MEDITATIONS ON THE BANG ON A CAN FESTIVAL
Good morning North Adams.
I am standing on main street, waiting to cross the road.
Germany has drilled into me this ‘waiting’, and my legs have grown patient.
Cars pass, traffic much sparser than Manhattan of course.
I look up at the sky line and stare into the bodies of green that gently encompass this
place endearingly coined, “steeple city”.
In the near distance I hear the overtone cry of the spinning sculpture that
someone has awoken into song.
Perhaps tonight you will find me over the only two dollar beer in town.
The lights change and the mechanical bird encaged in the pedestrian pole chirps frantically.
I cross, sauntering down the street,
sweltering in the summer heat.
I enter through the car park as everyone does.
Are the many variants of cars not an exhibition in themselves?
Parked in their places, a prelude of self-curation.
The air smells of food being smoked, and the grinding of coffee beans is a morning anthem.
Trees grow upside down here but one has not yet seen
the rain falling upwards.
I walk in, ears first.
A tunnel of voices rise and fall, recorded sounds and virtual realities, room to room.
Alas, more art will be made by me and by you.
I can feel the sound of loudness.
Last month I had the extraordinary opportunity to participate in the Bang On A Can Summer Festival as a performance fellow. Having shied away from applying for the festival last year and regretting it profusely, I was overwhelmingly excited when I applied for this year’s festival and was accepted to perform. This festival has long been on my mind, and I could say, on my musical bucket list. This year marked the eighteenth year of the Bang On A Can Summer Music Festival since its conception. It was also the very first year of a very exciting project– The Bang On A Can LOUD Weekend, “a fully loaded eclectic super-mix of minimal, experimental and electronic music.” The people you meet at the Bang On A Can Festival are more than just your fellow musicians, contemporary music comrades and colleagues– they become family, The festival now boasts a big and continuously growing family of over 500 fellows who have taken their experiences at the Bang On A Can festival into their careers and lives. It is said that once you are in the family you are always in the family.
I have compiled a list of 2019 fellows at the end of this entry.
mass moca: the electricity never left
The Bang On A Can Summer Music Festival was born in North Adams. And at the heart of this cosy town is a modern art miracle– the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, that is, MASS MoCA. I speculate that few people have ever spent three entire weeks at a gallery, unless they are working there. I for one have never, until the Bang on A Can Festival. With the festival being based in MASS MoCA I spent a good percentage of my waking hours across the three weeks in the museum. I ate there, rehearsed there, practiced there, performed there and when time allowed I immersed myself completely in the extensive collections of art. When one is walking through the museum for the very first time it is a magical experience. It is hard to explain it any other way. Every room entices you in a different way and some days you feel drawn towards some rooms and works more than others. Each room, each exhibit, each work speaks to a different sense but many of this are viscerally engulfing. With three floors of Sol LeWitt, an exhibition of Louise Bourgeois, selected works of Cauleen Smith, Laurie Andersen, James Turrell, Trenton Doyle Hancock and many more major names, the museum is a maze where getting lost is a pleasure. Even at the end of my three week residency there were still parts of the museum I had not yet discovered. Alas, for next time I am sure!
So what is MASS MoCA? And how did this monumental museum of contemporary art come into existence, in North Adams of all places?
The site on which MASS MoCA is situated was not originally a powerhouse for art as we know today. Having experienced over two hundred years of economic, industrial and architectural change, this site is certainly one of the most historically significant and interesting sites in North Adams and the surrounding areas. This nineteenth-century structure has gone through multiple changes, but originally functioned as a site for small scale industries in the Colonial period. Its location at the confluence of the two branches of the Hoosic River made it ideal made it a prime site for the diversity of industries on-site and in proximity.
In 1860, the site became home of Arnold Print Works. The company was contracted by the government to supply fabric for Union Army and it prospered from this demand, and became the largest employer in North Adams. However, the company closed its doors in 1942 due to falling cloth prices and the effects of the great Depression even despite decades of success.
But the building was not empty for long. Later that year, the site was bought by the Sprague Electric Company. Whilst the exterior of the building was left mainly untouched, the company made extensive modifications to the interior of the former-textile mill to convert it into a functioning electronics plant. Sprague Electric was considered a significant research and development centre and many of their employees (physicists, chemists, electrical engineers and skilled technicians) were called to aid the U.S Government in the design and manufacturing of vital components of some high-tech weapon systems during World War II, including the atomic bomb. From the post war years to the mid-1980’s, Sprague’s products were still in demand. After the war, they were used in the launch systems of Gemini moon missions and in the production of electrical components for the growing consumer electronics market. However, the company’s prosperity began to decline as cheaper means of production for these components became available abroad. The company closed its doors in 1985.
After the close of Sprague, the plant sat abandoned for over ten years, however, the idea of a creative re-use of this complex into an exhibition space was already being discussed by business and political leaders in North Adams only a year after Sprague’s closure. The space would be ideal for exhibiting large works of art that would not be suitable for the limits of conventional exhibition spaces. From 1989–1995, private support, public finding and detailed designs for MASS MoCA coalesced alongside the museum’s mission. Originally, envisioned as an centre for the static long-term exhibit of contemporary visual art, it evolved into a institution that would “nurture the creation of new works that chart fresh creative territory” in addition to presenting both changing exhibitions and performing arts events. In 1999, the site entered it’s third century of production as the impressive institution that we know today as MASS MoCA. The museum is continuing to expand, housing more art, and continuing a legacy of innovation and experimentation. For the past twenty years, MASS MoCA has hosted a bounty of events, festivals and housed a multitude of works of visual art and artists. It is here that the Bang On A Can Summer Music Festival was conceived eighteen years ago and it is here that its legacy continues.
And so, the electricity never left.
A day in the festival
With MASS MoCA as our festival base, fellows and faculty would go about their daily activities including rehearsals, recitals, seminars and workshops in various rooms of the museum. For performers, the festival is structured around daily rehearsals, usually one in the morning and one in the afternoon, depending on the ensembles one was assigned to. Ensembles were made up of the diverse and international crew of talented fellows and a minimum of one faculty member mostly from the Bang On A Can All-Stars. Composers had different daily schedules, often having workshops with the founding trinity of Bang On A Can (David Lang, Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon), presenting their portfolios and talking about their musical language and the musical universe. Media fellows joined the festival in the final week under the guidance of John Schaefer and Will Robin. During the final week of the festival and the LOUD Weekend the four media fellows arrived and began writing their daily dispatches. Despite being divided into three factions of fellows we were all united by our passion for contemporary music, and we collaborated as much as we could throughout the three weeks.
On weekdays throughout the festival we had the opportunity to begin our days with yoga guided by yoga and movement instructor Lexi Hartmann. It has been some time since I used to do regular yoga, the last time being when I was studying in Brisbane and now my body had to reacquaint itself with these movements and build strength again. For many of us fellows the intense daily schedule made us cherish one extra hour of sleep and yoga attendance dwindled across the weeks. But those who persevered with the morning yoga routine certainly saw results!
Each week we would have a different 10 AM weekly projects. In the first week we welcomed Faith Conant and Nani Agbeli, a Ghanian, West African Musician and Dancer who kicked off the festival with infectious rhythmic groove. Their expectations were high and Nani’s descriptions of the innate musical talent of Ghanese children years younger than us ramped up the pressure. Together with Faith he taught us the rhythmic patterns of Ghanese songs and the dance patterns to follow. Due to the healthy sized population of fellows we had to be split into two groups. In the group I was part of the song we leant was ‘Gahu Eehh’. The Gahu is a social dance comprising of high energy movements, percussive rhythms and songs. It is “believed to bring positive energy and happiness.” Nani allowed us to choose instruments that we were drawn to and he would teach us the rhythmic pattern for the instrument we had chosen. He would then move us around to try different instruments and assess our connection with each in relation to the ensemble sound. This process was repeated until he was satisfied with where everyone was. Nani would lead on the Boba, “an unusually large barrel-shaped drum”, and the rest of the ensemble would play their patterns, sing or dance according to our assigned roles. This project culminated in a performance in Trenton Doyle Hancock‘s playful exhibition, ‘Mind of The Mound: Critical Mass’. I have never felt so much energy in one room, it felt as everyone was singing, dancing and playing through every pore of their body! The physicality involved in the music and dancing was immense and I could feel it in my body days after.
In our second week we had two projects– one with the Latin Big Band directed by Gregg August with guest artists Mauricio Herrera and Ben Lapidus and the other with Found Sound Nation representatives Jeremy Thal and Amy Garapic.
Our 10 AM project was with Found Sound Nation (FSN). Originally founded as part of Bang On A Can, Found Sound Nation is a “creative agency that uses music making to connect people across cultural divides.” During these daily sessions we learnt about the work of FSN across the globe, engaged in deep listening exercises and composed a piece to present for the weekend concert. However, I will remember our very first session for a very long time. We were each asked to introduce ourselves again and our role as musicians in our communities, and then teach the group our signature dance move. This round of introductions was as if I was meeting these people who I had already spent a week with all over again. I was now aware of all their incredible projects, initiatives and influence they had as musicians and people in their communities. I felt empowered by the enormous presence of creativity and social leadership. I will be featuring many of these musicians and their projects in the upcoming ‘Women Write Now’ blog series as part of Women of Noise. Another very memorable part of the FSN experience was the five minute collaborative compositions site-specific to North Adams. We each had found our own ensembles and had put together a piece to present in the FSN weekend concert in the gallery, in a place of our choice. This concert was a culmination of all the workshops and sessions that we had been having throughout the week. I was in an ensemble with Evan Miller, Eunbi Kim, John-Paul Norpoth and Kirsten Lies-Warfield. We called ourselves ‘Visitor Centre’ and our five minute site-specific composition was titled ‘Letters to North Adams.’ Being a group of five we decided to take a minute each for our personal reflections and then to collage all the one minute limbs together into a holistic work. Each of us had written some text (poetry, slogans, creeds, letters) with directions for the rest of the ensemble to respond and contribute. Our letters reflected our feelings and experiences with the town, our engagements with the community and place, especially in the notorious heart of North Adams’ night life– the American Legion Bar. Evan utilised his tape recorders, which are a central part of his improvisational practice and invited us to each contribute one sentence, thought or memory related to the American Legion. Kirsten ended with her letter to the people she had met in North Adams and from a balcony threw some ‘question confetti’, that is, little bits of paper with questions or thoughts for the audience to respond to. The FSN project was a special experience of collaboration and site-specific response, and the compositional responses were diverse and entertaining.
I’ve concluded this blog entry with the poem I wrote for this project.
Read more about the FSN project in Dispatches From the Bang on a Can Summer Festival 2019: Part 1 in New Sounds written eloquently by media fellows Hannah Edgar and Elias Gross.
The Latin Big Band Night was evidently one of North Adams’ most anticipated events of the festival and I could hear the excitement of the staff at MASS MoCA and the town community. There would be live music played by the fellows, faculty and spontaneous guests, and dancing and good times all night! The band was directed by Gregg August alongside guest artists Mauricio Herrera and Ben Lapidus. Our rehearsals for the performance were late night toil, but always succeeded in convincing our wearied bodies to move and our faces smiling again. It was an eclectic ensemble with soulful singers, a healthy string section, a full-bodied wind and brass section, two pianos and a battery of percussion. Of course, the main driving force was the percussion. Led by Mauricio, the percussionists struck out infectious grooves and drove all the tempo changes. We played a variety of tunes, traditional and well-known, including Dos Gardenias, Lagrimas Negras and Danzón Barroco which was my personal favourite on flute. The rehearsal culminated in the highly-anticipated concert at the American Legion. The very enthusiastic crowd was seen dancing energetically whilst the members of the band kept the dance floor alight with the music embellished with scintillating solos. It was a truly lively night!
The final morning project before the LOUD Weekend was with the Orchestra of Original Instruments, directed by Mark Stewart. Spending five minutes in the same room with Mark can transport you to another creative dimension where everything is possible, and everything and everyone has the potential to make music, because really, isn’t everything music?! Combining a hamper full of whirly tubes, balloons and bass clarinet reeds equates to musical mischief and a whole lot of fun. Our mornings were spent awaking ourselves to sonic possibilities, opening our ears and not holding ourselves or anyone back from the gift of making and sharing music. We spent the morning alternating between playing the curious array of instruments in the Gunnar Schonbeck exhibition and creating our own musical contraptions for our ‘fanfare’ to zealously open the second day of the LOUD Weekend. I must confess that I do love the moments I have away from my instrument, especially when I am given another instrument. It can be fun to investigate the sound possibilities outside the realm of one’s instrument. In this way I feel I identify as a musician or artist more than a flute player, flutist or flautist, however you choose to call it. In my experiences with improvisation I feel this sensation of wanting to put down my instrument at times, to sing, to crush leaves, strike objects, play another wind instrument, body percussion, and the list could continue. At first I was nervous to do so. But then I realised that what makes the music is not my instrument. This investment of a silver tube could not play itself if not for me! It is the musician. It is the person. It is me, it is you, that breathes, strikes, plucks, bows, presses sound into the instrument. If I can make an instrument, an inanimate object sing then I can make anything sing. It is no magic. Everything is music, you just need to allow yourself hear it and share it. Working with Mark and seeing my friends and colleagues making music on their own invented instruments was a strong reminder of the importance of music, for everyone. And when Saturday came, our performance triumphantly began with our whirly horns, then gently into a tranquil aeolian hum until only our own voices were left.
Rehearsals at the festival were productive and collaborative. The festival ensures that each ensemble has a faculty member from Bang On A Can to avoid separating fellows from faculty. The vision behind this is that we are all the same, we are artists, albeit some have been active in the industry for longer. I rarely felt that the faculty treated fellows anything different from colleagues. I felt that there was mutual creative input and that the ensemble dynamics were overall collaborative.
Before the Bang on A Can performers received a list of their assigned ensembles and the pieces they were to be playing in the festival finale, the LOUD Weekend. We were then sent our parts, scores, recordings and given several gentle reminders to mark our scores thoroughly with cues to be prepared for our first rehearsals. I was already aware, pre-festival, just how thoroughly organised and professional the Bang On A Can administration and organisational team are.
I received a particular score earlier than all my other festival pieces. This was Peter Maxwell Davies‘ Eight Songs For A Mad King, a piece that came as a suprise in the program. Julian Otis, baritone, suggested this piece in his application to the festival. However, Eight Songs is not programmed extensively due to certain logistical considerations and the sheer demand and dedication that must be invested into delivering a solid and engaging performance of this piece. The piece itself is a quite the beast to put together. It is written for Pierrot Ensemble, augmented with a baritone soloist and percussion, and the vocalist holds the most demanding role of all, saturated in extended techniques and covering five octaves. But baritone Julian Otis was made for this piece. Every word, note, action was magnetising and burning with intensity. Eight Songs is notorious for its Jekyll and Hyde depiction of the text based on the words of George III, the ‘birdcage’ flute and baritone duet that all music students study at some point, and perhaps the most alarming part, the destruction of a violin. It certainly is not a piece that can be performed without the appropriate resources, tolerance and well, utter extravagance. Bang On A Can Festival’s production of the Eight Songs was directed by Ken Thomson on clarinet and David Eppel with stage direction. It was the only piece that had two performances in the entire LOUD Weekend Concert program. Of course, with all the hard work invested in putting the piece together it would have be a shame to have only one performance. So two there was, and out of this came two broken violins and a whole lot of applause. I won’t delve too deeply into reflections on the performances yet as I’ll leave that to the upcoming section in this entry where I’ll revel in some fond memories and perspectives on the entire LOUD Weekend performances and activities. However, you can read more about Eight Songs For A Mad King in Vanessa Ague’s article, Power Struggles and Rebellion In “Eight Songs For A Mad King.”
recitals amongst art
Art has long inspired music, and music has long inspired art. This relationship is no symbiotic secret. The three weeks in MASS MoCA were the perfect immersion into the diverse worlds of visual art. We also were invited to respond musically to artworks of our choosing in lunchtime recitals. At the start of the festival we were sent a sign-up sheet for these recitals, happening every weekday at 1:30 PM in the galleries. Everyone was given the opportunity to play, and there were no expectations for the performances to be exclusively ‘contemporary’ music. It was in these recitals that many fellows who had come as performers presented their own compositions, improvised and composing fellows had the opportunity to perform also. The naturally resonant rooms of the galleries were a acoustic utopia and it was always very exciting to see which spaces the fellows chose to present their works. The earlier weeks of the festival were less busy, but I will remember the first lunchtime recital for the longest time. There were two performances for this recital. The first was by Will Yager performing Valentine by Jacob Druckman for solo contrabass beside Louise Bourgeois‘ intimate sculpture, ‘The Couple’. The piece was highly gestural and drew the audience in immediately, ears leaning closer to perceive sound, or was it only mimery? Dozens of actions I have never seen performed on a bass unravelled before my eyes and the sheer intensity of the performance held the audience’s gaze for the entirety of the piece. The following piece, evoked a different palette of emotions from the audience. Composed by soprano and oboist Theodosia Roussos, Polymnia, is based on the letters of her great-grandmother. Skilfully and beautiful woven, the piece involves intimate exchanges between the weeping vocal soprano line and the modified string ensemble (two violins, guitar and violoncello). It pulled on everyone’s heart strings and it was hard to find a dry eye in the audience. I already knew then that the festival would be unforgettable and imprint upon me a plethora of memories, sounds and creativity that I would carry with my for my entire career and life.
The lunchtime recitals also were a forum to bring contemporary issues into musical discourse. I would like to write about one particular lunchtime performance that silenced the room. Brookyln-based duo MEDIAQUEER (Phong Tran and Darian Donovan Thomas) performed their latest piece ‘Into’. Written for violin, synthesiser and voice, Phong explained that the piece “confronts the societal norms of attraction within the gay community on apps such as Grindr, and how it manifests itself as very casually displayed forms of racism”. The piece gradually built in intensity, with the intricate overlaying of new textures, as the duo began to repeat phrases such as “No Blacks, No Fats, No Femmes, No Asians, No Browns”– real examples of words that are publicly displayed on the profiles of some community apps. In listening, it challenged us, the audience, to question what we have learnt to be physically attractive and the blatancy of soliciting for sex under such discriminatory conditions. Everything about this performance was powerful and heartbreaking. Are physical preferences in any form of relationship not discrimination? What struck me most was that communities that already face discrimination also have sub-discrimination, that is, there is discrimination on other levels (race, appearance, beliefs).
Before coming to the festival I knew I wanted to share some of the music from my community and experiences. I knew the festival would be the perfect place to do so and I wanted to share something that I felt represented my artistic identity. For those of you who follow the ‘Bog-blog’ you would be aware that prior to travelling to the US I spent some days in Oslo, with my dear friend, crafty colleague and courageous composer, Elizabeth Shearon. Liz and I had been talking for some time about the possibility of collaborating on a solo flute work with tape. When I received the news about going to the Bang On A Can Festival, I knew it was time to officially ask her to write the work. In addition to our identity as musicians, we are both extremely concerned about the worldwide climate crisis. Of course we are musicians, but first and foremost, we are people. The concern for our home, the planet seems only natural and a responsibility for everyone regardless of where you come from, your profession, your beliefs. If you are human then you are part of this. And as creatives we decided that the best way to express our feelings towards this issue would be through music. And thus ‘I Want You To Panic’ was born. The title and text of this piece is directly quoted from the Swedish environmental activist, role model and leader, Greta Thunberg‘s speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Greta has become a household name and her speeches and worldwide Climate Strike Movement have empowered not only the youth, but amplified the urgency to act on the climate crisis to the attention of entire world. I was very excited to learn that Liz had adapted Greta’s speech for this piece, using the speech as a stimulus for the work and quoting it in the fixed media where Liz sung, spoke and manipulated the speech. The flute part also quoted fragments of the speech, often emphasising syllables into the flute. Speech and singing are elements I love to incorporate into my own writing and improvisations, so Liz’ piece felt like everything I could’ve wanted to play and more. I was very excited to share this work with the MASS MoCA audience and to have Greta and Liz’ message reach more people. The work is continuing to evolve but if you would like to hear a full recording of the performance I can send you a special link.
I also presented my own work Sharehouse I, a game piece with cards and setting for seven players which I revised this year for the festival to incorporate an additional player (it was previously written for six players). I had the dream team and very energetic share house of Flora Wong (who I was already sharing a room with), Kevin Madison, Julian Otis, Matīss Čudars, Darian Donovan Thomas and Tomek Szczepaniak. Originally written in 2018, this piece is always a riot to perform especially in America where the term ‘share house’ often causes some confusion. I also made my debut performance as a “metronomecist” in Flora Wong‘s performance of Chris Perren‘s Escapement for violin and metronome which was commissioned by Flora as part of her Geburstag project. Some new techniques I learnt for metronome included muting it with a bucket and gradually lifting and closing the bucket, changing tempos under time restraint and achieving a 5/8 rhythm through tilting the metronome to one side. Am I a metronome virtuoso now or what? But jokes aside, Flora did a beautiful job performing this very catchy piece of Chris’ to the MASS MoCA audience and fellows. Now more people across the seas are aware of the great music and composers back home in Australia! I also had the opportunity to play two other pieces by the composer fellows– Sophia Jani and Matīss Čudars. Both had written for ensembles with alto flute, and my love for the mellow tones of the alto are no secret. Sophia had written a beautiful piece of two movements called ‘everybody was so young‘ for clarinet (Mary Fortino), alto flute and violoncello (Martha Petri), filled with lush harmonies and poignant energy. Matīss had composed a piece titled ‘Serendipity’ for flute (Jenny Davis), alto flute, viola (Sebastian Adams) and violoncello (Martha Petri). This work was three movements in length and featured punctuated rhythmic sentences, textured harmonic blankets and polyrhythmic playfulness.
There were also 4:30 PM faculty recitals spread across the weeks of the festival. It was brilliant to see and hear the programs that the faculty had created and their performances alongside their colleagues. The Bang On A Can All-Stars‘ Ken Thomson and Mark Stewart had a spotlight recital, as well as violinist Todd Reynolds with composer Nina Young and pianist Karl Larson and Eighth Blackbird’s Nick Photinos. These recitals featured new works and collaborative works and always served as a welcomed treat after rehearsal times. I really enjoyed hearing Ken’s compositions in his recital with Gregg August and in Nick’s recital also. Nina and Todd’s recital was also particularly special. The two teamed up to create a composition with text by Indigenous Australian poet Ali Eckermann, using violin, electronics, struck metal and wood in an ever-evolving sound world.
Another highlight was the composer recital featuring a work from each composer fellow that was composed during the festival. These bite-sized yet flavoursome works featured selected instrumentation including vocals and speech elements. This concert was in sorts a prelude to the LOUD Weekend composer concert of works that were commissioned by Elizabeth and Justus Schlichting.
Of course, I wish to document every performance that happened during these lunchtime recitals because every single performance was truly noteworthy and memorable. If you were a faculty member, staff, fellow or audience present at the Bang On A Can festival and feel that there is a performance that needs to be mentioned especially please add your words in the comments! The more contribution the merrier.
During the three weeks of the festival we, the fellows, had the privilege of being sponges, to pick the brains of the faculty and staff and soak up copious amounts of information. Seminars were the opportunity we had to learn and ask enduring questions about the logistics of running ensembles, seeking funding, establishing non-profit organisations and much more. There were no secrets or magic formula that could be revealed to make the whole process of being a musician in the 21st century any easier. In the seminar titled The Business of Art with Tim Thomas, Bang On A Can’s director it became obvious that the process of establishing and running an arts organisation, or any organisation, is a whole lot of hard work and knowing the system and legalities according to your state and country. He talked about funding and the many ways that funding can be achieved beyond applications and into face to face conversations. “There are people out there who will buy you instruments!” He said. Well, I’m sure anything is possible and that the philanthropy circle is bigger in the United States. In fact much of the content discussed in the seminars was geared mostly towards being a musician in America. However, like anything you can take aspects of the content discussed and modulate it for your own needs.
Another great seminar was with guest media faculty, John Schaefer and Will Robin. In this seminar they discussed various aspects about what attracts writers to covering a story and the multiple platforms of writing. As with all the seminars the fellows asked some compelling questions. Questions regarding the inclusivity of media coverage and critique of programs and projects that are evidently exclusive (and unfortunately mostly unaware of it). We began delving into some key events and topics including the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and George Lewis‘ A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music which is very much on my to read list. On a personal level this seminar encouraged me to keep persevering with writing my blog and look into extending my writing across other platforms.
We also had the treat of a very special seminar with the founding three of Bang On A Can– David Lang, Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon. We all sat bright eyed, listening to their stories– how they came to meet; their relationship as friends, colleagues, composers and their values and vision. The seminar was playful and light-hearted but gave us insights into how people who share the same passion collaborate and sustain themselves alongside communities with it. I wondered what it would have been like to be sitting in their position looking back at forty eyes ablaze with wonder and determination; forty eyes in the eighteenth year of a project of humble beginnings. Once upon a time contemporary art music may have been considered a niche, and it is by no means mainstream now, but what I do know is that there are people across the world who are unified in their love of creating, playing and enjoying this music worldwide, and this is family.
I would like to mention two exceptionally memorable sessions at the festival. Both were with Todd Reynolds, who never hesitates to share his years of knowledge and experience with those who are hungry to learn. Todd always puts in the extra length with all that he does and his kindness and genuine interest in each and every person made me feel immediately comfortable around dozens of new people. He invited the fellows to take part in an improvisation workshop and a technology workshop. Each fellow had different levels of experience in each area. Some of us had never improvised before, or had done specific types of improvisation whilst some of us had been doing improvisation of all sorts for years. The same theme was evident in each of our experiences with technology. Some of us had never amplified ourselves, or ever experimented with live set-up whilst others were fluent in the language of MAX MSP and Ableton. It did not matter what level of experience we were coming from, because as we sat in the room with Todd our curiosities were answered and our uncertainties were lifted. I had always wanted to attend a tech session like the one Todd had kindly coordinated. I have had Ableton but was completely lost when it came to knowing what tech tools to invest in. I mean, I had enough trouble choosing a flute, so when the market presents me with hundreds of pedals and products I get quite cross-eyed. But Todd demystified all of that. He showed us his live set-up, spoke about the pros and cons of his toys and some of the gear that would work best for our individual instruments. My bank account will be a little sore but I know what I’m saving up for next!
bang! A Loud weekend
The LOUD Weekend was Bang On A Can’s marathon concert, only that it now had twins. The original twelve-hour marathon concert model was TRIPLED this year for the very first time since Bang On A Can’s conception in 1987. The result was the LOUD Weekend, which featured big names, ambitious pieces and high-voltage vibrancy.
The fellows had been preparing for this weekend across the weeks of the festival. The LOUD Weekend was the culmination of all our rehearsals and hard work. For the composers, this weekend was what they had been patiently awaiting– their festival commissioned works would be premiered. I was very excited to have been assigned to some really wonderful pieces including Michael Gordon’s Dry and Peter Maxwell Davies‘ Eight Songs For A Mad King. As well as pieces by the composer fellows: Soo Yeon Lyuh‘s Dudurim, Sophia Jani‘s We’ll maybe catch fireflies and maybe we won’t, Dai Wei‘s Shiva She Says (although all winds were tacet for this one) and Darian Donovan Thomas‘ Letter from the Composer. I also was part of the Bang On A Can Street Orchestra, based on the Bang On A Can’s Asphalt Orchestra with most music arranged and directed by Ken Thomson. The pieces played were an eclectic mix including the St Petersburg Waltz by Meredith Monk, Talking Heads‘ Once in A Lifetime, Zwimbarrac Khafzavrapp by Yoshida Tatsuya, Conlon Nancarrow‘s Study No. 20 for player piano, the second, third and fourth movements of Ruth Crawford Seeger‘s String Quartet (you must listen to this quartet if you have not already!) and Charles Mingus‘ The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife are some Jive Ass Slippers. The street orchestra also had a debut performance at Windsor Lake earlier in the festival. It was a great privilege to work with the esteemed conductor and composer, Brad Lubman on Dry and the works of the composer fellows. It was once said that, ‘if you can’t follow Brad there must be something terribly wrong with you.’
There were so many unforgettable moments and incredible highlights from the festival. Unfortunately I can’t talk about all of them because sound checks and line checks were often scheduled during other performances. However, I was beyond excited to be sharing the same space as many incredible artists that I have admired for some time including The Sun Ra Arkestra, Pamela Z, Annie Gosfield, Tristan Perich, Annea Lockwood and Horse Lords.
Some stand out performances that I had the chance to hear included the Bang On A Can All-Stars performing selected pieces from Field Recordings. I always enjoy hearing pieces from Field Recordings and it seems that every time I’ve heard the All-Stars perform my ears are treated to some of the selected works from this project.
Julius Eastman‘s post-minimalist piece Stay On It was another highlight. The work features a poignant poem/program note by Eastman and was one of the first pieces of art music to be inspired by the chord progressions in popular music. If someone was to ask me which piece summarises my entire time at the Bang On A Can festival it probably would be Stay On It. No other work brought to me such a strong flavour of beautiful nostalgia and magical intimacy. It was such a beautiful performance played by a wonderful ensemble of fellows and faculty.
Meeting and hearing Pamela Z definitely confirmed my suspicious of her being a mega icon. I mean who else comes up after a performance of the Eight Songs for A Mad King to pick up pieces of the broken violin to make earrings?! That’s my kind of idol. Pamela presented her piece Attention during the weekend as well as stellar recital. Attention is composed for string quartet with fixed media. Composed in 2016 the work was “inspired by the ways in which our focus and attention are constantly challenged in this era of endless notifications and non-stop communication feeds”. It requires the players to navigate their way through the score in the face of a series of mounting interruptions and distractions from each other, their phones and the fixed media. It is the ultimate “multi-tasking” piece. The most ironic part was that this piece was originally programmed in the opening concert and needed to be rescheduled due to a technical error with the projector. Even whilst technology consumes our modern world, it does not always work, which can be unfortunate especially at the moments when we need it to most. You can read more about Pamela’s creative practice in Elias Gross’ article: Pamela Z and the One Second Delay that Changed Her Voice.
The Sun Ra Arkestra had me grooving in me seat. It was like a party on stage and I expected no less. I would have liked for the room to be free of chairs and one big open space for dancing. A series of sizzling solos and acrobatics of both physical and sonic forms were witnessed with wonder. Another concert that had me moving was with Horse Lords. If you haven’t checked them out then you need to get onto Bandcamp, find an hour, move some furniture and immerse yourself. These two concerts were the most dancing I had done since the Ghanese drumming in week one of the festival.
Another really great concert during the weekend featured Annie Gosfield‘s Almost Truths and Open Deceptions and Detroit Industry. Cellist Nick Photinos was in the spotlight in Almost Truths and Open Deceptions, with highly virtuosic material for both the soloist and the ensemble. It was splendid to hear Gosfield’s works performed to such a high calibre and the performance was truly exhilarating and nuanced.
One piece programmed sparked some concern amongst the fellows. This was Annea Lockwood‘s Thousand Year Dreaming. Lockwood is a brilliant composer and her piece Wild Energy with Bob Bielecki is a favourite of mine. However, many were concerned at the composer’s seemingly rampant utilisation of instruments from other cultures and this sparked a “cross-generational, multinational conversation” between the fellows and festival faculty. Many questioned whether this was an act of borrowing or appropriation. This conversation hit home, especially as the piece includes didgeridoos, the yidaki, an instrument that has its roots in the ceremonial practices of Yolngu Indigenous peoples of Eastern Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. The ethics of the piece utilising the didgeridoo was set into question. Did Lockwood actively collaborate with Indigenous communities when writing this piece, and did she receive permissions to use it outside its ceremonial practices? Media fellows Hannah Edgar and Elias Gross covered the conversation and gave us insights into several perspectives including that of Lockwood in their article Earth Sounds: The Didgeridoo Stirs Controversy at the Bang on a Can Summer Festival. This is an important read for everyone, especially for composers thinking about ‘borrowing’ from other cultures. It is one thing if our ears are open to diverse styles of music but our ears must also be ethically tuned.
Two of the concerts I was looking forward to most were the world-premieres of the works of the composer fellows. It is difficult to talk from a listener’s point of view about the pieces I played in but from a performer’s view, I can say that all the pieces were skilfully written, wonderfully varied and reflected the artist and person that the composer is. It was as if I was meeting them on a deeper level from hearing and playing their works. The Saturday composer concert featured the works of Soo Yeon Lyuh, Sophia Jani, Dai Wei and Darian Donovan Thomas. Soo Yeon’s work Dudurim, featured timbral and rhythmic characteristics from traditional Korean music, especially in her flute writing which extensively utilised pitch bending and ornamentations to evoke the sound of a daegeum. Soo Yeon is also an accomplished Haegeum player as well as a composer and I think her writing for strings reflects the sound qualities of this instrument. Sophia’s piece, We’ll maybe catch fireflies and maybe we won’t, was beautifully spaced and dappled with dance-like rhythmic motifs and warm harmonies. Having played other music by Sophia I can say that I enjoy her use of space and the way instrumental lines interact with each other in her music. Wei’s piece, Shiva She Says, drew on spirituality and cleverly utilised a smaller instrumentation to achieve a desired sound world. As Wei comes from a background of writing and singing Mandarin pop, I really looked forward to hearing her sing in her own piece. In this piece, Wei performed as a Khoomei throat singer. She also prepared the piano in a way that had gamelan qualities. The final piece in this concert was Darian Donovan Thomas‘ Letter from the Composer, and I am so very glad that they put it last because if it had been anywhere else I would have been stuck in the extended technique of sobbing into my flute. Darian expresses his identity as “intersectional”– he is gay, black and latinx. He is a musician, an installation artist, bi-polar. And he is “happier than your average New Yorker.” The world can be eager to typecast and assign identities to people. Is this fear of the ‘unknown’ perhaps, or just blatant erasure? This piece brings into conversation identity and meaning in relation to the self and the greater world. It is also a conversation Darian has with himself and the audience, an introduction to him, who he is, and his complexity. Throughout the piece Darian had Theodosia Roussos sing but also wrote text for the orchestra to speak at given points. I needed to hear this piece, I needed to play this piece, and I know that many more people need to be exposed to this piece. But most of all I have always needed to say “let me be complicated.” And even just typing these words makes tears rise again.
With the success of the Saturday Composers concert, the Sunday concert was eagerly anticipated by the composers, fellows and audience. The orchestra playing these pieces was smaller with a different configuration of instruments to the Saturday concert. The concert began with Matīss Čudars‘ highly-charged work Eclectricity. Perhaps the best way I can describe this work is like a huge slice of lasagne, for my sake, a vegetable lasagna. You are picking a large slice up and you can already see the crispy top but then as you begin to lift you see more layers. Dozens of layers. Spinach, mushrooms, potato, tomatoes, tofu, onions… the list of ingredients go on. What I meant to convey through this metaphor is that Matīss’ work was very texturally rich with multiple ideas all happening at once. I think I’d need to hear it several times, or come back for a second portion, to pay attention to different parts of the work because in the best way possible there was so much to listen to, and that is a great thing! This was followed by Celia Swart‘s Amplification of light that was inspired by the way which light catches on bubbles in the air and the colours that appear. This piece was lavishly embellished with blossoming harmonies that glowed through the whole room. It was soothing as well as transfixing and evidently written with such intent. Rafailia Bampasidou‘s piece three sketches from the backyard followed and featured Julian Otis as a vocalist. This piece was highly enjoyable to listen to, featuring dancelike rhythms paired with some Greek harmonic flavours. I’ve enjoyed listening to Rafailia’s works throughout the festival, particularly her highly sensual solo bass work “Intimate Talk”. Media fellow, Jeremy Reynolds, writes about Rafailia and her music in his article Get a Room:” Composer Rafailia Bampasidou on weird noises and intimate music. The last piece in this program was Phong Tran‘s Opulance. As powerful as his other works already performed at the festival Opulence was representative of Phong’s battle with his own participation in new music. The work engages with the conflict of identifying as a minority whilst operating in a highly Western tradition with its roots in imperialism and colonisation. “Burn me to the ground.” This is the repeated statement, like a mantra, at the end of his piece where Phong questions to what extent he should participate with this tradition of music, knowing dangerously well that by his own contribution he also fuels the problem. Prior to the piece being performed he invited the audience to consider the following questions: “Does the western tradition need people of colour and minorities? But more importantly– “Do those people need the western tradition?”
It was hard to find a concert that wasn’t exalted for skilful execution, transfixing material and poignancy. I wish I could have split myself into three and heard everything at the festival whilst also being a performer, and I do very much wish that there was more time to spend getting to know the other artists and the audience. But what I do know is that LOUD Weekend was a raging success that lived up to its name. And when the festival came to an end, it was not silence, but a meditation into diminuendo.
in diminuendo, never silence
The Bang On A Can Festival was the culmination of copious amounts of hard work from a large number of dedicated individuals and teams. I will forever remember the people I met, worked alongside and spent time with at the Bang On A Can festival. YOU are my friends, my colleagues and family. I am certain that we shall work together again and that I will see each and every one of you again wherever we may be, and hopefully that is sooner rather than later!
Banglewood 2019 was a huge success and an absolutely wonderful adventure.
Thank you for reading this short-novel of a reflection on my experiences at the Bang On A Can festival. In writing this I realise that I am a little tired but I am also overjoyed that I got to finally write it all down, and by doing that it was as if I was experiencing the festival all over again. I can only hope that this act of sharing will touch you also. Whether you are a fellow or faculty from the festival, a dedicated ‘Bog-blog’ follower or a spontaneous visitor– I welcome you.
I welcome you to share this, use it as documentation, a bedtime story, and I hope that it will make you smile as much as the festival made me.
If you’re a musician and/or curious being and would like to know more about the Bang On A Can Festival please do not hesitate to contact me. I would be more than happy to answer any questions and hear your thoughts and feedback.
I would like to acknowledge the Queensland Government for their support of this project through Arts Queensland. Without funding, my experience at the Bang On A Can Festival would have been close to impossible! I look forward to sharing the experiences, music and joy that I was exposed to at the festival back home in Sydney, Brisbane and beyond. I also wish to extend my acknowledgements and gratitude to all the staff and faculty at Bang On A Can and MASS MoCA, particularly Philippa Thompson, Karl Larson, Adam Holmes who ensured the festival was seamlessly organised. To Andrew Cotton and Chris Lynch for the superb technical facility, amplification and making performances sparkle! In the words of Todd Reynolds: “Treat the sound guy or girl even better than your own mother.” To the Lickety Split kitchen team for catering to over forty different stomach and needs (I have definitely eaten more Beyond Meat products across the three weeks that I would in three years). And of course, to the people of North Adams who took a genuine interest in our craft, to the audience that came to the recitals across the festival and the LOUD Weekend and to those who had the serendipitous joy of stumbling across performances during their gallery visit . Thank you.
This is the joy of sharing music. It’s human, it’s magic, and it is what I love to do most.
letter to North Adams
sultry nights drive me restless
my skin wrestles with the air in this place
reminiscent of home
the light night breeze
embraces my weary body
as my legs begin to move
in the distance
I see plumes of dark green
feeding nutrients to
these concrete worn eyes of mine
the lake and the grass are my blanket and
the star studded sky are my spectacles
North Adams in the night
has a song of its own and
all its streets
our time here seems
only momentary but it has
already tattooed upon my soul
an eternity of things
to the people I have met
the streets I have walked and
the songs we have sung –
let these sounds not only
ring through these rooms but
through the corridors of you.
Sebastian Adams (viola)
Vanessa Kay Ague (media workshop)
Rafailia Bampasidou (composer)
Isabelle Bania (violin)
Neil Beckmann (guitar)
Irene Bianco (percussion)
Phoebe Bognár (flute)
Hannah Christiansen (violin)
Matīss Čudars (composer)
Dai Wei (composer)
Jenny Davis (flute)
Gramm Drennen (cello)
Hannah Edgar (media workshop)
Mary Fortino (clarinet)
Humay Gasimzade (piano)
Elias Gross (media workshop)
Sophia Jani (composer)
Lisa Keeney (saxophone)
Eunbi Kim (piano)
Erin Lensing (oboe)
Kirsten Lies-Warfield (trombone)
Soo Yeon Lyuh (composer)
Kevin Madison (piano)
Evan Miller (percussion)
Adrianne Munden-Dixon (violin)
Heider Nasralla (trombone)
John-Paul Norpoth (double bass)
Julian Otis (voice- tenor)
Martha Petri (cello)
Alina Petrova (viola)
Reed Puleo (percussion)
Isaac Pyatt (percussion)
Jeremy Reynolds (media workshop)
Melanie Riordan (violin)
Theodosia Roussos (voice soprano)
Matthew Russell (trombone)
Caroline Shaffer (flute)
Celia Swart (composer)
Tomek Szczepaniak (percussion)
Darian Donovan Thomas (composer)
Phong Tran (composer)
Flora Wong (violin)
Holly Workman (violin)
Will Yager (double bass)
Amy Zuidema (clarinet)
Reviews and articles
5 Questions to Bang on a Can About LOUD Weekend, I Care if You Listen, Jay Derderian,
July 25, 2019.
Bang on a Can debuts LOUD Weekend at Mass MoCA, The Berkshire Eagle, Benjamin Cassidy, July 29, 2019.
6 Classical Music Concerts to See in N.Y.C. This Weekend, NY Times, David Allen, Aug 1, 2019.
Bang on a Can turns up the volume with LOUD Weekend at Mass MoCA, Boston Globe, Zöe Madonna, Aug 3, 2019.
An Energetic New-Music Marathon, The Wall Street Journal, Allan Kozinn, Aug, 9, 2019.
I Hope You Enjoy It: Bang on a Can’s Inaugural LOUD Weekend, San Francisco Classical Voice, Jeremy Reynolds, Aug 12, 2019.
History of MASS MoCA.
Vishay, 50 Year Timeline, Sprague Electric.
Christopher Gillooly, Transition, Decade of decision, 1989-1999.
Opening and closing poems by Phoebe Bognár (August, 2019).
Cover image (Spencer Finch‘s Cosmic Late) and all images without stated credit were
taken by the author.
This project was supported by the Queensland Government through Arts Queensland.