Bang on a Can Comes Alive at MASS MoCA
Bang on a Can: (L-R) David Lang, Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe
Photograph: Peter Serling
Back in May, when mounting cancellations made the concert-music world resemble an endless chain of tumbling dominoes, Bang on a Can was among the first and fleetest organizations to transition its core mission online. The inaugural Long Play festival had just fallen by the wayside, as would the increasingly busy Summer Music Festival at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) in North Adams, MA. Prospects for a swift return to live performance seemed dim, at best.
With characteristic determination and resourcefulness, Bang on a Can – composers Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe, along with the diligent team surrounding and supporting them – responded to the crisis by mounting an ambitious, satisfying six-hour Bang on a Can Marathon entirely online, free of charge, with donations encouraged. A second marathon followed on June 14. A third, coming on August 16, will feature more than 25 artists and 11 newly commissioned premieres. One of those pieces, composed by Annika Socolofsky, will serve as the global online introduction for Arlen Hlusko in her role as the new cellist for the Bang on a Can All-Stars, the collective’s versatile, eclectic house band.
But the marathon won’t be Hlusko’s debut. That auspicious occasion arrives this weekend, when the All-Stars and a clutch of close friends – clarinetist Don Byron, cellist Zoë Keating, guitarist Taylor Levine, violinist Todd Reynolds, and bassist Gregg August – perform together, in person, during a two-day event at MASS MoCA, with an audience present. Given stringent limitations on the number of people allowed to gather even in MASS MoCA’s generous outdoor spaces, the concerts, on July 31 and August 1, sold out almost instantly.
Kenny Savelson, the executive director of Bang on a Can and a stalwart presence well known to marathon regulars, confirmed that logistical considerations for this engagement far exceeded the already extraordinary demands to which he’d long been accustomed.
“The willingness of the performers, obviously, was the key thing—I don’t take that for granted at this moment in time,” Savelson said during a Zoom chat last week. “But everyone in the small group that we invited quickly jumped onboard. I think that’s also partly testimony to MASS MoCA having a pretty clear grip on how they’re managing protocols right now. It made people feel like this is a comfortable environment to be able to make their first foray back into group activity.”
Lamine Touré (center) leads Bang on a Can fellows in a demonstration of Senegalese drumming during the 2015 Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival at MASS MoCA.
Photograph: W.S. Melnick
Sue Killam, director of performing arts at MASS MoCA, explained that the institution faced hurdles unlike any it previously had experienced in conceiving how to produce these events at a time when Massachusetts is in Phase III, Step One of the state’s official reopening plan.
“Museums were allowed to open, and outdoor performances were allowed to start happening—with a lot of restrictions and requirements,” Killam said in a telephone interview. “The biggest one in the outdoor-performance arena is that capacity is limited to 100 people, including any staff or artists that are in the venue. But our mission in the performing arts is so important that it just felt right to figure it out in some kind of way that made sense. And we have the luxury of space, so my production manager got creative when we were thinking through, even before guidelines became clear, what we were going to be able to do.”
What Killam and her colleagues came up with – a jury-rigged stage improvised in a load-in door for one of the museum’s larger galleries – conjures memories of Bang on a Can’s rough-and-tumble early years in mixed-use spaces downtown. But the move was providential: locating the performers physically inside one of the museum’s buildings afforded a small but meaningful increase in capacity outside. (The space in question normally accommodates audiences of around 3,900.) Mundane tasks like ticketing and drink sales also had to be reconceived, in order to accommodate distancing and avoid physical contact.
According to Killam, MASS MoCA felt that those extreme measures were warranted by the strength of its relationship with Bang on a Can. “We’ve been partners for 18 years now, and it felt strange to be thinking about a summer without them,” she said. “And if anybody could see the beauty in re-imagining and working with what we have, it’s them.” (Not just them, incidentally; shows by the indie-rock trio Yo La Tengo on Aug. 7 and 8 also sold out in advance quickly.)
Naturally, with so much at stake in terms of basic safety – and with respect to regulations impacting simple tasks like moving a microphone stand or passing a bottle of water – Bang on a Can had to deliberate carefully concerning which artists could be involved, and what repertoire could be presented.
“There certainly will be protocols in place,” Savelson said. “MASS MoCA staff won’t handle our equipment, and we won’t handle theirs. We’re not expected to move backline in and out of the place, because they want to limit the number of hands on things.”
As in the online marathons, most artists will perform unaccompanied, or in very small groups that allow for safe distancing—which includes the All-Stars, an amplified sextet accustomed to spreading out. And for most of the members, the compositions the ensemble will perform – Louis Andriessen’s Workers Union and Thurston Moore’s Stroking Piece #1 – are deeply embedded in collaborative muscle memory.
“We purposely curated pieces the All-Stars can play without having to rehearse too much, stuff we’ve done a lot,” Savelson explained. “But they’ll need to find their groove, that’s for sure.”
Serendipitously, some performers involved in this weekend’s concerts – Reynolds, August, and Bang on a Can All-Stars guitarist Mark Stewart – already lived near MASS MoCA. Others, including Byron and Keating, were close by in upstate New York. Even Gordon and Wolfe happened to be quarantining not far away, which will enable them to attend and participate in person.
Photograph: Kaitlin Jane
But for All-Stars pianist Vicky Chow, who is traveling up from New York City for this weekend’s events, the occasion has prompted unanticipated feelings of insecurity. “I’m renting a car and driving up,” she said via Zoom. “It’s a little nerve-wracking. I haven’t left my neighborhood, spanning as far as going to the grocery store, in five months.”
Chow, when we spoke, hadn’t quite wrapped her head around the logistics of rehearsing the one wholly new piece she’ll undertake, a trio with August and Reynolds. “This is all going to be a first; it’s going to be really new. When I see them, I’m automatically going to want to give them a hug, and I can’t. How do I interact with people? What do I do? And do I wipe the piano keys every time I play?”
Those kinds of fundamental questions, it seems, are deeply embedded into the prospect of a gradual, cautious return to conditions once taken for granted. Chow has performed in the online Bang on a Can events, while also working her way through a series of small compositions by Gordon on Instagram. Even so, the idea of returning to performing among other people is stirring strong emotions.
“I’m kind of nervous about playing in front of people again; it’s like, do I remember how to do this?” Chow confirmed. “Before, we were so used to going onstage. You become accustomed to the adrenaline and the rush.” Performing for an audience via a livestreamed event provides a taste of that rush, she explained, but in the end, you’re still playing at home.
“I know that there’s going to be people there,” she continued, “and actually going onstage, with people clapping… it’s probably going to be a familiar feeling. And it’s going to feel really, really good to be able to get back onstage—and to be able to play with everybody again.”
Bang on a Can & Friends will be held at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) on Friday, July 31, and Saturday, Aug. 1, at 8:30pm; details here, but tickets are sold out. The next Bang on a Can online marathon will be presented on Sunday, Aug. 16, 3-9pm; marathon2020.bangonacan.org.
Correction (1:40pm): An artist was misidentified in the photo caption that accompanied the newsletter version of this article. The artist depicted in the second photo is Lamine Touré, seen teaching Senegalese drumming during the 2015 Bang on a Can Summer Institute, not Nani Agbeli teaching Ghanaian drumming in 2018. My apology for the error.
For the Record: July 31, 2020
For the Record is a weekly round-up of new and pending recordings of interest to the new-music community: contemporary classical music and jazz, electronic and electroacoustic music, and idioms for which no clever genre name has been coined, on CD, vinyl LP, cassette, digital-only formats… you name it.
This list of release dates is culled from press releases, Amazon, Bandcamp, and other internet stores and sources, social-media posts, and online resources such as Discogs. Dates cited correspond to U.S. release of physical recordings, for the most part, and are subject to change. (Links to Amazon, where used, do not imply endorsement.)
After publication, new listings are incorporated into On the Record: The Master List, a continuously updated resource exclusively accessible to paid Night After Night subscribers, found here.
These listings are not comprehensive—nor could they be! To submit a forthcoming recording for consideration, email information to email@example.com.
New This Week
Photograph: Jacqueline Harriet
Félicia Atkinson - Echo (Boomkat Editions)
Gelsey Bell - Cairns (self-released)
Ilia Belorukov/Jason Kahn - Studio Album (Notice)
Dmitry Evgrafov - Surrender (130701/FatCat)
Alexander Garsden - Of Another (Duos 2019-2019) (Marginal Frequency)
Lisa Cay Miller/Vicky Mettler/Raphaël Foisy-Couture - Grind Halts (Notice)
Miyamoto Is Black Enough - Burn/Build (National Sawdust Tracks)
Takuji Naka/Tim Olive - Minouragatake (Notice)
Max Richter - Voices (Decca)
Wolfgang Rihm - Über Die Linie - Benedict Klöckner (Plaist)
Robin Schlochtermeier - Spectral (Denovali)
Eugene Ughetti - Agglomeration of Measurement - compositions by James Rushford, Thomas Meadowcroft, Robin Fox & Eugene Ughetti, Alexander Garsden, Liza Lim, and Anthony Pateras (Room40)
Stephen Vitiello - Brood IX (Room40)
Anna Webber - Rectangles (Out of Your Head)
Asher - Arrangements I (Room40)
Michael Formanek Quartet - Pre-Apocalyptic (Out of Your Head)
David Virelles - Transformación del Arcoiris (Pi Recordings)
Ellen Fullman & Theresa Wong - Harbors (Room40)
Ellen Reid - lumee’s dream variations - performances by Nadia Sirota, Rebecca Jo Loeb, Attacca Quartet members, Rob Moose, Bridget Kibbey, and Matt Smallcomb (Decca Gold)
Edward Smaldone - Once and Again - performances by Tony Arnold, Tara Helen O’Connor, June Han, Susan Narucki, Charles Neidich, Morey Ritt, and others (New Focus)
Moniek Darge - Bratschebraut (Horn of Plenty)
Charlotte Greve/Vinnie Sperrazza/Chris Tordini - The Choir Invisible (Intakt)
Christoph Irniger Trio with Loren Stillman and Nils Wogram - Open City (Intakt)
Catherine Lamb - point/wave - Giacomo Fiore (Populist)
Bellows (Giuseppe Ielasi & Nicola Ratti) - Undercurrent (Black Truffle)
Samm Bennett - Oscillendulum (Room40)
Max Bessesen - Trouble (Ropeadope)
Kenny Wessel - Unstrung (Meta-Dash)
David Toop - Apparition Paintings (Room40)
David Toop - Field Recording and Fox Spirits (Room40)
Sylvie Courvoisier Trio - Free Hoops (Intakt)
Sean Sonderegger’s Magically Inclined - Living There (Meta-Dash)
Concetta Abbate - Mirror Touch (self-released)
Emi Makabe - Anniversary (Greenleaf Music)
Photograph: Michal Ramus
Conductor Alan Pierson talks about recent experiences working in Germany, where concert life is slowly, cautiously returning to something close to normal, and about his present activities with Alarm Will Sound, including projects online and in person.