At the Barbican Centre in London, on March 20, 2012, the Bang on a Can All-Stars premiere Field Recordings -- with new works by Gordon, Lang and Wolfe. The evening-length project that is as much a mystery as a concert – a kind of ghost story. The ghosts aren’t the physical presence of people gone before, but they are the ghosts of sounds, images, ideas, and voices. Each composer has been asked to find and interact with something recorded before, using the power of music made right in front of us to reach out to other things not present.
Freely crossing the boundaries between 1912 and 2012 - featuring New York, Las Vegas, John Cage, Balinese chant, Big Hair, tape loops, vinyl records and more - 100 years of sound and imagery unfold to reveal a contemporary collective consciousness channeled through the unstoppable and loud Bang on a Can All-Stars.
The concert includes projections and specially commissioned new music by some of the world’s most questioning musical thinkers - from the indie pop world (Nick Zammuto from The Books and ex-Battles frontman Tyondai Braxton), the art world (Christian Marclay), electronica (Mira Calix) and experimental classical (Michael Gordon, David Lang, Julia Wolfe, Evan Ziporyn).
In the Summer of 1933, the pioneering folklorists Alan and John Lomax set off across the American South armed with a phonograph disk recorder weighing 315 pounds. Using this state-of-the-art technology, they documented the extraordinary songs and voices of the Delta bluesmen, the cowboy ballads and the folk dances which otherwise might have been lost to the inexorable tides of history. In turn, those field recordings went on to revitalise and recontextualise music throughout the 20th century, up to the present day. The aural ghosts of the past refreshed the music of the present.
Cut to 2012. The innovative new music organisation Bang on a Can is 25 years old. Unsurprisingly for anyone acquainted with their bold, provocative and forward-thinking work over the last quarter century, they're not about to present a straightforward retrospective. Co-founder/composer David Lang explains, "we're trying to make a show you haven't seen before. At first we thought we could go over highlights of everything we've ever done, but then we thought, no, we're an organisation that exists to make new music, so if we want to celebrate our work, we have to do something new".
The result is tonight's performance, Field Recordings, an imaginative set of freshly commissioned pieces by five composers from diverse musical backgrounds, alongside new works by the three composers who founded Bang on a Can; Lang, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe. The music is played by the organisation's 'house band', the Bang on a Can All-Stars and is staged as an evening's length event.
"We asked the composers to remember something", says Lang, "to remember something sonic, then use the All-Stars as a tool to channel that lost thing, that found thing. Then channel it into something in the present, something alive". This intriguing collision of pre-recorded "memories" and the brand new works which surround them neatly reflects Bang on a Can's inclusive approach to music, with a nod to the idea of an anniversary and a doff of the cap to the ground-breaking spirit of figures such as the Lomaxes.
The composer's approaches vary from Evan Ziporyn's use of a genuine historical field recording of a Balinese vocalist, to more idiosyncratic uses of recorded sound - a walk through airport security in Mira Calix's piece and a casino in Tyondai Braxton's. It was a deliberately broad commission. "We invented a general format", says Lang, "but told the composers they could take this any place they wanted... I started referring to it as a ghost story, or séance". Perhaps the most radical invention is Christian Marclay's magpie use of film clips, which function as a score for the musicians. "He's translating the things we take for granted in the sound and music worlds into things the visual world can understand. He's between worlds".
Being "between worlds" seems central to the Bang on a Can ethos. Ostensibly a 'new classical music' organisation, it has opened its arms to musicians from all genres. "Our world has an interesting classification problem", says Lang, "it builds these little walls around it, but the walls are placed in a very arbitrary way". So the hallmark of their music-making has been the inclusion of composers such as those featured tonight, whose work moves fluidly between rock, pop, jazz and electronica, between complex ideas and immediate ideas. In Lang's words, "these are the people who are just over the border from our little niche".
For example, the inaugural Bang on a Can 'Marathon' festival in 1987 was a wild kaleidoscope of music, lasting a characteristically ambitious twelve hours. Minimalist classics featured alongside modernist showpieces. Phil Niblock's multi-track drone music rubbed shoulders with Stravinsky's sprung neoclassicism. John Zorn's manic jazz met George Crumb's haunting, mystical string music.
Bang on a Can has since grown to encompass a record label (Cantaloupe) and an extensive commissioning programme, while the Marathon has continued to run annually. In 1992 the All-Stars were formed, around whom a unique repertoire and international touring schedule has grown.
25 years on, their open-eared take on music seems to have become more generally accepted. It’s no longer so unusual to encounter audiences and musicians who are excited by the multiplicity of music available to them. The old snobbishness and close-mindedness has been mercifully blown away. It seems certain that Bang on a Can’s energised and vital approach has contributed to this, but David Lang is charmingly guarded about the organisation's role in this little revolution. "It's not overtly political, but there is something utopian about the way we want to get along with each other". So here they are, supporting the composers who wish to refresh the world.