"A One of a Kind Event" - Thomas May on the Seattle Bang on a Can Marathon Feb 12, 2015

by Erin

Thomas May talks contemporary music, the evolution of Bang on a Can, and the trend of modern music being performed in Seattle:

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.

Read more about music and the Seattle Marathon at May's Memeteria site.