BY DAVE ALLEN At a Philadelphia Music Project panel last year featuring David Lang, Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon – the three composers who banded together to form the new-music collective Bang on a Can – a phrase completely removed from the world of contemporary music entered my mind: “If you can’t find a partner, use a wooden chair.” I know it comes from Elvis Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock,” and I have no idea why it popped into my head just then, but looking back, I think it captures the DIY aesthetic that the group seized on from the start, as well as the influence of rock and pop music – not exclusively, but among many other strands of music outside the classical tradition – that the group has purposefully cultivated in the music it performs and commissions.
In 27 years, Bang on a Can has become something of a towering figure in contemporary music, but its founders continue to innovate, even as accolades come their way as if drawn by a powerful magnet. Julia Wolfe’s “Steel Hammer,” inspired by the American tall-tale of John Henry, earned her a Pulitzer nomination and generally won rave reviews. (David Lang won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2008, but she’s not jealous.) A recent recording of her music, Dark Full Ride, is loaded with works for multiple instruments — four drumsets, six pianos, eight basses and, shockingly, nine bagpipes. I spoke with Wolfe about the roots of the Marathon concerts, the technical feat of bringing it to new cities, and her roots in Philadelphia, among other things.
PHAWKER: I know there have been Marathons outside of New York, including in the United States, so why wait so long to bring the Marathon to Philly? How did this end up happening outside of New York anyway?
JW: We didn’t seek it out. It started out as a “happening” in New York City, because we felt there was a real need for it. There was no place for music that was crossing over or falling in the cracks, that was not all bounded by the same style. We never thought it would travel, but in the third or fourth year, people started asking us, and we just thought, “26 composers, 10 ensembles”… it was crazy! So we started the Bang on a Can All-Stars to take the message or the aesthetic to other places. That means they’re doing an incredible diverse group of pieces, but it’s not the same thing as the Marathon.
This idea of doing it in different places… the first one was in Amsterdam. We were linked up with some groups there. And so we thought, okay, I guess we can do it in other places. And then for our 20th anniversary, we said let’s celebrate by doing lots of Marathons. We did them in San Francisco, Baton Rouge, lots of other places. It was interesting to do it and interact with people not in the typical places that you hear about all the time. We did a little search to see what interesting things we could find.
PHAWKER: So then, why bring it to Philly?
JW: It seemed like a natural thing. It’s the nearest big city to New York, but it’s a very different feel from New York – smaller, but big compared with most places. I have relatives in the area. There’s a bunch of artists there who come up that we’ve worked with before. I think it’s great. If we can keep this going, it is so doable especially we have artists that we like working with. It’s just a train ride or a bus ride, it’s very easy to have that relationship.
PHAWKER: Are there Philly people who’ve come up to the Marathon concerts in New York?
JW: Some people do. There are people who’ve been loyal listeners when we’ve had marathons and other new music events. But to do it in Philly, it is reaching a new group of people.
PHAWKER: Obviously including local talent has been a big part of the non-NYC Marathons. How did you find Philly groups for the Philly Marathon, and how were they selected?
JW: Some we knew about, and some were new to us. The Sun Ra Arkestra, they’re legendary, something incredibly special from Philly. The Crossing, they’re relatively new, and they’ve worked with David Lang, really a gem of the city. A lot of them were recommended to us by Kenny Savelson, our executive director. He runs the organization — we used to run it, used to do everything ourselves. He’s a musician himself – he’s a rock drummer – and he really has his fingers on the pulse of indie-rock bands and other groups, and then we go out and find recordings. I don’t remember who found what, but we were excited to have such a surprising range of different kinds of music.
Uri Caine, you know, he’s originally from Philly, but we’re from different parts of the city. He’s someone we really wanted to have. I think he was a curator one year for the Venice Biennale, the arts festival there, and we saw him there. Normal Love, they’re a nice new find, and then Keepers of the Chaos is a really beautiful ensemble, incredible players. We’re trying to bring in things that are more toward indie-rock, things that are “contemporary” but in very different languages.
PHAWKER: Tell me about BoaC moving from this small, underground thing to becoming, if not “the establishment,” then at least a cultural force with a lot of sway. Did you ever think it would get this big? Did you hope it would?
JW: Well, if you talked to Michael or David, you might get a different answer. In a way, I don’t think we were really thinking about that. We wanted to find a home for our ideas and our music. We wanted to give a chance to people who were like us. Of course, this was 1987 – every other composer writes for electric guitars now – but we wanted to find a home for that. We weren’t organization-oriented; we were artists. It’s always been about idealism and entertainment. We would get excited about everything we were doing, because it wasn’t business as usual, and if it was, we wouldn’t do it.
You know, I remember Gayle Morgan from the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust — it supported new music and the environment, it’s not around anymore — told us “you’re going to burn out, and you’re not going to survive.” She was completely right. We really got burn out. We said, “We can’t do this ourselves,” we were doing it 24/7. We had to make that leap and get someone to run things. So I think we almost tripped over our own feet and organized this — sometimes we go, “How did we get here?”
Some projects we couldn’t get going — we put together this group, the SPIT Orchestra, for large-scale works, and to have something that big was… it just got completely out of hand. We had to go back to basics and focus on what we do well. We thought about that when we launched the Asphalt Orchestra, but they’re really self-contained and totally self-run. They’ve been pretty self-sufficient.
We definitely didn’t think we’d be where we’re at now. In some ways, we’re still very mom-and-pop; we start from scratch every year, we ask “how will we raise the funds this year?” Looking back, I think we would be ecstatic. We would be really surprised.
PHAWKER: How does the collaborative element enter into BoaC? Three composers, with three distinct styles and visions – I know you’ve worked on pieces together. Does this require you to be of one mind, or is the three-mindedness part of the point?
JW: There are definitely moments where we’re dead-on, totally of the same mind, as far as who to work with and where to do certain things. It’s clear we share a certain philosophy or belief. We definitely discuss certain things, the things that go into making some huge project. Being a composer is a very isolated thing, but when the three of us get together and make sounds, it’s a whole different level of sharing ideas and socializing. One of the things that works for us is this sense of personal participation, no matter what you’re doing or what you’re arguing over, there’s always a sense of excitement to make the work. In some ways, it’s very natural, in the pieces that all three of us developed together. In some early pieces, the collaboration was in the planning, in coming up with the whole idea, and then we go off on our own and we just do it. Writing your part of the piece, you feel you’re contributing your own section, as opposed to making the whole piece together.
Of course, there’s discussion after working solo as an artist and then getting back together and putting the pieces together. There’s times where we just hang out, meet up in a coffee shop and shoot the shit, you know? At this point, we’re all just crazy busy working on commissions, plus we have kids and dogs and we’re married… it’s a lot different from when we were 27.
PHAWKER: Tell me about the impetus for these multiple-instrument pieces. They struck me as something titanic and possibly impractical, but also very visceral and immersive. Where have these pieces taken you? Will you ever go back to string quartets?
JW: It really kind of happened by accident. The first piece was for six pianos, commissioned by a group called Piano Circus. They got together to play it, and it was a great collaboration. In the end, you feel like you have created this mega-instrument. It’s spatially large, and the whole range of the piano is covered. You couldn’t do that yourself unless you use your feet or something.
Then I was commissioned to write for Talujon. There’s so many works for percussion quartet; why write another one? I always think, why do this? But I’ve always loved the hi-hat, and I sat down with David Cossin, who’s the drummer for the All-Stars, and he took me through the drumset, and when we got to the hi-hat, I just thought, that thing is so beautiful! You can change the amount of sound. I thought it would be great to have this in multiples: four hi-hats, four drumsets.
So then there’s the piece for nine bagpipes. A lot of us were really excited by this… For our 20th anniversary in 2007, we wanted to open the marathon with some spectacular thing, like a spectacle. You know, the concert was right where the Hudson meets the shore. The year before we did this Anthony Braxton piece for 100 tubas that had never been played before. So this piece… to make a long story short, it’s in memory of a friend who’s a bagpiper, and we ended up working with a bagpiping group from Long Island. Matt Welch was the leader of those guys, the recording is him overdubbed nine times.
So I started to put things together for a CD, and I only noticed it afterward. Then I was asked to write a piece for one solo bass, and I thought, no way I’m gonna write for one, it has to be eight. So it ends up that I’m writing for eight basses, and there’s a group called the Hartt Bass Band. That was the first real concerted effort to write a piece for more than one of something. There was just something about making this larger version of an instrument. It’s like a string quartet, where they’re all made the same way and all made to work together.
I am going back to string quartets, though; I’m writing an evening-length piece for ETHEL and a singer, probably more related to “Steel Hammer.”
PHAWKER: I saw in the official bio that you were born in Philadelphia – how long did you live here? What were some of your earliest musical experiences here?
JW: I was born in Philly – at Jefferson Hospital, where my dad worked. Both of my parents were born there and still live in the area. When I was pretty young, though, we moved out to the Montgomeryville/Lansdale area — a very small town. In music, I did a lot of it on my own, then I had a piano lessons from a local organist. Then I got interested in playing folk guitar. I remember, as a young kid, going to the children’s series for the Philadelphia Orchestra, wearing a velvet dress, being hot and sweaty, and looking out over the balcony. I remember my parents dragging me to the orchestra.
My main connection to the arts in Philly, though, is going to see experimental film. Early on, I was mostly doing creative writing, working with words in plays and short stories. I was in this film club, and we would all go down to the city and go to the TLA Cinema to see Bergman and other experimental films. South Street was a great place. There were lots of music venues and art galleries, and we were spending a lot of time exploring. I was doing a little bit of music here and there – I remember going to see Joni Mitchell – but I didn’t really get into new music or experimental music until later, when I was in college. I think those early experiences are a big part of who I am musically, how it has to do with what experiences you’ve had. I think it all feeds into how you look at the world and what you have to say.