Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Views From the Other Side of the Can

Last week, the News Hour with Jim Lehrer featured an eight-minute segment on Bang on a Can. I urge you to watch it because, like most items on that program, it was well produced and thoughtful enough to spark notions in my head, though I'm sure they were not the notions expected by the reporter. The segment was sparked by David Lang's recent Pulitzer prize (which I commented on back in April) and focused not only on him, but on the summer festival BoaC hosts every year at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. It highlighted Lang's surprising win, the melding of musical styles that characterizes much of the music composed by the BoaC composers, and the outsider status cultivated by these composers. It hinted at the traditions that influenced the style, barely discussed Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon, and didn't mention the legendary BoaC marathon at all.

Why bring up those omissions? Because they point to the dominant paradigm used by most people describing adventurous American music (as distinct from music inherited from Europe) - the maverick. Lang is painted as a composer working on his own who is scarcely accepted by any musical establishment and is striking out new ground unexplored by other composers.

The truth is more complex and more interesting.

Bang on a Can has been around a long time now; the first marathon was held in New York City in 1987 and is now routinely labeled "new music's biggest annual party." Its reputation is so well known and regarded that it has become the establishment all on its own, complete with record label and house band that tours extensively throughout the year. It has been so successful that I wouldn't be surprised to find it in the Grout textbook (the standard Music History textbook on college campuses) in the next edition or two. The fact that Lang was even considered for a Pulitzer, much less awarded one for a commission by Carnegie Hall shows that he isn't working on the fringes anymore.

Beyond that point, the notion that American composers work in isolation and obscurity needs to be revised. For the past one hundred years, these "mavericks" have encouraged one another, critiqued one another, stolen musical ideas from one another, performed one another, recorded one another, and created a thriving community. Harry Partch, who is often held up as the most iconoclastic composer of them all had regular contact with John Cage and Lou Harrison and Howard Hanson and Douglas Moore and had numerous disciples who worked with him and were inspired to then follow their own path branching off from his. Sure they were not played in orchestral halls or on operatic stages (at least not until Philip Glass and John Coolidge Adams), but that's because they were not writing for those ensembles. As you can see in the excerpt, even to today, these composers write for new groupings of instruments to find new sounds for their new music.

Now, I know Lang surely pushed the journalist to focus on the festival in order to spark more interest in and money for the project, but it was strange for me to see someone not invested in this music as I am to report on it. It served to remind me how far we have to go (and how daunting my job is in some ways) on educating the public about modern American composition.


david lang said...

dear andrew -

thanks for your very perceptive comments. I am happy you saw the pbs show on bang on a can, and thought about it enough to have it irritate you into deeper thinking! I also clicked on the link to what you posted back in april about my pulitzer and I am really gratified that you wrote such nice things about it. thanks!

I do have a couple of comments on what you wrote about the pbs segment. the first is that I didn't push the journalist into anything. he had wanted to do an interview with me about my prize and came up with the idea himself of linking it to the bang on a can summer festival. this was most likely because he thought it would be more visually attractive than talking for ten minutes to a short, balding, classical musician. it is a shame that michael and julie didn't end up with a larger presence in the piece; I think that means that there is still room for the definitive bang on a can tv news spot.

what I really want to comment on, though, is the notion of what a 'maverick' is. I agree with you that many of the so-called 'ousiders' have deep 'insider' connections. more important, though, is that I am not sure that any of us know what governing musical body is making the decisions about which composer is an 'insider' or an 'outsider,' and by what criteria. I don't think it was a goal of michael and julie and me, when we started bang on a can, to be considered rebels. all we wanted was for our music to be played well and presented in a context that would highlight its relationships to the music of our peers and our betters. that doesn't sound like rebellion to me, but somehow that is how it was taken. it is true we ended up designing a musical world that was different from the one we inherited, but how different? we were still all university educated classical musicians, still writing music down for classically trained virtuosi to play, but because we questioned even slightly the world which we imagined our music should inhabit we became the barbarians.

the problem with not knowing the criteria by which one is labeled a 'maverick' is that one can never know how to graduate from being so labeled. it is true that, 21 years later, we are much better established and much more part of the cultural landscape, but we are still considered to be the barbarians. go figure. look at charles ives - the notion of ives as a 'maverick' has moved in the last 100 years from being a description of him as an outsider to a marketing strategy to describe his work, as it is played by all the major orchestras.

I actually think that this 'outsider' role is about fear. the establishment - whatever that is - perceives some threat from some person or idea and declares it 'outside.' who is actually making that determination, why, and how they convince others to believe it, I am not sure.

it has always been bang on a can's point that music sounds better if everyone is an 'insider,' if there is no test of musical or intellectual or academic or aesthetic purity. wouldn't that make hearing music easier? if you are not evaluating composers by their proximity to some idealized and pure musical center then everyone's music can be heard fresh, and heard for its own qualities and meanings and accomplishments. that doesn't sound like a 'maverick' idea to me, but maybe it is.

thanks again!

david lang

Andrew said...


Thanks for stopping by and being willing to enter into discussion on this topic. If you're ever in Kansas City, let me know because we'd love to see you at the University of Missouri - Kansas City (plus Kansas City's newEar ensemble is playing parts of "Child" on their September concert - you would certainly not be an outsider here).

I think when you say that the "outsider" role is about fear, you pinpoint the problem precisely. Who is the establishment? In some ways it is critics and musicologists like me who help construct these master narratives through which we view music history. Music that doesn't fit into our prescribed boxes is harder to handle in the classroom in 50 minute snapshots. In some ways it is performers who are inducted into one way of playing for most of their training and have a hard time breaking out of it. In some ways it is the commissioning agencies who want music from composers with a significant reputation already. In all these cases, stepping outside a musical tradition in which we were trained (no matter what that tradition is) and which we help perpetuate is scary. The hesitation to make the first step certainly plays into the "outsider" mystique.

I also find, though, that hearing things in relation to a musical center is helpful as it defines what is fresh. We all have a musical center - that music with which we are familiar and comfortable and to which we relate all music that we hear. What I've always enjoyed about the performances I've heard from the All-Stars and from yours and Julia's and Michael's music is that it mixes a lot of the music from my musical center together in striking and ear-opening ways. It is that relationship to music I already know mixed with elements I've never heard before that makes the music exciting. I think instead of not having a musical center, I wish everyone would be willing to open themselves up to music not of their center. You are right, it is not a maverick idea, just a good way to live.

Thanks again for the comments - and I look forward to the definitive Bang on a Can TV spot.