going to work but I think it could work, if that’s what they’re about. I think the problem is when it’s not coming from the community of music makers or listeners.