MusicMakers - Bang on a Can Marathon Fuses Classical, Experimental and Rock

By Mark Jenkins
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, March 27, 2009

Sort of the 24-hour drugstore of "new music" festivals, the Bang on a Can Marathon is known for diversity and duration: Rock, jazz, experimental and modern classical music overlap and interlock, sometimes continuing until dawn.

On Sunday at the University of Maryland, the New York-based traveling fest offers performances by Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche, minimalist forefather Terry Riley and house band the Bang on a Can All-Stars.

When Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon and David Lang conceived the marathon in 1987, Lang says, "there were lots of different musical communities that were sworn to destroy each other. We wanted to take some of the competing ideas and put them next to each other."

That's what will happen Sunday, with a variety of free performances from 2 to 6 p.m., and a ticketed concert from 6 to 9 p.m. At the latter, Kotche will play pieces from his 2006 "Mobile" album, and Riley will perform "Autodreamographical Tales," which draws on his own dreams. Lang calls the text "hallucinogenic, and so funny. And the music is so far-ranging."

Bang on a Can's co-founders, all now respected composers, didn't expect to begin an institution when they announced the first marathon. "We thought we were going to do it once," Lang says. "When we wrote in the press release that it was the first annual Bang on a Can Festival, we just laughed ourselves silly. No way we were going to do this again."

Not only have they done it many more times, but in the process they helped create the Bang on a Can All-Stars to play their own and other composers' music. On Sunday evening, the sextet performs with Kotche and Riley, whose 1964 work, "In C," is widely considered the fountainhead of the minimalist or experimental style pursued by Steve Reich, Philip Glass and others.

At 3 p.m., the All-Stars will play their version of avant-rocker Brian Eno's 1979 "Music for Airports," originally an all-electronic composition. "It's a revolutionary piece," says Lang, with "an icy beauty. Having it played by live people provides a doorway into someplace more emotional."

The All-Stars lineup includes cello, piano and clarinet, but also drums, bass and electric guitar. This reflects Lang's desire to enliven conservatory-schooled composition. "Music became so intellectual in the '50s and '60s. When I was growing up listening to rock-and-roll, I loved that it was so energetic, and I missed that in the music I was studying."

While Lang tries to give composed music the vitality of rock, Kotche is a rocker who moonlights as a more experimental player. "I've always had a foot in each style," he says. "After just being a rock drummer for a while, I started to miss that other aspect. That's when I started to compose and came up with 'Mobile.' "

At the Sunday marathon, Kotche and the All-Stars will play "Snap," a new piece commissioned by Bang on a Can. He and percussionist David Cossin will also do two pieces derived from early-'70s Steve Reich compositions: Cossin's arrangement of "Music for Pieces of Wood" and Kotche's "Clapping Music Variations."

Kotche estimates that he has played on more than 80 albums and says he is always looking for fresh challenges. "When I was immersed in classical music in college, I was missing that balance, and the same thing when I was immersed in touring and recording with a rock band. Now, I love playing with Wilco, but it's a thrill being able to compose and play with people like Bang on a Can."

Lang no longer performs live, he explains with a laugh, because "I'm lucky enough to work with musicians who are better than me." Yet from offstage, he echoes Kotche's quest for balance between composing and playing.

"I don't think there's any right way or wrong way to work," he says. "You are entitled as a composer or musician or listener to decide which world you want to live in. But personally, I believe in live performance. I think music is not just an abstract thing. It's the struggle of a living person to grasp the perfection of that idea, to realize the perfection of that melody."

"To me, that's where the action is."

Bang on a Can Marathon with Glenn Kotche, Terry Riley, the Bang on a Can All-Stars and others Appearing Sunday at Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center (Stadium Drive near University Boulevard, University of Maryland, College Park). Free performances begin at 2 p.m.; paid concert begins at 6 p.m. Tickets: $35; $7 for students. Available at 301-405-2787 or The Download: For a sampling of the marathon's music, check out: From Bang on a Can's "Music for Airports": -- "1/2" From Glenn Kotche's "Mobile": -- "Clapping Music Variations" -- "Mobile Part 3"

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