MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

The Bang on a Can Marathon Comes to Seattle

Bang on a Can All-Stars

Bang on a Can All-Stars: image (c) Peter Serling

Here’s a performance/happening you’re not going to be able to file away into one of the familiar musical categories. Is it classical (because, you know, strings and other traditional instruments, complicated scores being interpreted)? Experimental, maybe avant-garde? “Crossover” (whatever that‘s supposed to mean nowadays)? Let’s just call it a one-of-a-kind event: the first-ever Seattle edition of the annual Bang on a Can marathon. It takes over the Moore Theatre this Sunday, February 15, for six hours of blissful music-making.

You know how the phrase “classical music concert” used to imply a mostly predictable format? That’s no longer a safe assumption, thanks to the innovative thinking of orchestras like the Seattle Symphony and music director, Ludovic Morlot — thinking that involves not just the content of a concert but the venue where it’s performed.

By the same token, there once was a time when the prospect of a “new music” (aka “modern music”) program signaled a ritualistic exercise in high-toned concentration. Back in 1987, a trio of like-minded young composers — Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon, and David Lang — put together a 12-hour marathon of adventurous music in a SoHo art gallery (when NYC’s SoHo was still SoHo). That one-off event was intended to attract curious ears to the energy and excitement and variety of music being composed in our time outside the commercial formulas of the pop industry — and outside the confines of the concert hall.

The inaugural marathon turned out to be the birth of a performing arts organization that’s now a major international force in the realm of contemporary classical music (another unsatisfactory term for a whole world of music that can’t be readily defined). More than a quarter century on, Bang on a Can remains “dedicated to the support of experimental music, wherever we would find it.” It commissions and records new works, develops programs to foster a new generation of audiences and musicians, and presents numerous events, including the annual Bang on a Can Marathon.

The appeal of the marathon format, according to co-founder and composer (and Dan Savage look-alike) Michael Gordon, is that it encourages people to “let down their guard. The event is aimed at people who are interested in broad listening, who come to listen with open hears. Many people know what they like and might come to the Marathon to hear that type of music. The next thing on the line-up will be completely different, something they would have never come across otherwise. Everything moves quickly and the sets are pretty short. So they start listening to things that they wouldn’t normally encounter. That’s basically the whole point: to broaden your listening and to have a good time with it.”

The venue is important for that context. Seattle’s Bang on a Can Marathon is being co-presented by Seattle Theatre Group and On The Boards at the Moore Theatre. Gordon refers to Bang on a Can’s MO of performing in “neutral spaces, audience-friendly spaces” that shed any of those lingering fears (however unjustified) of the concert hall as a place where only the musically initiated can feel comfortable. He points out that museums and public spaces like the Winter Garden in New York have served this purpose well.

Gordon also has praise for the Seattle Symphony’s recent initiatives under Ludovic Morlot: “They’re doing a lot of progressive work — not only reaching out into other communities but also by doing a lot of interesting commissioning. Orchestras have to change their attitudes. The SSO is on the forefront of finding a way to be relevant today.”

Bang on a Can’s Marathon will mix in work from adventurous Seattle-based or -associated composers and musicians with pieces by each of the organization’s co-founders. The whole event will be framed by new-music “classics” that have had a profound — and not always acknowledged — impact on the music world at large: Brian Eno’s ambient masterpiece, Music for Airports, and Music for 18 Musicians, one of Minimalist Steve Reich’s signature works.

“The Marathon is all about finding people who are pushing the boundaries of their kind of music and letting that be the thread that goes through each of the acts,” says Jherek Bischoff, who was asked to curate the Seattle festival. “Pushing boundaries is one thread.” Another is serendipity: “Someone might come for the hip-hop segment [featuring Shabazz Palaces] and then they’ll happen to hear some modern classical right next to it.”

Bischoff, who comes from a family of musicians, was raised on a sailboat and on Bainbridge Island. He began his career as a multi-instrumentalist: “I started with the saxophone, moved on to tuba and then to bass — and then things stated getting crazy with way too many instruments…” Not surprisingly, Bischoff channels his talents into myriad musical activities, from performing and composing to producing — and, now, curating.

“People I wanted to include sprang to mind right away,” Bischoff explains. “For me, it’s exciting to give them the opportunity to play at the Moore. One of those people is Morgan Henderson. He’s the perfect example of what Bang on a Can is doing, which is to take someone who totally goes under the radar and put them in the spotlight. Morgan is one of the most talented musicians I know. He plays bass in the hardcore band The Blood Brothers but then he also plays flute in the Fleet Foxes band — the exact opposite type of music and instrument.”

Jherek Bischoff

Jherek Bischoff

Another figure Bischoff was eager to add to the line-up is Seattle pianist Gust Burns. “He’s one of the most insanely technically proficient pianists I’ve heard, and at the same time he’s also a wonderful improviser. When you see him perform, you can’t believe that there’s just one person making all that sound with the piano.”

Bischoff, who moved to Los Angeles a few months ago, will also bring along his own recent efforts as a composer: “It’s ambient orchestral music that was inspired by my time out at the cistern in Fort Worden State Park [in Port Townsend], where I did a residency. The cistern is a two-million-gallon water tank underground that has a 45-second reverb. I improvised there for days and recorded the whole thing and ended up turning some of those improvisations into full-blown orchestral pieces.” The results will be performed by the Scrape Ensemble (strings) with Bischoff on bass and “a bunch of reverb piped in to give you a bit of a sense of that alternate space.”

Along with those mentioned above and the Bang on a Can All-Stars, other artists on the roster include the duo Jesssika Kenney & Eyvind Kang, Jim Knapp, Greg Campbell, and California-based red fish blue fish.

But isn’t four hours of musical discovery a bit overwhelming? Bischoff points out that it’s perfectly fine for the audience to weave in and out and take breaks — much as became the custom during performances of a mammoth work like Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach. “You can step out to get a drink. The Bang on a Can marathon I attended in New York took place in a big atrium and there was even a food court where you could go to eat and watch as the music played on.”

If you go: The Bang on a Can Marathon’s Seattle edition is being co-presented by Seattle Theatre Group and On The Boards at the Moore Theatre, Sunday, February 15, from 4 to 10 p.m. Tickets here.

(C)2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: new music, preview, programming innovation

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