Monday, June 29, 2009

Can do

On Friday, I had the good fortune to attend a panel featuring the composers of Bang on a Can -- Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon, and David Lang -- in conversation with Anne Midgette of the Washington Post.

The talk dug fairly deep into the group's origins and its progression from the fringe to something resembling the establishment, especially with Lang winning the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2008.

What excited me most: the upcoming formation of something called the Asphalt Orchestra, a new-music marching band. The idea of it, especially knowing Gordon's affinity for site-specific music and shifting the audience-performer orientation, makes me giddy. My years of propping up a sousaphone with my left shoulder seem somehow vindicated.

One perception-altering observation: I thought that BoaC operated entirely outside of the academic world, that all three made their livings from writing music without holding down positions at universities. "I was unemployable the day before I won the Pulitzer," David Lang remarked on Friday. That changed, though; he now teaches at Yale and Oberlin.

Attendees were treated to a few ear-jangling clips of the trio's compositions: Gordon's "Dystopia," performed by the LA Philharmonic under David Robertson; Lang's "Little Match Girl Passion," written for Paul Hillier and Theatre of Voices and for which he won the Pulitzer; Wolfe's string quartet "Early That Summer" and "Lad" for nine bagpipes. "Dystopia" thrilled me most -- brassy, busy and colored by the Walt Disney Concert Hall pipe organ, but with a deftly multi-layered structure -- but all were highly enjoyable.

I believe it was Julia Wolfe who stated the group was formed "to make the field better, more widely played... [to build] a bigger and more enthusiastic audience." That really resonated with me, because that's what I want to do as a writer and critic. Maybe that's not what a critic's job is or ought to be, but I believe in this music, in new music, and in the music that paved the way for its creation. A 12-hour concert, or a 24-hour one, might be a news-making spectacle, but the individual pieces that comprise it, and the composers behind them, should be known, too.

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