During a break from the action yesterday, I spoke to a composer friend, who had a bit of a different take on the Marathon:
"Bang on a Can is kind of like Jesus," he said. "They started out as revolutionaries, radicals even. But, over time, they've just become this big institution."
"I guess," I countered. "But, at least they've stayed true to their mission,"
"That's true," he said. "And I give them a lot of credit for that. But, I can't remember the last time I heard anything truly memorable at one of these things. It all just sounds the same. And, this space doesn't really work for live performance."
Granted, this person may be just an embittered rejectee, but coming off of ten hours in and out of that Winter Garden, I have to admit he has a point. This is music that started out in loft spaces, places where you'd have to carry a hammer around at night for fear of being mugged. For all its creature comforts, the Winter Garden has all the intimacy of a shopping mall (Starbucks, anyone?), with it's glass walls, palm trees, and marble floors. Some musicians said they liked the high-ceilinged resonance, but most felt the sound got lost somewhere up in the rafters. In either case, the place does not invite close listening.
I wasn't around in 1987, but I imagine the Marathon has lost a good deal of its original potency, its ability to surprise and confound. Part of that is due to our ears having grown accustomed to this music, but it also has a lot to do with setting. When these three recent Yale grads started this thing 22 years ago, they held it at Exit Art: an alternative, non-profit art gallery in SoHo (back before SoHo became it's own kind of shopping mall.) Again, I wasn't there, but I'd bet it was somewhat loose and freewheeling, fueled by booze instead of coffee.
And, so the question becomes: what's the point of the Marathon, now? Is it to give a boost to younger musicians? A fresh venue to older ones? Those are fine goals, but what about the music itself? Has the era of NYC as a furnace for new and exciting music passed? Or, can it thrive again by stealing a page from their indie brethren?
More on this to come.