Bang on a Can - Field Recordings

Programme Notes - Barbican Centre, 20th March 2012

In the Summer of 1933, the pioneering folklorists Alan and John Lomax set off across the American South, armed with a phonograph disk recorder weighing 315 pounds. Using this state-of-the-art technology, they documented the extraordinary voices and songs of the Delta bluesmen, the cowboy ballads and the folk dances which otherwise might have been lost to the inexorable tides of history. In turn, those field recordings went on to revitalise and recontextualise music throughout the 20th century, up to the present day. The aural ghosts of the past renewed the music of the present.

Cut to 2012. The innovative new music organisation Bang on a Can is 25 years old. Unsurprisingly for anyone acquainted with their bold, provocative and forward-thinking work over the last quarter century, they're not about to present a straightforward retrospective. Co-founder/composer David Lang explains, "We're trying to make a show you haven't seen before. When we started talking about how to celebrate our 25th anniversary, at first we thought we could go over highlights of everything we've ever done, but then we thought, no, we're an organisation that exists to make new music, so if we want to celebrate our work, we have to do something new".

The result is tonight's performance, Field Recordings, an imaginative set of freshly commissioned pieces by five composers from diverse musical backgrounds, alongside new works by the three composers who founded Bang on a Can; Lang, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe, played by the organisation's 'house band', the Bang on a Can All-Stars and staged as an evening-length event.

"We asked the composers to remember something", says Lang, "to remember something sonic, then use the All Stars as a tool to channel that lost thing, that found thing. Channel it into something in the present. Something alive". These intriguing collisions of recorded sound 'memories' and the brand new works which surround them neatly celebrate Bang on a Can's inclusive approach to music, with a nod to the idea of an anniversary and a doff of the cap to the ground-breaking spirit of figures such as the Lomaxes.

The composer's approaches vary from Evan Ziporyn's use of a genuine historical field recording of a Balinese vocalist, to more idiosyncratic uses of recorded sound - a walk through airport security in Mira Calix's piece and a casino in Tyondai Braxton's. It was a deliberately broad commission. "We invented a general format", says Lang, "but told the composers they could take this any place they wanted... I started referring to it as a ghost story, or séance". Perhaps the most radical invention is Christian Marclay's magpie use of film clips, which function as a score for the musicians. "He's translating the things we take for granted in the sound and music world into things the visual world can understand. He's between worlds".

Being "between worlds" seems central to the Bang on a Can ethos. Ostensibly a 'new classical music' organisation, from the outset it has reached out to feature musicians from a range of backgrounds. "Our world has an interesting classification problem", says Lang, "it builds these little walls around it, but the walls are placed in a very arbitrary way. We've always been interested in working with the people who would be our nearest neighbours, if there were some other way of classifying things".

As a result, the inaugural Bang on a Can 'Marathon' festival in 1987 was a wild kaleidoscope of music, lasting a characteristically ambitious twelve hours. Minimalist classics featured alongside modernist showpieces. Phil Niblock's drone music rubbed shoulders with Stravinsky's sprung neoclassicism. John Zorn's manic jazz met George Crumb's haunting, mystical string music.

Bang on a Can has since grown to encompass a record label (Cantaloupe) and an extensive commissioning programme, while the Marathon has continued to run annually. In 1992 the All-Stars were formed, around whom a unique repertoire has grown. The hallmark of all this music-making has been the inclusion of composers such as those featured tonight, whose work moves fluidly between genres and art forms, between rock, pop, jazz and electronica, between complex ideas and immediate ideas. In Lang's words, "these are the people who are just over the border from our little niche".

25 years on, this open-eared take on music seems to have become more generally accepted, so musicians and audiences alike are more keen to explore beyond their given boundaries. The old snobbishness and close-mindedness has been mercifully blown away. It seems likely that Bang on a Can have contributed to this, but David Lang is charmingly guarded about the organisation's role in this. "It's not overtly political, but there is something utopian about the way we want to get along with each other". So here they are, supporting the composers who wish to refresh the world.

© Leo Chadburn, 2012