If you hear strange sounds in North Adams this summer, don’t worry, that happens every year and it’s the city’s best-kept musical secret. From July 13 to August 2, dozens of young, experimental musicians invade the MASS MoCA campus and spread their energy around for the Bang on a Can Summer Festival — or, as they call it in North County, “Banglewood.” It’s an intensive program that brings new music players together with cutting edge, top-of-their-game veterans and culminates in a day-long marathon.
Cellist Ashley Bathgate says it’s one of her favorite times of year — she’s heading into her sixth summer as a faculty member for what some participants refer to as a musical utopia. “We get such creative minds and musicians from all over the world,” she says. “Everybody’s got something different to bring to the table, so for these three weeks, I just feel like a kid in a candy store.”
The festival traces its origin to a one-day marathon in New York City that started in 1987, the result of a chance meeting between composers Julia Wolfe, David Lang, and Michael Gordon. It sprang from their desire to bring new experimental music out of its chamber-music ghetto and to enliven its austere reputation with something more alive.
“When we started Bang on a Can, we really wanted to make it open to all kinds of curious people, not just specialists,” remembers Wolfe, the winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Music. That first marathon grew into something larger than anyone could imagine, which now includes a record label; the touring and recording group Bang on a Can All Stars, of which Bathgate is a member; the People’s Commissioning Fund for emerging composers; its outreach section, Found Sound Nation; the annual New York City music marathon; and the 13-year-old Summer Festival.
A main objective was to present experimental music with a sense of fun and inclusiveness, something not typically applied to the genre. That created what Wolfe calls “the community of listeners” and evolved into the professional-development portion of inviting young musicians to the summer festival.
“Your teachers tell you should spend your time working on your Mozart or you Beethoven because that’s where the jobs are,” Lang explains. “It was obvious to us from the very beginning that we needed a school because we needed to find a way for the people who were interested in this, the oddballs, to meet each other and get professional training from a faculty dedicated to this kind of music.”
Bathgate picked up on that difference when she auditioned for Bang on a Can All Stars at the recommendation of one of her Yale School of Music professors following graduation. “That was a life-changing moment to me,” she says. “I remember thinking to myself, Wow, I didn’t think music like this existed, and also, I didn’t know an audition could be this much fun.”
During the festival, days are filled with rehearsals that include breaks for yoga, opportunities to do something musically outside of their training, and to work with All Stars guitarist Mark Stewart to form an orchestra of instruments they’ve created themselves. There are two public recitals a day and several larger concerts, one featuring the work of the composing fellows, as well as an All Stars performance and the final six-hour day of music by multiple composers.
The festival often moves into the streets of North Adams, often at various bars, sometimes even in the local Holiday Inn, where all the fellows stay, and it manifests as impromptu concerts and even Bang on a Can’s own version of karaoke.
One of the hallmarks of the summer festival is the concert at Windsor Lake, where each year, through the encouragement of MASS MoCA, locals are invited to a free program featuring performances by faculty and fellows. This allows the group to bring their music to people who wouldn’t necessarily seek it out and to become a defining part of the city’s summer months.
BoaC alumna violinist/singer Sarah Goldfeather ranks the festival as a turning point in her career, with the camaraderie she found there spilling into her professional life. “It is a perfect petri dish for new music,” she says. “I never felt a sense of competition as I have in classical-music festivals. We all wanted each other to do well, the attitude was more like “Can you show me how you do that?”
That camaraderie springboards into opportunities for participants and resonates beyond MASS MoCA. Bang on a Can alumni often work together after the summer is over — Bathgate is collaborating with a former fellow, composer Kate Moore, for Stories for Ocean Shells, her debut solo album this summer. That’s the sort of thing that lets the founders know their dream has a life of its own.