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Ready for Takeoff

Bang on a Can, New York's evolving new music festival-ensemble-composer consortium, makes its Los Angeles debut with a groundbreaking version of Brian Eno's 'Music for Airports.'

October 18, 1998|Josef Woodard | Josef Woodard is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Whatever else can be said about "Music for Airports," Brian Eno's pioneering "ambient" music experiment, recorded in 1978, let it also be noted that it plays nicely in the New York City subways. Slip it into the CD player, slap on headphones, pay your fare and try it. With its hypnotic formality, the dreamy construction of tape loops and stark instrumental tones, it seems to soften the rattling physicality of, say, a simple ride on the Broadway line down to TriBeCa.

You're lost to the world, but also of it, alert and aloof. It's the ambient effect in action, the fruits of Eno's decree that this music "must be as ignorable as it is interesting."

The subway connection is a fitting one this year, as the respected New York-based new music group known as the Bang on a Can All-Stars--clearly subway habitues--has successfully revived the classic. The new live arrangement premiered in Manhattan last spring to good reviews, just before a recording was released.

Now, it's making the work safe for the concert stage everywhere, including Los Angeles, where Bang on a Can makes its debut at the El Rey Theater Monday night.

Although "Music for Airports" is the L.A. program's centerpiece, taking up the concert's second half, music by BOAC's founding artistic directors--composers Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon and David Lang, and All-Stars composer-clarinetist Evan Ziporyn--will fill the first half, showcasing the complicated history of an organization that for more than a decade has been an evolving music festival, composing consortium and new music group.

BOAC got its start around the proverbial kitchen table, one ensconced in a modest East Village apartment where Wolfe, Gordon and Lang, recently out of the Yale music school, gathered to plan a new kind of festival back in 1987. (These days, that table is put to more typical uses in the TriBeCa loft of husband-and-wife team Wolfe and Gordon, and their two young children.)

Aspiring composers all when they landed in New York, Wolfe, Gordon and Lang had to cope with the legendary battle between uptown forces--established, academic types who mostly clung to the tenets of serialism--and downtown denizens--upstarts shunned by the establishment for their mix of rock, improvisation and world music. Downtowners tended to create their own opportunities, in do-it-yourself fashion.

The three of them fit into the latter category--they cite as heroes such do-it-yourselfers as Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Meredith Monk and the Kronos Quartet. The opportunity they devised was putting on 12 hours of new music, including their own work but also championing a wide array of other downtowners. The First Annual Bang on a Can Marathon took place in the spring of 1987, in a space in the East Village. It went better than expected: 400 people showed up.

"That was unheard of [then]," Gordon says. "We went to new music concerts all the time, and there would be 50 or 100 people."

What the threesome had at first envisioned as a onetime lark (despite the "First Annual" tag) turned into an institution. Subsequent marathons have taken place every year except 1998 in late May or early June in various spots around the city. One year, it was at the black box new music venue the Kitchen, and, for the last four years, at Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center. Next year, for the 12th marathon, they're moving back to the East Village, into a synagogue.

In the spirit of serious spontaneity, the festival title popped up on a whim, as the three sat at the kitchen table batting around ideas. Wolfe defined the process this way: "A bunch of composers sit around and bang on a can."

" I said, 'That's great,' " Lang remembers. "That's it. That's the name of the new festival.' "

From the beginning, Bang on a Can, although associated with new music guerrilla tactics, took place on a neutral aesthetic playing field when it came to uptown-downtown wars--at least in theory. Gordon said: "Our statement and basically what we were interested in was the music. If it was interesting music, it had value to us. If it wasn't, it didn't."

On the first marathon, for example, they programmed music from opposing camps: Uptowner Milton Babbitt's "Vision and Prayer" and Downtown dean and uber-minimalist Steve Reich's "Four Organs." Each composer showed up, but refused on principle to listen to each other's piece. "That was a really interesting lesson to us," said Lang, referring to the severity of the rift.

Still, he emphasized that the Bang on a Can festival isn't "programmed and sorted by ideology. . . . The idea was that, if you found a piece that was really great, that was really revolutionary and really had a spark, and put it next to any other piece that had a spark, it would fit. It didn't matter if the ideologies clashed."

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