ENSEMBLE OF THE YEAR


The 2005 Honorees

By Mark Swed

They describe themselves as part classical, part rock, part jazz group. In the 17 years since its formation by three American composers, BANG ON A CAN has become an audacious institution that comprises festivals, marathon concerts, publishing, recording, teaching, commissioning, touring, general proselytizing, you name it. And the All-Stars are its virtuoso heartbeat.

When and where did it first become okay to BANG ON A CAN and call it music? Probably in the spring of 1941 in San Francisco when John Cage wrote and premiered his Third Construction, the now classic percussion score in which tin cans take their place along side drums, claves, cowbells, lion's roar, cymbal, ratchet, teponaxtle, quijandeas, cricket caller, and conch shell. The tin cans, of course, got the most attention (they still do).

Nearly half a century later, those tin cans came to symbolize a new, so to speak, racket—BANG ON A CAN. A festival of new music in downtown New York, it was started in 1987 by three young composers: David Lang, Michael Gordon, and Julia Wolfe—Yale classmates and students of Jacob Druckman, then composer-in-residence of the New York Philharmonic. In the 17 years since, BANG ON A CAN has become an institution that comprises festivals, marathon concerts, publishing, recording, teaching, commissioning, touring, general proselytizing, you name it. Its resident ensemble, BANG ON A CAN All-Stars, is a sexy brand name in new music and is Musical America's 2005 Ensemble of the Year. That's quite an elevation for the humble container of peaches and tomatoes whacked upon by Cage's crew.

Now comes the hard part. Who and what are the All-Stars? It's a six-member ensemble of clarinets and saxophones, electric guitar, cello, bass, keyboards, and percussion. That's not standard instrumentation for anything (although enough music has been written for the All-Stars that it almost seems a traditional instrumental combination by now). But the All-Stars don't worry about standardization. BANG ON A CAN official literature describes it as a part classical, part rock, part jazz group.

The All-Stars grew organically to serve BANG ON A CAN's needs. The original members were six versatile virtuosos who could do whatever a remarkably wide range of composers asked for. The early festivals—always highlighted by a marathon concert held in a funky former church in a then iffy downtown neighborhood on Mother's Day that began early in the afternoon and went until the wee hours—were all but impossible to characterize, so broad was the stylistic reach. Cage was a father figure. The original minimalists—Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass—played the avuncular role. Louis Andriessen, the radical Dutch composer, was a mentor. The younger composers brought the energy of rock, world music, and improvisation into the mix. But invitations were extended to academic complexity freaks as well. In practice, that meant that a clarinetist, say, had to be ready to metrically modulate in Elliott Carter one minute and then take off his mouthpiece and blow his brains out through it into a distorting microphone the next.

Helping keep the marathons rolling, these six freelancers were, by 1992, playing together often enough to form a touring and recording group in its own right. Soon the world noticed, and European festivals were part of its regular life. The group developed an enticing image of serious musicians with the personality of a rock band. No classical or new-music ensemble, not even in Amsterdam, was hipper.

Sony Classical took the All-Stars on in 1995, hoping for a wild crossover ride between the gritty animation of rock and the audacity of the latest postminimal new music. But the All-Stars never fit comfortably into the rigid confines of a corporate container, already having their own elastic, decidedly uncorporate one.

The All-Stars are, in fact, BANG ON A CAN's heartbeat, pumping musical blood into the organization's various activities. The ensemble specializes, obviously, in Gordon, Lang, and Wolfe and the other composers in the BANG ON A CAN realm. They have a flair for the minimalists—the All-Stars toured in the fall with Philip Glass and have in their discography perhaps the most alluring of the dozen or more recordings of Terry Riley's In C. They really do like to bang, going in for such noise-makers as the downtown composer Arnold Dreyblatt. But they have their mellow side as well. One of the All-Stars' most popular ventures was its recording of Brian Eno's atmospheric Music for Airports, four stunningly beautiful and compellingly imaginative arrangements by Gordon, Lang, Wolfe, and All-Star clarinetist Evan Zyporyn, who is a composer in his own right.

In other practical ways, the All-Stars have an ideally symbiotic relationship with its BANG ON A CAN host, which entertains nothing less than a self-sufficient, can-do new-music lifestyle. Although it has often collaborated with the likes of the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Lincoln Center, BANG ON A CAN has, over the years, formed its own recording company (Cantaloupe Music), its own publishing enterprise (Red Poppy Music), a People's Commissioning Fund (in which anyone with as little as $5 in his or her pocket can take part in annual commission of new works), and the BANG ON A CAN Summer Institute at MASS MoCA. The Berkshires institute, affectionately known as Banglewood (it's about an hour's drive from Tanglewood), provides a three-week immersion in new music for young musicians and composers, with a faculty comprised of the All-Stars, Gordon, Lang, Wolfe, and guest composers such as Riley, Steve Reich, and Andriessen.

But what is most striking about the All-Stars is the way the ensemble's association with BANG ON A CAN has not only allowed the players to retain their own individuality but actually fostered it. One is always aware, even in the most mechanized minimalist music, of six personalities. Zyporyn's clarinet has an edge to it and an improvisational fluidity—the result, at least in part, of his longtime involvement in Indonesian music. Lisa Moore is the most rhythmically grounded of pianists. Bassist Robert Black has his quirky, funny side. David Cossin (the house can banger) usually has a surprise up his percussion sleeve. Mark Stewart is a soulfully wailing electric guitarist, and Wendy Sutter, an elegant cellist with the facility to cut loose.

The group's latest activities are typically uncategorizable. Its most recent recordings—and what other new-music group in America or abroad had three new discs out in the fall?—range from early Glass to a collaboration with the Burmese composer and percussionist Kyaw Kyaw Naing to a disc of Messiah remixes. On stage, there has been the Glass tour, the participation in a Balinese shadow play by the puppet master I Wayan Wija with music by Zyporyn, and an opera, The New Yorkers, by Gordon, Lang, and Wolfe that also includes texts by Lou Reed and the participation of photographer William Wegman, comic book artist Ben Katchor, and film maker Bill Morrison.

What's next? Who can say? But this much is clear. It took one of the most inventive minds in music to BANG ON A CAN and call it music in the first place. And that spirit of invention is far from having played itself out. 

Mark Swed is music critic of the
Los Angeles Times.

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