Late to the Revolution

I was late to the Bang on a Can revolution. As a freshman at Yale in the mid-90s, my friends Bryce Dessner, Claire Lundberg and I were looking for an end-of-semester gift for our Music 210 teacher, Ron Squibbs. All we knew was that Ron liked weird music, so we went to Cutler's Classical and bought what looked like the weirdest music in the store: a Bang on a Can CD. (Ron’s research was on the music of Iannis Xenakis. Good intentions notwithstanding, we didn't really know what we were doing!)

When I started composing in earnest, it wasn't Bang on a Can-flavored music. I remember reading a quote from (I think) Michael Gordon in the New York Times about their new summer program in the Berkshires. He said something to the effect of, "if you're just writing good, well-crafted music, this probably isn't the festival for you." My biggest influence at that time was Benjamin Britten, so I knew I wasn't a natural fit for Banglewood.

As a teacher, I taught some of the Bang on a Can staples in my Music Now class at Peabody Conservatory: Julia Wolfe's Lick, David Lang's Are You Experienced, and Michael Gordon's Yo Shakespeare. But my first deep connection with this body of work occurred when I taught David's The Little Match Girl Passion, right after it won the Pulitzer Prize. The Evolution Contemporary Music Series was among the first organizations to present the piece after its premiere/recording, and David joined us for a subsequent performance.

By this time, my own music was starting to change. As a composer, what I've learned from the music of all three Bang on a Can composers, and from those who have followed in their footsteps, is an insistence on allowing simple musical ideas to unfold on their own terms, often on a large scale. This is music that has the courage of its convictions, and sticks with them from downbeat to double bar, sometimes for the duration of an evening-length work.

The real revolution at the heart of the Bang on a Can enterprise may have less to do with the music itself, and more to do with how it is experienced and shared. Bang on a Can emphasizes context and community, the constellation of ideas and people that frame the act of making music. As David told me in a 2011 interview, “your job as a composer is to engage this entire utopian network of obligations which makes your music necessary.”

The Bang on a Can composers stand on the shoulders of giants: those of their minimalist forebears, and those of their Yale mentors, Martin Bresnick and Jacob Druckman. In turn, countless 21st century musical organizations wouldn’t exist, much less thrive, without the impetus and influence of Bang on a Can. I count the Evolution Series among those, and couldn’t be more excited to celebrate Julia and her music in Baltimore tomorrow!