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‘Bang on a Can’ Showcases Inventive Classical Music

For the past several years, classical music composers have gathered to share their more eclectic scores at the "Bang on a Can" festival in North Adams, Mass. Jeffrey Brown explores the origins of the event.

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  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    It has a funny name — "Bang on a Can" — but a serious purpose: to expand the idea of what music and the musical experience can be.

    The Bang on a Can gang of composers and musicians is based in New York, but for seven summers now has been holding a three-week festival here at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams.

    If Tanglewood — classical music's far better known summer festival, just 30 miles down the road — is the bastion of tradition, "Banglewood" — as the folks here like to call this gathering — is home to the experimental, with everything from a contemporary duet to a Balinese monkey chant.

    The genre-bending Bang on a Can group has thrived on the fringes of the classical music world now for about 20 years, happily blending everything from Gregorian chant to the rock band Radiohead. But the group is suddenly in danger of becoming downright mainstream. This year, one of its co-founders has won the Pulitzer Prize for music.

    The winning composition, called "The Little Match Girl Passion," was commissioned by Carnegie Hall. Its composer is 51-year-old David Lang, who started Bang on a Can with Yale music school friends Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon. All were classically trained, but also influenced by rock and roll, jazz, and much more, and as composers didn't fit into any traditional boxes.

    Lang, who once worked in a record store, puts it this way.

    DAVID LANG, Winner, 2008 Pulitzer Prize in Music: The thing about a record store is they have all the different sections of the store to make it easy for you to find the music you know you like. But you may not be the kind of composer who wants to fit in one of those categories.

    Those composers don't have a venue, a kind of place that supports them, a kind of funder that supports them. They don't have musical institutions that support them or radio stations which just play that kind of music. You know, they don't have a good place to go. They're homeless. We wanted to be the place where the homeless composers could all go.