Behind the Music: The Bang on a Can People’s Commissioning Fund

Molly Sheridan: So, this is the sixth year for the People’s Commissioning Fund. When you meet a new potential donor, what’s the elevator speech?

Michael Gordon: It’s very simple. The idea is that everyone chips in some money and that money is pulled together and it goes to artists to help them create a new piece of music.

The background is how things are normally done, which is you have to go to a foundation or agency and go through this long application process. That’s getting harder and harder to do just because there’s less and less money from the government and foundations. There are very few foundations supporting contemporary music anyway, but there’s been a big money drain over the last several years, so there’s less commissioning money. We just got this idea that if we asked people who liked what we do to send us some money, we could pull it together and commission new pieces and kind of cut through the red tape.

Julia Wolfe: There was something that we felt was radical about going to the public, and that may include people who can give a large donation, but going to the community that we’ve built, members of that audience, people who love new music and are excited about new ideas. And on the commissioning side of it, we’re also liberated from anything a foundation might dictate. We don’t have to think about that; we don’t have to gear it any sort of direction. We can go to any kind of individual with any kind of ideas, so they tend to be people who are unusual picks for a new music ensemble. People who interest us tend to be very strong and individual in their own worlds and somehow we think they can cross over into our world.

PCF Commission History

2005: Cynthia Hopkins, Carla Kihlstedt, and J. G. Thirlwell

2003: Annea Lockwood, Ingram Marshall, and Thurston Moore

2002: Eve Beglarian, John King, and Matthew Shipp

2001: Jeffrey Brooks, Sussan Deyhim, James Fei, and Keeril Makan

2000: Marc Mellits, Edward Ruchalski, and Miya Masaoka

1998: Virgil Moorefield, Pamela Z, and Dan Plonsey

MS: Has the PCF always been about approaching this sort of composer?

JW: People ask, “What do you mean adventurous? What are you listening for when you hear someone’s tape?” And it’s almost [opens eyes wide], “Oh, what was that?” It does something to you physically, emotionally. There’s something fresh about it, there’s something unique about it. There are a lot of things we look for, but if I just had to pick one thing, it’s that sense of something very fresh. It’s not conscious, it’s not as if we say it has to be something we’ve never heard before from someone who has nothing to do with our world. This year was actually further afield than previous years. In other years, there were some older composers that are really fascinating that hadn’t really gotten the chance to work with an ensemble like ours, people who cross over into the alternative rock world, other people who fit very neatly into the world we’re identified with. So it’s pretty much of a range.

MS: How do you find these people, because they are all coming from these amazingly disparate worlds?

MG: Oh, you know, we like music. [laughs] People tell us about things. How do you find music?

JW: I think, also, now we’re at a point that people know we have a pretty broad spectrum and they send us stuff. We try to post it as many places as possible, but I think people know about it now because we get a range of applications.

David Lang: Also, people scout for us. It’s not just that we see these people, but musicians who’ve played on our festival will say, “I have this friend. You should hear their music.” There’s a way in which all this information flows once you get the word out that it’s welcome. I think one of the other great things for us about People’s Commissioning Fund is that when I go out in public, no matter where I am, in what kind of environment, if I hear something interesting I think, “Oh, that might be People’s Commissioning Fund.” We went to a theater production years ago with songs by Cynthia Hopkins, and because of the People’s Commissioning fund we can say, “Oh, there’s somebody who has a voice. We don’t really know what to do with them, but we’ll figure it out.”

MS: What does it really take to commission a work this way? To really get this off the ground, do you have any sort of advice you’d pass on to other composers who might like to try it in their own communities?

JW: I’d tell them to write everybody they know. That’s what we did the very first year of Bang on a Can in 1987. That wasn’t a commissioning project, it was putting on a concert. You write everyone. Your old girlfriend’s mother who supports the orchestra, your neighbor whose son plays music, anyone you can think of who might send you $25. And you can start very small with a personal note and see what you can do. Next year raise the money for two. It begins in a very personal place. Even with us, even though we don’t know everybody in our audience, it’s very personal. There’s a sense that you’re part of a community. At the open rehearsal, there are a lot of old faces that we see every year. One guy comes in from Colorado. You start with your own community and it will grow itself.

DL: [Foundations] can definitely give you enough money to make your life very easy and they can do it very quickly, but they may change their mind about what they want to give their money to next year and where does that leave you? For us, one of the other things that we really like about the PCF, these people are our listeners. Here’s your opportunity to have a closer relationship with us. It’s so much better to build a community that will last rather that taking in money from wherever you can find it. The money is really secondary. When you asked about other composers doing this, it’s saying, “This is what I believe and this is something I want to do, can you help me?” It’s the connection which is important.

MS: When your audience is personally invested like this financially, beyond purchasing a ticket, is their reaction to the music different?

JW: There’s definitely a personal connection that must make the listening experience different. They have opinions. They like something; they don’t like something. But the kind of person who is a regular donor, I find them to be very special people. They’re very curious, very committed. They believe in it. It’s not just that they write a check.

DL: Also, these people come to the open rehearsals and concerts, and they talk to each other and become friends. They see each other at other concerts that have nothing to do with us and their lives get connected in different ways. I love that and it can’t help but affect the way you listen to the music. That you feel like you’re actually participating in how your culture is changing. You’re talking to the other people in the audience and the musicians. I think you feel a lot different towards what’s happening than if you just participate in the culture by buying the CD of the thing you read the review of because everyone told you it was the next big thing. I think it’s a very different and much healthier way to interact.

Page 5 of 512345