How Bang on a Can Survived the ’90s

“When issues are powerful throughout us, we dream,” the composers Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolfe wrote in a letter to potential donors in 1996.

Bang on a Can, the up to date music group that they had based a decade earlier than, had not too long ago misplaced a couple of fifth of its finances due to huge cuts to the Nationwide Endowment for the Arts. However Gordon, Lang and Wolfe had been undeterred.

“It’s a Bang on a Can factor,” they added within the letter. “Simply as arts funding is collapsing, we’re mounting new initiatives to construct a brand new viewers for a brand new type of music.” Inside a 12 months, the group had began one such challenge: the People’s Commissioning Fund, an modern program which pooled small donations in an effort to fee composers to jot down works for a home ensemble, the Bang on a Can All-Stars.

This enterprise was a direct response to the perilous local weather for American artists within the 1990s. When Newt Gingrich’s legislative manifesto, Contract With America, swept a Republican majority into Congress in 1994, the N.E.A. was on the chopping block. For the reason that late ’80s, when evangelical Christians denounced the pictures of Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe on obscenity grounds, the humanities endowment had been a central goal of conservative ire. In 1995, Congress voted to slash the N.E.A. finances by 40 p.c — and, much more drastic, to eradicate practically all grants awarded to particular person artists.

For American composers, who had relied on these grants for many years, the hazards had been clear. “There isn’t any artwork with out artists,” representatives of the American Music Middle wrote to Jane Alexander, President Invoice Clinton’s N.E.A. chairman, earlier than the congressional cuts. “Direct help to artists makes doable analysis and growth within the arts, not just for artists themselves however for the way forward for artwork. The ensuing work of particular person artists can typically be messy or controversial, however it’s needed.”

After the cuts, establishments scrambled to adapt to getting even much less help than the middling help the federal government had beforehand provided. “Funding for particular person artists has been underneath assault for years, and with N.E.A.’s ongoing cutbacks the scenario has change into much more grim. We determined to take issues into our personal fingers, and commenced interesting on to the individuals to help new work,” Michael Gordon wrote in 1999 of the creation of the Individuals’s Commissioning Fund two years earlier.

The administrators of Bang on a Can had lengthy been taking issues into their very own fingers, creating a house for avant-garde music amid a decline in public funding. Arriving in New York within the mid-1980s contemporary from graduate research at Yale, Gordon, Lang and Wolfe had bored with the type of new-music live shows that appeared to cater completely to a small circle of fellow musicians.

They needed to succeed in a broader public. In 1987, they placed on the primary Bang on a Can Pageant, a 12-hour marathon that they billed as an “eclectic supermix of composers and kinds from the serial to the surreal.” They closely promoted the live performance, mailing out fliers, hanging posters and pitching newspapers for protection. They saved ticket costs low, offered beer on the venue — a gallery in SoHo — and skipped conventional live performance niceties like program notes. It labored: The gallery reached capability, with greater than 400 individuals dropping by into the early hours of the morning.

Bang on a Can quickly grew right into a multi-event annual pageant for which massive crowds confirmed as much as hear every part from the participatory meditations of Pauline Oliveros to the dissonant hockets of Louis Andriessen. “The viewers was every part a presenter of classical music might hope for,” the New York Times critic Allan Kozinn wrote of the 1991 marathon. “Predominantly younger, open to a broad vary of kinds, and enthusiastic however discriminating.”

In 1992 Bang on a Can based its All-Stars ensemble, an amplified sextet that expanded the group’s footprint exterior New York and carved out a hard-rocking, Put up-Minimalist aesthetic. By the late ’90s, the group had signed a recording contract with Sony Classical, held its marathons at Lincoln Middle and commanded a finances of practically half one million {dollars}.

Although they noticed themselves as emblematically do-it-yourself, the founders of Bang on a Can weren’t alone in believing that up to date music might discover a greater viewers. It was an ethos that suffused the period. On the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1981, practically 10,000 individuals took in a sold-out run of Philip Glass’s opera “Satyagraha.” On the New York Philharmonic two years later, a contemporary music festival unexpectedly turned a box-office sensation. The group Meet the Composer dotted the nation’s orchestras with composers in residence, paid for with hundreds of thousands of {dollars} from Exxon, the Rockefeller Basis and the N.E.A. A 1992 album that includes a lachrymose symphony from the ’70s by Henryk Gorecki sold a million copies for Nonesuch, igniting a new-music rush within the report business.

And as public funding for the humanities shrunk via the Reagan years and after, some started to argue that American composers really didn’t want such subsidies: They might survive, maybe even thrive, within the market.

“The healthiest factor for the humanities is for them to be profit-making,” John Duffy, the founding father of Meet the Composer, stated in 1991. “Composers ought to come to a sure level the place they earn a dwelling from their work and so they don’t must depend on authorities or personal help.”

Via its first decade, Bang on a Can had pursued fund-raising with a single-minded devotion uncommon within the up to date music world, interesting to foundations and donors by showcasing their inventive deserves and their success with audiences. So the lack of federal funding in 1996 was seen as a short lived setback. The group designed the Individuals’s Commissioning Fund partially to mitigate the disappearance of N.E.A. help for the creation of recent works by particular person composers. As an alternative, as one description of the brand new fund said, “Our viewers members and supporters change into commissioners themselves, actively shaping a world the place rising composers can flourish.”

A shiny postcard from 1997 saying the challenge and soliciting donations stated, in sometimes cheeky Bang on a Can model, “Sure! I’ve passionate emotions about the way forward for new music! No! I’m not a materialist! I don’t want one other tote bag, or umbrella, or toaster! I need alternatives to get nearer to the music I help, the composers who write it and the performers who play it!” Donor-members might contribute as little as 5 {dollars}, with advantages starting from entry to open rehearsals to an invite to a dinner with the commissioned composers. By 1999, membership had reached 300.

The fund was aligned with Bang on a Can’s bigger mission to help experimental musicians, who might not have been chosen for N.E.A. grants up to now. Among the many first spherical of commissioned artists was Pamela Z, a composer-performer who ingeniously manipulates and merges her voice with electronics. “I didn’t have a number of expertise composing chamber music,” she recalled in a 2019 interview. “The Bang on a Can Individuals’s Commissioning Fund was a extremely key a part of my progress as an artist.”

Bang on a Can described the brand new challenge as a extra democratic different to the distant foundations or rich patrons who sometimes backed new works; one proposal pitched the fund as “new music for the individuals.” (Archival information present that somebody prompt it’s renamed, because the Individuals’s Commissioning Fund sounded “too socialist.”) However whereas it was a hit, there’s something troubling in regards to the circumstances of its emergence: an period of public items refigured into personal enterprise.

Even when it was a part of an enormous authorities paperwork, the N.E.A.’s funding of particular person composers actually was new music for the individuals. By advantage of paying taxes — Jane Alexander ceaselessly remarked that every citizen’s contribution to the humanities endowment price the equal of two postage stamps — the American individuals commissioned new artwork, and had been invested within the democratic governance of a nationwide system of cultural patronage.

Like lots of its friends, Bang on a Can was trying to salvage vestiges of the N.E.A.’s help for particular person artists within the wake of the endowment’s decimation by free-market conservatives and the spiritual proper. The Individuals’s Commissioning Fund was crowdfunding earlier than Kickstarter, and Bang on a Can was anticipating the default mode of arts financing within the 21st century: patching collectively revenue streams from many small sources, scrambling for grants and, an increasing number of, petitioning individuals to open their wallets. However simply as GoFundMe campaigns can’t substitute for public medical insurance, personal commissioning endeavors can solely achieve this a lot with out sturdy authorities help for the humanities.

The Individuals’s Commissioning Fund has continued to supply important help for rising voices in up to date composition, having commissioned over 70 works since its founding. If not for the pandemic, its annual live performance, carried out by the All-Stars, would have occurred in January. Bang on a Can has moved its occasions on-line, although, and can host its next in a series of livestreamed marathons on Feb. 21, together with the premieres of 16 works.

The world that the group has constructed over the previous few a long time has served as an important mannequin for subsequent generations of entrepreneurial musicians. However within the wake of the Nice Recession and now amid the existential menace of the pandemic, the strategies by which Bang on a Can survived the 1990s might now not be sustainable. Do-it-yourself can solely go to this point with out the federal government lending a serving to hand. Now, when what little stays of this nation’s help for tradition has been imperiled, it’s time for America to make a brand new contract with its artists.

William Robin’s guide “Industry: Bang on a Can and New Music in the Marketplace” can be printed on Feb. 22 by Oxford College Press. That night, he’ll focus on it with the music critic Allan Kozinn in a livestreamed event hosted by the 92nd Road Y.

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