“I am truly a child of rock and roll.” This is not the kind of statement one expects from a composer who also professes an affinity with the classical tradition, but for Julia Wolfe, one third of the New York based composer collective/arts organisation Bang on a Can, this is not a contradiction but an inherent part of her way of doing things. Working in the so-called post-minimalist vein, Wolfe and her fellow Bang on a Can founders Michael Gordon and David Lang have been colliding modern compositional practices with the explosive power of amplified music since their first activities in the late 1980s. Now, with a regular summer festival, annual “marathon” concerts, a fund for commissioning new works and a touring new music ensemble in the form of the Bang on a Can All Stars, in addition to their acclaimed output as individual composers, the group enjoys a deserved place at the forefront of contemporary music-making.

Julia Wolfe © Peter Serling
Julia Wolfe
© Peter Serling

Wolfe met Lang and Gordon in the early 1980s, and the pair encouraged her to attend graduate school at Yale as they had done. Friction between rock and contemporary classical music was a part of the New York milieu the group sprung up in, a tension that they harnessed from the start. “Amplified sound in a sense brings you closer to sound, magnifies it,” says Wolfe. “The immediacy of the sound, energy, and rhythm of pop music have always inspired me.” Likewise Gordon, now Wolfe’s husband, had a background playing in post-punk bands and was a follower of iconoclasts like Glenn Branca, a composer who fused noisy art rock with avant garde composition. He remembers watching performances of Branca’s “guitar symphonies” at the art music venue The Kitchen in SoHo, Manhattan: “That was the beginning of a life-long membership in the Glenn Branca fan club.” Aghast at the lack of opportunities to get their own music played, as well as the fractious nature of the local music scene – split between academic composers uptown and fringe experimentalists downtown – the three composers began putting on their own concerts, advertised as “a bunch of composers banging on cans”. In 1987, the group organised its first “marathon” – a 12-hour concert in SoHo’s Exit Art venue that brought together works by composers in a wide range of conflicting schools. Music by die-hard serialists like Milton Babbitt was programmed next to works by Reich, and decades-old pieces by Stravinsky followed contemporary sounds by John Zorn and Pauline Oliveros. With the success of the event, Bang on a Can’s reputation grew – John Cage was an early supporter, as was Philip Glass – and the marathon became a yearly event that could last up to 24 hours. By the 2000s, Bang on a Can were releasing music through their own label Cantaloupe Music, and helping to bring ambitious projects like Anthony Braxton’s piece for 100 tubas to fruition.

More recent projects include Field Recordings, a project encompassing work by a range of contemporary composers as well as the Bang on a Can founders themselves, the only brief being that the contributors take a pre-existing recording as the baseline for their pieces. With contributors as varied as “power ambient” noisemaker Ben Frost and contemporary classical artist Nico Muhly, it’s a good indicator of Bang on a Can’s cross-genre attitude. In Reeling, Wolfe’s contribution to the project, she takes a recording, one that “stood out for its purity and joy”, of a French Canadian performer of mouth music – a kind of folk dance style made using vocal syllables, making for a highly rhythmic, kinetic piece. Gordon’s contribution Gene Takes a Drink, meanwhile, was inspired by a film made by longtime collaborator Bill Morrison featuring his cat with a camera attached to its collar. Gordon has previously worked with Morrison on projects with a distinct focus on place; a recent piece El Sol Caliente (2015) relates to Miami Beach where the composer grew up. Last year, in a piece called Anonymous Man, Gordon turned once again to giving voice to a locale: “Something I’m very excited about is voices. Anonymous Man is the story of the street I’ve lived on for the past 36 years, Desbrosses Street, and two men who have lived outside at varying times during those years. It’s a memoir about my block and it chronicles my interactions with these two homeless men as well as going back to the time when my neighborhood, now fully residential, was an industrial warehouse district.”

But cities aren’t the only areas that Gordon deals with. His 2016 piece Natural History was commissioned by Britt Festival Orchestra conductor Teddy Abrams to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park System, and uses sounds connected with the landscape surrounding Crater Lake, Oregon. “It’s one of the earth’s great natural wonders,” says Gordon. “On a scouting trip around the lake with Teddy and the park rangers, I learned about the local Klamath Tribe and their drum group. Natural History is really about a personal journey into southern Oregon, into the wilderness of Crater Lake National Park where I was artist-in-residence, into the deep stillness of the time I spent there in winter, into the lives and music of the Steiger Butte Drum – the drummers and singers of the Klamath Tribe.” As if to accentuate the connection between the piece and the place that inspired it, the worked was premiered in a concert on the rim of the lake.

Michael Gordon © Peter Serling
Michael Gordon
© Peter Serling

Like Gordon, Wolfe has also employed folk colours to complement traditional instrumental palettes, an impulse that goes back to her collage days in Ann Arbor, Michigan: “I connected to the vibrant folk scene there,” she says. “I began to play mountain dulcimer, picked up the bones and assisted making psalteries for an instrument maker. Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, as well as Joni Mitchell were among my heroes.” Consequently, works like 2009’s Steel Hammer not only employ instruments like dulcimers, banjos, clogging and Jew’s harp, but also draw on that legendary document of local history – the folk ballad. More recently, Wolfe subsumed a year’s work of research on Pennsylvania’s coal region into an oratorio around the area’s mining history. 2015’s Anthracite Fields won a Pulitzer Prize in music, and focuses on the history of labour in that area – with all its dangers and injustices. With President Trump’s recent calls for a move back to fossil fuels and traditional industries, the work seems especially prescient. Similar themes abound in the piece she is currently working on, Fire in my mouth, an hour-long piece for the New York Philharmonic and women’s chorus that focuses on the clothing industry in New York at the turn of the last century. “It was a huge changing point in US labour history,” says Wolfe. “The majority of people working in the industry were young immigrant women from Eastern Europe and Southern Italy. They came to this country with that skill set and could get work in the factories, but the conditions were horrendous and they took to the streets to protest for change.” Dealing with events such as the deadly Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, the piece will premiere in the 2018/19 season.

All this points to Bang on a Can’s sense of the social implications of its work. The founders speak of the “utopian” impulses that stimulated their early activities, and today their Found Sound Nation project works with local musicians to bring music-making activities to underprivileged areas of the US and abroad, in an initiative that Gordon terms “global music diplomacy.” But can this optimism, this belief in the power of music as a tool for change, be sustained in today’s environment? “I am very optimistic,” affirms Gordon. “All art is political and life-affirming, and what’s even more political than making art is presenting art. I think of ourselves as artist-activists. We need challenge, beauty, risk, pranksters and dreamers more than ever.” Wolfe shares this enthusiasm for the future. “It is a great time to be a composer. We were a part of a wave of change and it is great to see the results of this in our lifetime. New music is thriving and people’s ears are open. There is a strong sense of an artistic community, and this all makes for a kind of utopia, in the midst of a crazy world.” In regard to audiences’ openness to change, Gordon is slightly more cautious: “People who know what they like are hard to budge. That’s true for classical, country… any type of music. But there’s a new audience that might be called ‘the intrepid’. They want the challenge and they want the new and that audience is growing.” And what about bringing those conflicting schools of musicianship together, as they’d aimed to do in the very first marathon concert? “There is no uptown or downtown anymore,” counters Wolfe. “It’s just all over town.”