Tanglewood 2012: Boston Symphony Orchestra with Emanuel Ax
Mostly Mozart Festival 2012

Bang on a Can Summer Marathon 2012

mass moca, bang on a can marathon, 7/28/12
Along with all of the other musical happenings in the Berkshires this past weekend, Bang on a Can wrapped up their 11th annual Summer Music Festival at Mass MoCA on Saturday with a Marathon concert in the museum's Hunter Center. Modeled after NYC's Bang on a Can Marathon, which celebrated it's 25th anniversary this year, "Banglewood," as it's affectionately known, gives some 3-dozen fellows a chance to show off some of what they've learned over three weeks working with some of the biggest musicians and composers on the new music scene - including, of course, David, Julia, and Michael. It's been a fertile breeding ground for many of today's most active composer/musicians, many of whom have gone to produce their own live events. 

I used to drive up to North Adams for the marathon every year, but this past Saturday was my first trip back since 2008, when Terry Riley mesmerized the audience with an extended improvisation from his raga roots. (Afterwards, I shared a Sam Adams with Riley and his wife at the Mohawk, where we talked about everything from Hurricane Mama to the postal route he ran while living in Paris.)

ken thomson incoming, bang on a can marathon, 7/28/12I only caught the last three hours of this year's marathon - it ran nearly 7 hours in all - but still managed to hear more than half of the 17 pieces on the program, which ran the gamut from brand new to contemporary classic. Ken Thomson's Incoming, one of two world premieres, pounded away like an aerial assault, violent and unrelenting. By contrast, David Lang's Sunray had a quiet, meditative quality, without the unsettling underpinning that often accompanies his music. David told us that Sunray was inspired during the 2006 festival, when he and his family stayed in a house next to the now-defunct Sun Cleaners on River Street.

"Every morning," he said, "I would wake up, make a cup of coffee, and stare out the window at the rays of the sun on the cleaner's big sign. Even on rainy mornings I woke up to the rays of the sun."

megan ihnen, adrian rigopulos, Bang on a can marathon mass moca 7-28-2012 8-11-13 PM
Megan Ihnen, a mezzo-soprano who hails from Baltimore, sang, shouted, and occasionally growled her way through Missy Mazzoli's Shy Girl Shouting Music, accompanied by piano, guitar and double bass. The lone vocalist at this year's institute, Ihnen showed real confidence, with a big, clear voice to match. (BTW, if you want an insider's view of the life of a BOAC fellow, check out Megan's witty, charming blog, Sybaritic Singer.)

Jeffrey Brooks' After the Treewatcher was commissioned by BOAC for this year's festival, which he said fused his own music with Michael Gordon's "The Tree Watcher," an early work Brooks heard when they were both students at Yale. When Brooks asked Michael for a copy of the score, he declined. "You'll have to memorize it," he said. Brooks' music bears some resemblance to Louis Andriessen, with whom he studiend in Amsterdam, with repeating rhythmic figures and a piano theme that repeated over and over.

A pair of early works from the BOAC founders took a more aggressive stance. Julia Wolfe's Lick (1994) was wild and crazy, ripping through the hall like a fire alarm. Same with Michael Gordon's Four Kings Fight Five (1988), with clarinets that repeated over and over like a smoke detector that wouldn't shut off. 

Steve Reich Clapping Music, Bang on a Can Marathon, 7/28/12At my first marathon in 2005, Steve Reich was the guest composer, and at one point I found myself sitting across the aisle from him; we chatted briefly in between pieces, and he was kind enough to sign my program (which I still have up on my wall.) Reich was invited back this year, though this time he sat in the back, safely ensconced behind the soundboard (which he never touched.) Can't say that I blame him, given the massive celebrity brought on by his 70th and 75th birthday celebrations.

Eight Lines (1983), for seven pairs of players, was full of Reich's familiar minimalist techniques, played by a shimmering chamber orchestra of strings and winds led by Todd Reynolds and Vicky Chow. Reich himself led a performance of Clapping Music (1972), along with BOAC All-Star percussionist David Cossin and several fellows, moving in and out of phase.

The marathon ended with Reich's 2x5 (2008), written for six electric guitars, piano, and drums. "It's my rock piece," Reich told Michael Gordon in comments beforehand. And a damned tricky one at that: Dither's Taylor Levine, one of the guitarists, told me that the fully notated piece was originally written for Radiohead, but they complained it was "too hard." Strange considering that on the surface, 2x5 seems almost static, but it gradually grows in rhythmic complexity, making it difficult for all the players to stay in sync. 

Steve Reich 2x5, Bang on a Can Marathon, 7/28/12After, there was a toast out in the courtyard, followed by drinks and deli sandwiches over at The Mohawk. I shared a pitcher with David Little and Eileen Mack who came up just for the Marathon, sitting at the same table I shared with Terry Riley and his wife four years ago. Soon after, Todd Reynolds - until last year a year-round North Adams resident - hopped up on a table and gave a shout-out to all of the behind-the-scenes folks who make this party run year after year. I even chatted with David Lang over at the food table, eyeing the weirdly-orange New England deli meats. 

Hard to say how much of this music will last beyond this weekend, or how many of these young musicians will stick it out through the inevitable lean years to come. But, one things for certain: this is the warmest, most nurturing group of musicians you could ever hope to meet. And, they know how to throw one helluva party.

todd reynolds, the mohawk, Bang on a can marathon 7-29-2012
Full set list below. More pics on the photo page.


  • George Crumb - Ancient Voices of Children
  • Steve Reich - Cello Counterpoint
  • Dan Becker - S.T.I.C
  • Lou Harrison - Violin Concerto
  • David Crowell - Waiting in the Rain for Snow


  • Ken Thomson - Incoming
  • Hans Abrahamsen - Schnee, Canon 2B
  • Giacinto Scelsi - Okanagon
  • Pauline Oliveros - Sonic Meditation
  • David Lang - Sunray
  • Missy Mazzoli - Shy Girl Shouting Music


  • Jeffrey Brooks - After the Treewatcher
  • Steve Reich - Eight Lines
  • Julia Wolfe - Lick
  • Michael Gordon - Four Kings Fight Five
  • Steve Reich - Clapping Music
  • Steve Reich - 2x5