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The Bang on a Can All-Stars ensemble formed in 1992 almost out of necessity. In 1987, composers Julia Wolfe, David Lang, and Michael Gordon inaugurated what would become an annual tradition: the Bang on a Can Marathon, a 12-hour concert meant to explore a vast range of musical styles and build an appreciation for new music. But in the early ’90s, “someone called us from Toronto and said, ‘Hey, we’d like you to come here and do [the marathon],’” says Gordon. “And we’re like, ‘Well, who’s we?’ We had literally hundreds of musicians and composers, and it’s kind of like a circus of music.”
The solution? “We decided OK, we’re just gonna ask stand-outs, musicians that we really loved and we thought were great to play together and go out and represent the music and the spirit of what we were doing,” says Gordon.
Typically, the All-Stars’ concerts range from experimental jazz to modern classical numbers. Tonight at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, the ensemble plans to perform in-house works—-pieces by Wolfe, Lang, and Gordon, all of which the group collected on its 2012 album, Big Beautiful Dark and Scary, which takes its title from Wolfe’s composition.
But don’t try to classify any of it; Bang on a Can’s music could touch on modern classical, avant-garde rock, or world music while defying any narrow definitions. “We like to think that the room that has our music is in the walls between three different sections of the music store, but there aren’t any music stores any more, just iTunes,” Gordon says. “I don’t know exactly how to say it. People, I think, categorize us based on their own experience of what they’re coming to the concert with.” He says modern-classical fans might categorize the group as modern classical, experimental rock fans might think of them in another way, and on and on. Some might hear jazz, too. “We’ve worked with a lot of great jazz artists,” he says. “We’re definitely on that forward-looking, adventurous frontier part of music. But, after that, I think we spread out across a few categories.”
Dirty Projectors leader Dave Longstreth wrote the opening songs on Big Beautiful Dark and Scary: the cheekily titled “Matt Damon” and the more obviously Projectorsesque “Breakfast at J&M,” with its playful staccato guitar. Yes, Bang on a Can has connections in the indie-rock world; Wilco percussionist Glenn Kotche has collaborated with the ensemble live in recent years, and in the second half of tonight’s program, the All-Stars will perform a piece by Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, “Stroking Piece #1,” which the group commissioned. The ensemble will also perform jazz musician Don Byron‘s “Basquiat & Show Him Some Lub” and composer Kate Moore‘s “Ridgeway” in the show’s second half.
Bang on a Can derives influence from classical music, but really, the only trait it shares with the music of, say, Beethoven or Bach may be that it notates, or writes, its music. “We’re trying to, in a certain sense, imagine a different context [than classical],” says Gordon, “because there are more traditional classical instruments like cello and clarinet in the group, then there’s piano and percussion … then electric guitar, and the whole thing’s amplified,” he says. “The group itself is crossing some boundaries.”
Gordon says got his start in music by avoiding the classics. “When I was six years old I started writing music, basically. Maybe I was eight years old,” he says. “I was trying to trick my piano teacher not to notice that I hadn’t practiced, so I’d write these little pieces—-these little songs—-and come in and show them to her.” Many young musicians’ budding talents have probably suffered from a lack of discipline in traditional practice, but for Gordon, it may have helped. Bang on a Can’s experimental tendencies reflect Gordon’s unusual beginning in music. “We’re definitely making music for people with adventurous ears,” he says. “We’re looking for something different.”
Bang on a Can All-Stars perform tonight at 8 p.m. at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. $25.
Photo via Bang on a Can’s website