As published in Berkshires Week, July 30, 2009
Admit it, we’ve all been drawn to something before simply because it was different. Whether it be a place, piece of clothing, a food, or a person, we’ve all had that unexplainable attraction to the strange. For me, it’s music. I love music that breaks the mold, that doesn’t even attempt to fit in because it just doesn’t want to — composers I learned about in my American Music course like Terry Riley, John Cage, and Steve Reich come to mind. And that music is exactly what Bang On A Can aims to produce and highlight.
“This is a festival of people who have come from around the world because they identify themselves as being lovers of very strange music,” said David Lang, one of three co-founders of Bang On A Can, “sort of music from the Western classical tradition that’s off the beaten path… It’s interesting: In America, we have a tradition of kind of loony, oddball, weirdo independents.”
Lang, who was awarded the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Music for his composition “Little Match Girl Passion,” fits very comfortably into his own “weirdo independent” category. When I met him at Mass MoCA, he decided it would be better to talk outside because the music playing in the cafe would distract him — not because it was too loud, but because “when there is music playing, I have to listen to it.”
I had come to speak with Lang about the Bang On A Can Marathon, the summer festival’s culminating event on Saturday, bringing together all of the musicians, fellows, composers and performers from the festival for six hours of non-stop, innovative music.
He was full of enthusiastic information and music history when I asked him about a few of the highlight pieces for the event.
George Anthiel’s “Ballet Mécanique,” a futuristic piece composed for mechanical instruments in the 1920s, was one that I was particularly interested in.
“Ballet Mécanique” will fill the classics slot for the marathon, said Lang, as an example of “the great tradition of American rebels.” Originally, the revolutionary piece was written “for player pianos, for propeller plane, for noisemakers, for all sorts of strange things that really represented the height of invention in the 1920s,” said Lang. They will be performing a version of the piece rewritten in the ’50s so that it could be played by live people, including seven percussionists playing “really hard, really fast, really flashy music.”
Lang’s lively description made me even more excited about the piece than I had originally been.
I was next curious about John Adams’ “Shaker Loops,” which to me sounded like a spin-off of Terry Riley’s classic “In C,” a piece of 53 short musical phrases repeated an arbitrary number of times, which the players start at different times.
“It’s a little bit like [Riley’s “In C”],” Lang agreed. “John Adams attempts to take that kind of sound world that those loops created — the Terry Riley and Steve Reich sort of diatonic, tonal, not-hard-to-listen-to way of making small things repeat and stretch out over time — and exert a little more control over it so it actually does something more direct. Sort of like taking that revolutionary music that came from the generation before him and figuring out how to plug it back into the mainstream… It’s a very, very beautiful piece.”
I was pleased to have made a knowledgeable comparison in front of this master and went on to ask about Lang’s own piece being played at the marathon, “Pierced.”
From what I had read about it, no one quite knew how to describe Lang’s music, and this made him chuckle.
“I like it that way; I like the fact that it can’t really be described,” he said. “It’s very rhythmic, it’s very repetitive and stuttered and kind of unpredictable.”
Instead of the traditional idea of a concerto, where a hero is challenged by the masses, Lang said he wrote “Pierced” based on two separate worlds: “there’s the soloist world, with these 3 soloists, and there’s the orchestra world — and there’s kind of a wall or a membrane between them, and nothing ever really goes from one side to the other, but you can’t really hear one without being colored by what you hear from the other…”
Listening to Lang describe his composition, I could see how he makes the perfect leader for Bang On A Can. Walking away after an hour, I felt as though I still had so much to learn. It’s all so exciting and perplexing, this world of untapped musical possibilities. And that is exactly what this marathon is about: exposing people to the new, the experimental, the innovative, even the weird and misunderstood.
“We’re trying to get across the idea that the music world is full of options, and it’s full of people who really believe in what they’re doing,” said Lang. “We want people to have the experience that the world is big…”
In such a big world, there certainly are a lot of strange things to explore and discover, and I wasn’t really sure where to begin with a whole week before the marathon concert. But, as I ordered a coffee, I figured stopping to really listen to the music playing in the cafe would be a great start.