The Bang On A Can Marathon in New York City might be homeless currently, but there is still a place for it in North Adams, as there has been for the last 15 years. Part of the organization’s Summer Festival, the event offers six hours of challenging and vibrant eclecticism with performances by Bang On A Can faculty members and summer fellows.
This year, the program on Saturday, July 30, features a number of musical pieces, including works by George Crumb and David Lang, among many others, and a performance by the Orchestra of Original Instruments (O of OI), helmed by faculty member Mark Stewart.
The marathon also will feature a performance of Steve Reich’s “Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, Organ,” featuring marimbas vibraphones and glockenspiels.
“It’s that resonant sound of the ’70s Steve Reich,” said BOAC co-founder and Pulitzer Prize winning composer Julia Wolfe. “We’re excited about that.”
A composition of Wolfe’s will also be part of the program, “Tell Me Everything,” a piece from her first album, “Arsenal Of Democracy,” that she recorded at the invitation of Philip Glass and which has been out of print for years.
“Tell Me Everything” was written for a group in Mexico City, a composition filled with offbeat Latin rhythms that Wolfe feared was “goofy.” It was inspired by a field recording she heard of a South American village band attempting to perform with brass instruments it had just acquired, resulting in what Wolfe describes as “a raucous, loud, noisy piece, with lots of little tunes colliding.“
“It almost sounds like a samba at time but then it gets thrown off,” Wolfe said. “It’s very hard to count with some weird, changing meters, but what it turned out to be was a piece where it sounds almost like a village band that is trying to play together but they’re not really together, they’re almost together. It’s a little bit complicated to literally write that out in notation because everyone’s just a little bit off from each other, precisely a little bit off from each other.”
Wolfe said she chose it for the marathon because it requires a large number of players — 16 in total, including a saxophonist, and one harpist adjusting the harp pedal for more twang.
The marathon will also feature two works by this year’s special guest to the festival, Pulitzer Prize winner John Luther Adams — “In a Treeless Place, Only Snow,” a 1999 composition for for celesta, harp, 2 vibraphones and string quartet, and “The Light Within,” a 2007 composition featuring alto flute, bass clarinet, vibraphone, crotales, piano, violin, cello and electronic sounds. Much of Adams’ work is inspired by the Alaskan landscape, and all of it comes from an environmental interest.
“He’s a really important and special figure right now in the new music scene,” said Wolfe. “He’s just bringing a different sensibility to it with his work, listening in a very different way, and writing a lot of site specific pieces, just working with a really different sensibility connecting to the Alaskan landscape where he has spent so many years.”
Adams had gone to live in Alaska to work as an environmentalist and develop his composition work simultaneously, so many of his compositions have a direct relation to the work he did there and the natural spaces he did it in.
“They’re definitely thoughtful pieces and a lot of times will involve open instrumentation and lots and lots of players scattered around the landscape,” said Wolfe. “It’s fun to have someone thinking outside the box.”
During the marathon, the pieces are performed by varying configurations of Bang On A Can faculty members and the fellows who attend for the summer program. Wolfe says that the fellows are generally in graduate school or the very beginning of their careers, around their late 20s or into their 30s, and represent the final part of a selective process that chooses 40 finalists in various musical disciplines from an applicant pool of hundreds and hundreds. The participants are selected solely on their work, either composition or performance, and an explanation of why they want to attend. Wolfe says the group doesn’t want to see resumes or recommendations.
“We listen to everything,” Wolfe said. “It’s a very interesting process, and generally we listen for something that you can’t quite put your finger on it, something that sounds fresh and unique. Everyone’s ears perk up and go wow! “
This summer features participants from Australia, the Netherlands, Korea, Israel, Italy and England coming to live in North Adams for three weeks, leading up to the performance of a lifetime for them, an experience like no other offered in the world of contemporary classical music.
“In a lot of festivals we’ve been to, the faculty sits on the outside and the students are taught what to do, or coached,” said Wolfe, “but in this case, one or two faculty are members of that ensemble that is rehearsing, and that’s been great, because everyone has this opportunity to step up and chime in and be a chamber musician or part of the band, however you want to put it. It’s been a very effective model.”
Wolfe says the collaboration of musical generations heightens the performances, and though faculty and fellows might part in the actual years of their experience, they match each other in skills and deliver a one-of-a-kind festival experience.
“We definitely get this combination of people who are at the top of their game in terms of performance,” she said. “You can hear that in the audition tapes because of the level they’re playing at. They’re hungry to do it. They’re hungry to get on stage. This is what they live for, this is what they love. It’s definitely a very high level of performance.”