This year the pioneering ensemble Bang On A Can reaches the grand old age of 30. Directed by three composer-performers – Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe and David Lang (above) – the ensemble are to celebrate the occasion with a late night Prom. In it they will pay tribute to Philip Glass, but typically the concert will include a world premiere in Gordon’s Big Space, a London premiere in Wolfe’s Big Beautiful Dark and Scary, an established work by Louis Andriessen (Workers Union) and Lang’s own Sunray, written for his father. In this interview he tells Arcana about the challenges and rewards of running an ensemble regarded as one of the very best in contemporary music making.
Can you remember your first encounters with classical music?
My parents weren’t music people and there was no classical music in my house growing up. My first real spark of interest came from seeing a film of Leonard Bernstein leading the New York Philharmonic in Shostakovich‘s 1st Symphony – it was raining in my school when I was 9 years old and they played this movie during lunch, to keep us quiet. Everyone was throwing food and making noise, but I was mesmerized, and after that, hooked.
You’ve described yourself as a ‘deep classical music nerd’. Does that mean you need to study classical music a lot more closely to get maximum enjoyment from it?
I wouldn’t say that what I get from the study of classical music is maximum enjoyment. Music is a means of communicating things between people and many of the things people need to communicate aren’t enjoyable! But I am really interested in the messages that underlie classical music and getting deeper into the music lets me find out more about what the music can mean.
If you could somehow sum up what you learnt from studying with Andriessen, what would you say has left a lasting impact?
I never studied directly with Louis, although when I was a young composer I spent many many hours talking to him about music. I learned many things just from watching him – about how to be an active musical citizen, how to be generous to other musicians, how to be supportive of young composers, how to be engaged with the larger culture that surrounds us. Those are all very important. In his music he always has tried to push his curiosity as far as it will go, in the most honest and direct way possible. Those are also very useful lessons.
Congratulations on 30 years of Bang On A Can. What has been the biggest challenge to the ensemble in that time?
Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe and I started Bang on a Can 30 years ago, because we were passionate about ways we thought the world needed to change, in order for experimental music to take its rightful place in our culture. The biggest challenge for me personally has been setting aside the time to make sure I keep my focus on all the things I am passionate about.
Is the ensemble all about ensuring there are no boundaries between classical music and all the forms around it?
The ensemble was built to be flexible – just the instrumentation itself is hybridized between musical genres, and the players have backgrounds in different kinds of music as well. We didn’t start the All-Stars so that the band could have no boundaries between it and the world, but so that it would be maximally useful to the widest assortment of composers who might want to work with it.
How do you keep Bang On A Can fresh and innovative?
Again, Bang on a Can exists to do the things we are all passionate about – playing new music, building new audiences, educating young composers and performers, commissioning new and stranger musics. It is the kind of challenge for ourselves that keeps us going.
Do yourself, Michael and Julia have specific skills to bring to Bang On A Can, and what is the dynamic between the three of you?
The three of us have different strengths and weaknesses, and we complement each other pretty well. Most of all we are close friends, which made it all possible. I think in the first years of Bang on a Can we would sometimes get exhausted and might have quit if we were doing this alone, but because we were friends we didn’t want to let the others down, and so we persevered.
The Proms program looks to be a very personal one for you. Could you offer a short description of each piece and how or why you chose it?
I don’t know what Michael’s piece is about, so I can’t say how personal that is, but Julia’s piece is an intense examination of an inner terror, mine is a birthday present for my dad, in which I try to made solid a wispy ray of sunlight, and we have pieces by two of our mentors, Philip Glass and Louis Andriessen. So I guess it is personal!
Does the program reflect how the ensemble has progressed in its 30 years?
I am not sure this program reflects any kind of progression – just challenging music by living composers, played fiercely and really well. We have been doing that for a long while…
You are performing music by Philip Glass. Do you think minimalism is now a very established part of the classical music canon?
Philip Glass is one of the most successful and influential composers, ever. And when the question asks if he is now an ‘established part of the classical music canon’ it reveals how odd the idea of that canon really is. Philip Glass was already the most performed composer on the planet before the classical music world felt comfortable inviting him in. Isn’t that backwards from the way the world should work? Shouldn’t classical music be actively refreshing itself, all the time?
Do people look to you to set standards with performances of new music?
I hope so! The idea of creating an amplified group that is part classical ensemble and part rock band, and that can play lots of kinds of music, including music that is technically really difficult, has been influential in New York and we are starting to see more musicians with a wider range of experiences and abilities. I wouldn’t claim that we started that trend but we certainly have been a big part of it.
Is it difficult to say ‘no’ to things when new music is involved?
Why would you ever want to say no to anything? Not just in music, but in life?
What piece of music have you heard recently that you would encourage others to hear?
Me personally, Dysnomia by Dawn of Midi. I know it is a few years old already but I listen to it all the time. Layer upon layer of mind-blowing polyrhythms, all played live, built up inexorably over time. Check it out.