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A Logical Step in an Offbeat Journey

New music is a do-it-yourself affair with Bang on a Can. That's why the outfit is launching its own label.

March 04, 2001|JOSEF WOODARD | Josef Woodard is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Self-reliance has always ranked high in the collective ethos of Bang on a Can. In 1987, three composers in Manhattan--David Lang, Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon--decided it would be fun to hold a marathon concert and otherwise champion new music. The marathons grew in acclaim, evolving into festivals, radio programs, commissioning programs, a "house band"--the Bang on a Can All-Stars--and more. A regular cottage industry.

So when news came last year that Bang on a Can was starting up an in-house record label, Cantaloupe Music, the reaction was less "Are they crazy?' than "What took so long?"

"We just took the leap," Wolfe says from her home in Manhattan. "I think that's the way we operate. It's not like we were planning for years and then worked it all out. We basically just take leaps. The things that survive survive, and the things that don't don't."

Lang, on the phone from an All-Stars tour stop in Houston, gives the enterprise a bit more of an entrepreneurial twist: "I think it's actually a great time for records, and a great time for music. Because the major labels are abandoning smaller things, what it actually does is to create this huge vacant space, this vacuum that can be filled by do-it-yourselfers."

Cantaloupe Music's official launch this month coincides with a performance by the Bang on a Can All-Stars at UCLA's Schoenberg Hall on Friday. The label name, which came out of a search for something enveloping the key word "can," has a much warmer and sweeter inference than the group's edgier-sounding umbrella identity. That's not accidental. Wolfe notes that "when Bang on a Can started, you really needed to bang on a can. You needed to say, 'Hey, music is a lot more interesting and a lot broader than what is being offered,' which was very limited then.

"Now, actually, the world seems a little sweeter. Although I think there are still areas that are fairly closed, even the rock world has opened its ears. In the new music world, on the whole, it has opened wide up. Certainly, that's true in New York, in terms of venues and what they [will consider]. It's time for some cantaloupe," she says with a laugh.

The Bang on a Can troika has talked about starting a label for years. As it turns out, the catalyst was a monster of their own devising. In 1997, they released a well-received, real-time performance arrangement of Brian Eno's famous studio creation, the electronic ambient piece "Music for Airports." The relative success of that CD, released on Point Records, a subsidiary of Universal, fueled high expectations from the label for follow-up projects. In new music, an album that sells more than 15,000 units--which "Airports" did in the U.S. alone--is virtually a runaway hit.

As Gordon explains, the label was "so happy with the success that they wouldn't consider another record that they couldn't see as being even more successful."

In 1998, the All-Stars recorded "Renegade Heaven" on their own, a compilation of recent work primarily by the Bang on a Can founders, without the commitment--or advance--of a label. After Point passed on it, Gordon recalls, "we just said, 'Look, let's see if we can put this out ourselves.' We sat around another year trying to figure that out. All of a sudden, in a very short amount of time, everything started coming together. We hooked up with Harmonia Mundi [which will distribute the label] and everything started going."

Gordon acknowledges that "Renegade Heaven" will be a specialty item, without an easy marketing niche. "It's going to be uncomfortable in every department of the record store. It's going to be in the classical music department because we're being distributed by a classical label, and we're basically classical musicians. But it's going to be uncomfortable there, as it would be in the alternative-rock section. We're focusing in on people who are experimenting with the music that is somehow in between the cracks."

Cantaloupe's existence doesn't preclude Bang on a Can doing special projects with bigger labels. In the past, it has recorded for CRI, Sony Classical, Point, and last year, the All-Stars recorded an album of Steve Reich's music for Nonesuch. But Cantaloupe will be home base for the Bang on a Can family.

In June, Evan Ziporyn, the clarinetist-composer who is a member of the All-Stars, will release his project, "This Is Not a Clarinet." Other label plans include dipping into the vaults of festival performances. Lang says, "We have a performance with John Cage, performances with Terry Riley, and performances of all sorts of strange things that no one would ever hear again if we didn't put them out."

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