On Mother’s Day in 1987, composers Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolfe hosted their first daylong music concert, and the annual Bang on a Can Marathon was born. Since then, the trio has built its collective into one of the city’s preeminent institutions for new and adventurous music. Now a nonprofit organization, Bang on a Can boasts a house band (the Bang on a Can All-Stars), a summer intensive and commissioning fund for young composers, and year-round programming. After losing its longtime home at the World Financial Center Winter Garden last year and skipping the 2016 edition, the marathon moves across the river on Saturday, May 6, to Brooklyn Museum to host its strongest schedule in years. Here are our highlights.
Bang on a Can cofounder Wolfe has been on a remarkable run of large-scale works since 2011’s Cruel Sister, enough to earn her a MacArthur “genius” award last year and a Pulitzer Prize in 2015. The All-Stars perform her wonderfully engaging Steel Hammer, which is based on the American John Henry folk tale.
Joan La Barbara is a living link to the informal artist group New York School, having worked with Morton Feldman and John Cage in their lifetimes. Still active as a composer and performer, she’s a vocalist capable of challenging as well as lulling the ear. The Young People’s Chorus of New York City performs her A Murmuration for Chibok, a piece she wrote for the 250 Nigerian school girls abducted by Boko Haram in 2014.
The Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble appeared on one of the early Bang on a Can compilation records, way back in 1994. It returns east this year to perform Louis Andriessen’s landmark composition De Staat (The Republic). The massive 1976 work was birthed from Plato’s idea that music could be used to change government and society. Andriessen has said that he wishes he could believe it were true. Maybe if enough people applaud, the Tinker Bell effect will kick in.
Meredith Monk is another mainstay of the New York new music scene. She’s been creating haunting and instantly recognizable pieces for voice and movement since the 1960s. With her Vocal Ensemble, she gives a preview of her work-in-progress Cellular Songs, scheduled to premiere next year. Like her previous On Behalf of Nature, the song cycle takes its cue from concerns for the health of the planet.
Trumpeter Amir ElSaffar has been merging jazz with devotional Iraqi music to stunning effect for a decade now. His sextet Two Rivers Ensemble expands traditional jazz instrumentation to include the stringed oud and buzuq. At the marathon they play ElSaffar’s critically acclaimed album Crisis, his most direct musical meditation on turmoil in the Middle East to date.
The Bang on a Can Marathon is Sat 6 2–10pm at Brooklyn Museum (brooklynmuseum.org). Suggested admission $16, after 5pm free.