By Madison Warren
Thirty years ago we started dreaming of the world we wanted to live in. It would be a kind of utopia for music: all the boundaries between composers would come down, all the boundaries between genres would come down, all the boundaries between musicians and audience would come down. Then we started trying to build it. Building a utopia is a political act — it pushes people to change. It is also an act of resistance to the things that keep us apart. — Gordon/Lang/Wolfe
Thirty years ago on Mother’s Day in a SoHo art gallery, a one-day marathon concert spurred the development of a performing arts organization that now hosts a variety of year-round international activities. Bang on a Can, co-founded by minimalist composers David Lang, Michael Gordon, and Julia Wolfe (above, photo by Peter Serling), has been dedicated to cultivating innovative music regardless of its origin.
They are committed to the commissioning of new composers and performing and recording new works, as well as to the development and education of new audiences. This important anniversary, on May 6th from 2-10 p.m. at the Brooklyn Museum, will feature Oberlin’s Contemporary Music Ensemble under the direction of Tim Weiss. They will be performing one of the pieces that inspired it all: Louis Andriessen’s De Staat.
Throughout his career, Andriessen has felt deeply that music is political. Weiss agrees, pointing out that simply printing music on staves or writing for instruments presupposes that one has the ability to read music. “Playing violin, playing French horn, is something of privilege. Not everyone has access to that,” said Weiss in an interview. “Even artists who say they their music is not political can’t deny that it is, whether we want it to be or not.”
De Staat was written as a debate about the relation of music to politics. The excerpts of text chosen by the composer assert that even pitch is political, due to the ability musical modes have to influence one’s character (and therefore the state). In his composer’s notes, Andriessen acknowledges the obvious absurdity of this, but adds, “I deplore the fact that Plato was wrong. If only it were true that musical innovation could change the laws of the State!” Yet by inspiring so many with his music, including Bang on a Can’s beginnings, he may not be too far from doing just that.
Weiss believes that newcomers to contemporary music will love the minimalist aspect of the piece. “There’s lots of repetition, so there’s usually less material to digest. And repetition prevails in all art forms; it’s something people are easily attracted to.” He also remarked on the astounding sonic effect of the piece, which features 12 brass instruments, two harps, four vocalists, four violas, four oboes/English horns, two electric guitars, electric bass, and two pianos. “People who come to the concert who think it’s going to be classical music — because this is a conservatory and Sinfonietta is an established group that plays classical music — might feel that it was misadvertised and that they are getting something they didn’t think they were going to get. And they might be mad about that,” he said, referring to the concert being held in Oberlin before the tour. “But I think that for those with open ears, there’s something about the raw spectacle of sound which is just fabulous — and a little bit over-the-top, and lavish and indulgent. It’s just awesome.”
Performing for such an important event puts a lot of pressure on Weiss and the ensemble, especially because of the enormous difficulty of the piece. “I haven’t done one of these giant minimalist pieces in a long time.” Weiss said. “One of the works I mentioned, De Stile, I did twice here. But this one’s harder.” Besides being technically challenging, it’s very difficult to keep together. Many long sections feature hocketing, when one side of the ensemble is a half beat off from the other.
Weiss was also daunted by the Greek text. “Dan Michalak was a big help, “ he said, referring to one of Oberlin’s vocal coaches and accompanists. “He actually found the original Greek from The Republic with the Greek characters and then made an IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) pronunciation from that.” Despite being “scared to death” in the beginning, Weiss feels much better. “It’s going pretty well. I feel like we have the right approach: certain sections have to be faster, certain sections have to be slower for the playability, but also for the space that we’re in.”
Since such a huge focus of Bang on a Can is its support of new composers, one may question why the larger music industry fails to do so. “I think it’s interesting to realize that, prior to a certain date, music was always new,” Weiss said, referring to the fact that the idea of a canon is a fairly recent one. “Now we have this splintered industry where we feel we have to provide the old because that’s what will keep us alive financially, and we do a little bit of new to make sure it’s a living art form. But there’s always an imbalance.”
Weiss referred to the acceptance speech Andrew Norman gave for the 2017 Musical America Composer of the Year Award. Norman expressed his gratitude for all the opportunities he had been given to have his works played and to make mistakes, and he lamented the many composers who don’t get that chance. “So you’re taking all kinds of risks and expenses to do new music.” Weiss said. “But this is exactly what he’s saying: if you sit here and do the same 19th-century concerto or overture just because it’s there, then you are perpetuating the problem.”
For three decades, Bang on a Can has fought against these tendencies of the industry. The organizers hope that this year’s marathon concert will reflect that they are “committed more than ever to an increasing and inclusive worldwide community dedicated to innovation through music — a world where ideas flow freely across boundaries, whether they are musical, geographical, or spiritual.” There is a suggested donation of $16 before 5 p.m., after which admission is free, thanks to Target First Saturdays. Besides CME’s performances of De Staat and Michael Gordon’s No Anthem, the concert will feature Pan in Motion playing music of Kendall Williams; Julia Wolfe’s folk ballad Steel Hammer; Bang on a Can’s mobile ensemble Asphalt Orchestra performing music by Merill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs; and Kim Deal of the Pixies.
If you can’t make it to New York City, be sure to check out the group playing under the name of the Oberlin Sinfonietta in Warner Concert Hall, Thursday May 4th at 8:00 p.m.
Madison Warren is in her third year at Oberlin Conservatory where she is pursing a degree in horn performance under Roland Pandolfi. When she’s not practicing or rehearsing she enjoys cutting vegetables, talking to her plants, and lying face down in the grass on a sunny day.