It was already going to be a year of transformation for the beloved Bang on a Can Marathon. A New York new-music institution since 1987, the annual event was set to expand into a new three-day festival, Long Play, spread over several Brooklyn performance spaces.
Then came the coronavirus pandemic. With Long Play canceled, the Bang on a Can collective’s founders and leaders — the composers David Lang, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe — opted to try another first, if in a more familiar format: a six-hour livestreamed marathon, starting at 3 p.m. Eastern on Sunday, at marathon2020.bangonacan.org.
Jazz figures like Vijay Iyer and Mary Halvorson will share a digital space with experimental-music veterans like Meredith Monk and George Lewis. Younger composers have had new pieces commissioned. The production values will be unpolished, but the marathon — which has varied in venue and length over the years — has never been too fancy. The emphasis on Sunday aims to be, as it always has been, on free-spirited variety, representation across musical generations and the intermingling of genres and artistic scenes.
In a joint phone interview, the three Bang on a Can founders — Mr. Gordon and Ms. Wolfe, who are married, spoke from just outside New York at a friend’s house, and Mr. Lang from Houston — talked about the rejiggered marathon, some highlights they’re anticipating and their plans to organize more performance epics during the lockdown. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
How long did it take to reset the plans for this year?
DAVID LANG It took us a while to reorient ourselves. We had this gigantic idea of how to expand the marathon into Long Play. I’m sure we’ll do that again, should the world ever get back to normal. But we have these people who depend on us, who have no money. We have young people who are looking for opportunities. There are so many people who are in need of a venue.
JULIA WOLFE It really came after a lot of discussion and soul-searching about what is important. Everyone’s getting compensated. We talked about a lot of different approaches — and came back to what we do. We started with a marathon in 1987. Over the years we’ve had so many amazing soloists; the Bang on a Can All-Stars [the collective’s resident ensemble] is made up of people who appeared as soloists. So we’re very oriented toward spectacular individual players.
MICHAEL GORDON Part of the reason it takes so long to get a physical festival together is that everyone has to come to New York. And everyone has a different fee, and different requirements. You know, the classic thing: “organic cherry tomatoes in my dressing room.” Less than a month ago, we were like: “OK, we’re going to do this.” And then all of a sudden you also realize no one’s traveling. There’s no conflicts. It’s lightning speed, putting this together.
There are a lot of distinct musical personalities on the schedule.
LANG Meredith Monk is opening.
GORDON Live, from her living room!
WOLFE Meredith kicking it off is very significant. First of all, we just made a beautiful recording with her, so we’re really proud of that. And she has a long history with the organization. It was a curatorial decision, from early on, that this is multigenerational; it’s multigenre. It’s about the power of the music and the performers that engaged us.
What are you particularly looking forward to hearing on Sunday?
WOLFE I’m particularly excited about the commissions. Dai Wei is writing a new piece for Todd Reynolds — for his electronics, and for his incredible violin chops.
These are people who are definitely the avant-garde of the world that they are in. Putting them all on the festival together means that we’re going to get this collision of people who are challenging what genre actually means.
GORDON When we first started the marathon, we asked George Lewis to come and perform. And he set up all these electronics and a Mac computer. And everything crashed. I thought, “Oh, what’s this going to be, a flop?” And then he did the most incredible trombone solo. I was totally floored. And now here we are, a little more than 30 years later. To get to hear him, it’s special. You come full circle.
There are also lots of artists on the schedule who are closer to the beginning of their careers, like Shelley Washington.
WOLFE She has a really strong connection to playing the sax in bands, and playing jazz. She’s a very broad musician. We have some great video shots of her, from a Bang on a Can summer festival, looking ecstatic. We stayed in touch. It’s fun again to pair her with the Bang on a Can All-Star clarinetist Ken Thomson, because they worked so well together at the summer institute.
LANG Eight of the younger composers — I wouldn’t call them “young” any more — were people who came through our summer institute. When we started the marathon, we were trying to figure out people for whom Bang on a Can is central. Shelley Washington is a great example. She’s an amazing person who would have been fine without us. But she found us. So we want to make sure we can help her, in this moment.
The cellist Maya Beiser will be playing David T. Little’s “Hellhound,” which I love.
LANG It’s a pretty obnoxious piece, in a good way. He started by taking a cello, and making the cello as in-your-face as possible.
GORDON David needs no introduction, but he’s also a summer institute graduate. And Maya was a founding member of the All-Stars. We’ve also got Steve Schick, the founding percussionist of the group. All of those members who have gone on to different careers, it’s great to have them back. You’re getting more All-Stars than you could ever possibly get.
Because the community is so broken apart right now, we’re planning to do one of these every six weeks or so. On Sunday, when this one runs, we’re going to announce the next date, new commissions, featured guests. So that the community stays alive, new works are created, younger composers get commissions, musicians get to play — and everyone gets to see everyone’s living room.