Bang On A Can, the oddly-named new music collective, was founded here in NYC by three gifted composers, Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon, and David Lang. That was 25 years ago. Now, to celebrate their 25th anniversary, the organization's house band, The Bang On A Can All-Stars, have released a 2-CD set on the house label, Cantaloupe Music. It includes the founding three composers as well as music written from the house commissioning project, The People's Commissioning Fund and composers who have been associated with the house festival in Western Massachusetts known as Banglewood (to distinguish it from the Boston Symphony Orchestra's next-door festival, Tanglewood).
I guess what I'm saying is, that house is pretty crowded.
Anyway, this new 2-CD set, called Big Beautiful Dark and Scary, is free to download this month only at www.bangonacan25.org - all you have to do is leave a memory or comment on the group. For me, that's easier said than done - the Bang On A Can folks have been part of my "New Sounds" program here at WNYC since they started in 1987. I've hosted and broadcast many of their events - the annual marathon concerts, the commissioned works premieres, and so on. But one event stands out.
In 1998, as part of the annual "New Sounds Live" concert series at the World Financial Center, I asked the BoaC All-Stars to play their version of Brian Eno's "Music For Airports," the ambient music classic which I thought would sound great in the WFC's glass and steel atrium. Then we started talking about a piece to go with it. I emailed Terry Riley, the father of the musical style known as Minimalism, to ask if he'd be okay with us playing his seminal 1964 piece "In C." Terry was all for it. The All-Stars agreed it would be an interesting pairing of works, and so the concert was set.
BoaC's arrangement of "Airports" was beautiful, and just right for the atrium. Then the band began playing "In C." It's a repetitive, rhythmic piece, built around 53 short fragments, with each player moving in order through them at his/her own pace, but with everyone locking in to the same pulse. An average performance might run 40 minutes. About 10 minutes into this "In C," I realized this was not an "average" performance. The All-Stars, playing with a handful of musical friends, had caught fire. The rest of the 45-minute performance was tight, taut, combustible, insistent... and the tapes were rolling.
When the piece ended, I ran backstage, where the All-Stars were looking dazed. Clarinetist Evan Ziporyn said, "did you hear that?" I replied that we'd all heard that. "We got about 10 minutes in," he said, "and we just started looking at each other, as if to say, are you hearing what I'm hearing?" "That was amazing," someone else said. A quietly muttered "holy shit" rounded out the postgame interviews.
Having been sold on the piece, BoaC now wanted to release a recording of it. It was quickly agreed that they were unlikely to be able to get a better performance than the one we'd recorded, so if you get the BoaC album of Terry Riley's "In C," you too will hear what is, for me, still my most memorable moment with Bang On A Can.
Do you have a memory of Bang On A Can's 25 years? Leave a comment.