Tag Archives: Milton Babbit

How Bang On A Can Rejuvenated New York’s Improvisational Spirit

Bang On A Can

New York in the 1970s was a crazed, creative zone. Composer-improvisers like George E. Lewis shared venues with writers of fully-notated classical works, like Steve Reich, and post-punk experimenters like Rhys Chatham. But by the late ‘80s, the underground had atomized; the all-welcoming, genre-agnostic community had splintered into a collection of discrete camps. Classical minimalists, turntablists, and post-punk pioneers were still putting in work, but they rarely occupied the same stages. When conservatory grads Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon, and David Lang first arrived in that late ‘80s New York scene, they found the lack of cohesion crushing in its sadness. They wanted to bring that not-so-old New York collaborative spirit back.

Over the 30 years that followed, their collective—dubbed Bang On A Can—would help rejuvenate that communal vibe. Over time, other composer-based collectives sprang up around them, emulating their pan-stylistic values. Artists on their own label, Cantaloupe, won Pulitzer prizes for music. They would collaborate with a wide variety of experimentalists, including Meredith Monk and Thurston Moore—while also helping to realize ambitious works that had never been performed previously (like composer Anthony Braxton’s piece for 100 tubas).

This summer, the collective will celebrate their 30th anniversary with an eight-hour marathon at the Brooklyn Museum. The Bang On A Can founders have also begun to make their deep archive of live recordings available, exclusively on Bandcamp, for those who join the Cantaloupe label’s subscription program. The influence of the Bang On A Can marathons can be seen in other underground gathering grounds, like Knoxville’s Big Ears Festival. Thanks to the new archive, you can visit some of their earliest concerts.

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