The Who and Why of Bang On A Can

8. Radio and the Sound of Classical Music

FRANK J. OTERI: Part of the thing is the flip side of the coin of what you were saying before, Michael. You go to a Bang On A Can concert and you’re expecting to hear other music; you go to a country music concert you’re expecting to hear country music. Part of the problem with this term “classical music” is we pigeon hole what we can and accept into the canon and we say, “What sounds like classical music?” This is a real problem with classical radio. They’ll say: “Well, I can’t tell you what it is but I know what it sounds like.” I’ve been going to the public radio conference now for five years in a row, and they’re starting to open to new music. But when I first started going, there’d be people who bragged about censoring orchestra broadcasts whenever there was a contemporary piece. They’d say: “My audiences won’t listen to that stuff. They’ll turn the dial!” And it’s that mentality out there. How are you going to keep listeners? And they’re all afraid they’re losing their listeners, so they’ll only play the standard stuff. Which leads me 180 degrees around. . .feel free to jump in here. . .to talking about the All-Stars and the formation of the lineup of the All-Stars. You have an orchestra; an orchestra has a certain kind of sound, a symphony orchestra. You have a string quartet that has a certain kind of sound. The All-Stars is a very decidedly not classical-sounding ensemble. There’s a percussionist, there’s an electric guitarist, and it’s amplified, it’s not the sound that you expect from this music. So that was clearly the decision. What led to the decision of choosing that sound, that combination?

JULIA WOLFE: First of all, the formation of the group came in kind of a mutual way because they were hand-picked by three of us, and not because of their instruments. Every one of those performers had been on the festival as soloists. Most of them in repeated performances. And we thought they were amazing. So part of it was people jumping out at us, and that was part of the inspiration. And another thing that inspired us to start the group was that we kept getting calls from all over, from California, or from Europe, asking: “Can you bring Bang On A Can to Amsterdam?” Well, 24 pieces and 10 groups and, I mean, it was an unwieldy thing to relocate. And just little by little it dawned on us that if we had an ensemble, we could take the aesthetic on the road. And even though obviously the marathon is much more diverse than this ensemble, it really is the voice of Bang on a Can on the road. But as far as the instrumentation goes… There was some thought to the fact that, well, some lows, some highs; we definitely wanted that electric sound and the electric guitar. But it really was the top, phenomenal players that got us excited, that’s why they’re a group, and it’s really odd to put 6 soloists together; it’s like fire in the room!

MICHAEL GORDON: It’s also, you know, there’s a cello and a bass, and an electric guitar, which are basically the same, you know, the cello and the electric guitar are basically the same range, and there’s percussion…

JULIA WOLFE: It happens that Maya Beiser plays way up in the violin register on the cello…

DAVID LANG: …because of the oddness of the instrumentation. They were chosen because, we, year after year, started depending on some of these people who were really the equivalents in the music performance world. Composers that we were interested in were people who were incredibly great, incredibly passionate and giving their lives to this, you know, totally weird world, and we started depending on these soloists. Some of them played on the first marathon. They’ve played on every marathon since. And we thought, okay, well, these are the people that we know, that we work with, the soloists. What would it be like to take these, you know, incredibly dynamic, egomaniacal, monster players and put them all in an ensemble together and say: “you’ve got to work together”? [laughs]

FRANK J. OTERI: To bring it back to that ‘radio’ thing: “Well, it doesn’t sound like classical music so we’re not going to play it on our classical radio station because people are going to turn the dial.” I remember the first radio conference I attended 5 years back in Nashville, the All-Stars came out there, and, you know, I loved it, but I was at a table with a bunch of people who were ducking for cover. They were afraid of it. How do you reach people via radio?

JULIA WOLFE: We used to get a lot of radio — we’re not experts about radio. I don’t know who the major stations are that are playing our records. It would be a great thing to know. Sometimes we get feedback from records that are played. We get calls from friends: “Yeah, I just heard your last record on radio.” So somebody’s playing it somewhere; probably the bulk are alternative college stations…

FRANK J. OTERI: We’re at a real impasse now. There are commercial classical radio stations that have a mandate to play “classical music,” and when you’re entering the marketplace, there are certain expectations. It’s like, you go to a country music concert and you’re not going to listen to 15 minutes of a rap concert thrown in the middle, and say, well, this is also country. But at the public radio stations, there was always, in the past, a different mandate. The public radio station is something that serves the public; it’s something that is beyond the realm of the marketplace and should open people’s minds and educate people and bring them to something new.

RICHARD KESSLER: And public debate.

FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah, that’s a corollary of that. And that has fundamentally changed.

FRAN RICHARD: Their mandate. Their mission…

FRANK J. OTERI: Their mission…I don’t think they know what their mission is.

MICHAEL GORDON: As money gets tight, and everybody has to support themselves, you’re going to see a shift, I mean, you can see it in New York, WNYC, is incredibly progressive, but that’s in New York City, and here there is an audience.

JULIA WOLFE: Well, they’ve improved a lot …

MICHAEL GORDON: But the second the money becomes tight …

JULIA WOLFE: … It goes in waves. Like no new music on certain times. They’ve had cutbacks and stuff…sometimes you sort of have to relax about it. But there are waves that come and go and suddenly everyone wants to hear new music.

FRAN RICHARD: Well, it definitely is interesting, because, we’re looking at orchestras, and how they’re handling the huge fiscal problems they have. Is it smart to do the same old thing? Or is it smarter to do something in addition, or more or different? The same thing happened in public radio with the huge cutback in the Corporation in Public Broadcasting and also an attack. So they have less fire. You have a financial shift and that is fundraising, continuously on the air. How do we respond to that? That’s why I asked you before if you are concerned about the selling of tickets. Now, you have to fund-raise. I remember when the NEA pulled away the grant, and we came and helped you that year, remember? Well, the point is, money is needed to fuel your vision. And sometimes maybe your vision isn’t fueled only by what will sell tickets. But it’s a reality, you go back to the radio thing, and the orchestras. They’ve forgotten what their mission is or why they’re not-for-profit or why they’re not a commercial rock band, why they’re doing something, radio particularly. It’s our only medium so it’s very key for us, because we don’t have a lot of play on the major networks. So now what do we do – and they have a lot of discussion about whether to play classical music at all or be all talk. The Bang On A Can All-Stars, particularly Maya and what she did there, was a little disconcerting for a lot of them. But we also heard this year some very bad playing of standard repertory. [laughs] They had this guy, and we don’t want to mention any names, playing lousy Chopin, the performances were abominable and the thing that I noticed, these guys will give standing ovations to everybody, whether they’re good or bad…

FRANK J. OTERI: As long as it’s safe repertoire, then, you know, if they hear something that’s unfamiliar they run away …

MICHAEL GORDON: I just want to say that this is the same thing as the orchestras. We get radio play on college stations and we’re, you know, like we’re doing a concert Saturday night at Alice Tully Hall, we’re doing ticket giveaways on WFMU, not on WQXR, not on the classical stations.

FRAN RICHARD: Any broadcasts of the concerts?

JULIA WOLFE: No.

MICHAEL GORDON: Nothing at Lincoln Center.

FRANK J. OTERI: But what we’ve been saying before is that there is an audience. So these public stations – forget the commercial, forget QXR. These public stations should be looking. They certainly are there in terms of their news program, for the “other” listener, the person who goes to the new art gallery, who reads the complex book, who wants to be out there in the vanguard for stuff, yet it isn’t there for music. Why not?

DAVID LANG: Well, these stations were really good for our music. It’s not necessarily in what they play during the day as part of their normal rotation, but, as far as special features go, I think that radio has been very kind to us. And, again, I see that it’s a special interest to all of us that this music gets on the radio. But I don’t want to really obsess about it, because I feel there’s this giant shift going on about where people get their information and how people get their information. And I think that what’s really happening is that people who are interested in the new and fresh, have begun, for many different reasons, to write radio out of the equation of how they get their information.

RICHARD KESSLER: The use of radio and what people listen to on it is a psychological historical issue. But, we’re thinking, after we get the magazine up and running, about creating an internet radio station for new music. We’ve been thinking about a place where people can go. It’s natural that it would be on the internet…

FRAN RICHARD: On the radio — at the conference, they talked about having different streams. You have the local NPR station but it has set up the streams on their web sites to do the music I don’t think is in the modules of the Arbitron, which is also fascinating. . . Radio has been good to you, want to tell WNYC you’ll do something to help them.

DAVID LANG: Give them $60.

FRAN RICHARD: The other thing is with NPR, I mean, we used to have these kid DJ’s at 2 and 4 in the morning that could play anything. But what Richard Kessler is saying. . .and this is the dilemma that they know they have with All Things Considered. . . they have people who want to hear more in-depth news and not just a thirty-second sound bite. These are intelligent listeners of a certain ilk for every age and they’re trying to hold them on that station, that they not switch them off the air, and that’s what’s so interesting. Why would somebody be so interested in all the things you’re saying, and you come back again to why they’re not interested in some really innovative music.

JULIA WOLFE: Well, I think they could be. I think that maybe the bridge hasn’t been made completely. It’s still evolving, we did a spot for the Eno disc on All Things Considered at the airport, and what that means, and the whole philosophy behind it.

FRAN RICHARD: That’s right. Make news.

JULIA WOLFE: …they’re open to it. They’re not closed to it. They may not be purely musical or purely anything, but I think if there’s a story, there are roads in there.

FRAN RICHARD: Absolutely.