It’s a Wednesday night in February, the last rehearsal before Bang on a Can’s Sixth People’s Commissioning Fund concert. This year’s commissioned composers, the BoaC All-Star musicians, and about 30 donors are all crammed into a small second floor rehearsal space in Hell’s Kitchen. A couple of bottles of wine, some cheese and grapes, and boxes of crackers are laid out casually on a card table just outside the door. There’s a buzz of conversation mixed with last-minute practicing filling the room, everyone ignoring that there’s something wrong with the heat, making things even more claustrophobic than they would be anyway. Except for a BoaC staffer trying vainly to fix the thermostat, no one seems to care.
Julia Wolfe, one of the BoaC founding composers, eventually stands to quiet the room and the crowd takes a seat, the front row only a foot or two from the band. The guests are all donors to the PCF project, writing checks to the group in amounts anywhere from $5 to $5,000, and the invitation to this rehearsal is a “Thank You” perk for their support. Seeming a little shy and uncomfortable with speech-making, even in front of such an intimate little club, Wolfe welcomes the audience to an event that, at its heart, strives to simply allow “really interesting people to work with a really interesting band.”
The program is unusual both on the commissioning and the fundraising end. Rounding up financial support by soliciting small donations from their fan base strengthens those connections while also freeing them up to make artistic decisions unhindered by the dictates of granting organizations.
Later, away from the room full of musicians and member-commissioners, Julia and fellow BoaC founders Michael Gordon and David Lang speak to how liberating this approach to commissioning becomes. Lang explains, “When you apply to a foundation, and you put the composers you want to commission next to all the other composers, the jurors are looking at people’s credentials, so what they are excited about and what they want to fund are people who have already demonstrated to the world that they can do it. But it’s always seemed to us that if you rely entirely on that kind of composer, the composer already doing exactly what you know they can do, it actually makes it very difficult to refresh the field. The system is set up to not allow in the people who might actually have opinions that would breathe some new life into the field, something that is forward-looking and exciting.”
A lofty ambition, but PCF is designed to allow BoaC to pursue precisely that sort of goal. They took the mandate particularly far this year and invited three artists to write for the six-member ensemble, each impossible to describe concisely, even using lots of hyphens and slashes: experimental/musical theater artist Cynthia Hopkins, genre-mixing composer/violinist Carla Kihlstedt, and producer/instrumentalist J.G. Thirlwell.
That the stretch put the players on edge was obvious in rehearsal. Hopkins’s piece in particular, which required the instrumentalists to sing extensively, prompts a pre-performance disclaimer from clarinetist Evan Ziporyn. “One of the nice things about this People’s Commissioning program is that every year we get something that makes us do something we have never done before and actually never thought we could do, and maybe have no business doing,” he explains, laughing. “But we’re doing it.”
It’s precisely that sort of energy and experimentation that the PCF program is geared to generate. “The players flipped out when they saw the score,” recalls Lang. “They thought, ‘We’re not singers; we can’t do this.’ But by the end of the show I think they felt they had not only gone through some incredible activity that they survived and did a great job of, I think they learned something about an ability that no one ever called upon them to use before. And that’s something that keeps them alive and stretched their world as well.”
Gordon also sees the risk taking as profitable. “It’s great to be uncomfortable, and I think this year in particular everyone was uncomfortable, the band and our three composers, and that means that something different, something exciting can happen for everyone involved.”
Granted, when you ask artists to step outside their usual boxes, certain barriers have to be circumvented, and that can be a significant challenge. Gordon holds up the working processes of classically trained and untrained composers. “Someone not working with heavy training and a written tradition is extremely intuitive, so there’s something very direct and immediate about what their musical ideas are. On the other hand, having the control of training gives you a lot of options. I find that a lot of [untrained] people are very creative, but when they’re put into a situation like this and they want to do something, they can’t translate it and that’s very frustrating.”
The discussion leads to the perfect analogy. “It’s like if I could speak French,” Gordon says, “then I could go into a French restaurant and order what I want, but I can’t speak French so I have to go in there and point to things or invite a friend of mine who speaks French out to dinner with me.”
Lang sees his opening to deliver the coup de grâce. “You need 200 people to pay $25 to hire a translator for you.”
Musically, it was a particularly interesting year for the PCF, but the stretch was no gimmick. The minds behind the three new compositions challenged themselves philosophically and musically. Here they discuss their process, their music, and their candid impression of the new music world from the outside looking in.