Los Angeles Times OCTOBER 18, 1998 - by Josef Woodard


Bang On A Can, New York's evolving new music festival-ensemble-composer consortium, makes its Los Angeles debut with a groundbreaking version of Brian Eno's Music For Airports.

Whatever else can be said about Music For Airports, Brian Eno's pioneering "ambient" music experiment, recorded in 1978, let it also be noted that it plays nicely in the New York City subways. Slip it into the CD player, slap on headphones, pay your fare and try it. With its hypnotic formality, the dreamy construction of tape loops and stark instrumental tones, it seems to soften the rattling physicality of, say, a simple ride on the Broadway line down to TriBeCa.

You're lost to the world, but also of it, alert and aloof. It's the ambient effect in action, the fruits of Eno's decree that this music "must be as ignorable as it is interesting."

The subway connection is a fitting one this year, as the respected New York-based new music group known as the Bang On A Can All-Stars - clearly subway habitues - has successfully revived the classic. The new live arrangement premiered in Manhattan last spring to good reviews, just before a recording was released.

Now, it's making the work safe for the concert stage everywhere, including Los Angeles, where Bang On A Can makes its debut at the El Rey Theater Monday night.

Although Music For Airports is the L.A. program's centerpiece, taking up the concert's second half, music by Bang On A Can's founding artistic directors - composers Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon and David Lang, and All-Stars composer-clarinetist Evan Ziporyn - will fill the first half, showcasing the complicated history of an organization that for more than a decade has been an evolving music festival, composing consortium and new music group.

Bang On A Can got its start around the proverbial kitchen table, one ensconced in a modest East Village apartment where Wolfe, Gordon and Lang, recently out of the Yale music school, gathered to plan a new kind of festival back in 1987. (These days, that table is put to more typical uses in the TriBeCa loft of husband-and-wife team Wolfe and Gordon, and their two young children.)

Aspiring composers all when they landed in New York, Wolfe, Gordon and Lang had to cope with the legendary battle between uptown forces - established, academic types who mostly clung to the tenets of serialism - and downtown denizens - upstarts shunned by the establishment for their mix of rock, improvisation and world music. Downtowners tended to create their own opportunities, in do-it-yourself fashion.

The three of them fit into the latter category - they cite as heroes such do-it-yourselfers as Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Meredith Monk and the Kronos Quartet. The opportunity they devised was putting on twelve hours of new music, including their own work but also championing a wide array of other downtowners. The First Annual Bang On A Can Marathon took place in the spring of 1987, in a space in the East Village. It went better than expected: four hundred people showed up.

"That was unheard of [then]," Gordon says. "We went to new music concerts all the time, and there would be fifty or a hundred people."

What the threesome had at first envisioned as a one-time lark (despite the "First Annual" tag) turned into an institution. Subsequent marathons have taken place every year except 1998 in late May or early June in various spots around the city. One year, it was at the black box new music venue the Kitchen, and, for the last four years, at Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center. Next year, for the 12th marathon, they're moving back to the East Village, into a synagogue.

In the spirit of serious spontaneity, the festival title popped up on a whim, as the three sat at the kitchen table batting around ideas. Wolfe defined the process this way: "A bunch of composers sit around and bang on a can."

"I said, 'That's great,'" Lang remembers. "That's it. That's the name of the new festival.'"

From the beginning, Bang On A Can, although associated with new music guerrilla tactics, took place on a neutral aesthetic playing field when it came to uptown-downtown wars - at least in theory. Gordon said: "Our statement and basically what we were interested in was the music. If it was interesting music, it had value to us. If it wasn't, it didn't."

On the first marathon, for example, they programmed music from opposing camps: Uptowner Milton Babbitt's "Vision and Prayer" and Downtown dean and uber-minimalist Steve Reich's Four Organs. Each composer showed up, but refused on principle to listen to each other's piece. "That was a really interesting lesson to us," said Lang, referring to the severity of the rift.

Still, he emphasised that the Bang On A Can festival isn't "programmed and sorted by ideology... The idea was that, if you found a piece that was really great, that was really revolutionary and really had a spark, and put it next to any other piece that had a spark, it would fit. It didn't matter if the ideologies clashed."

The organisation has grown over the years, building an audience and an infrastructure. Six years ago, the directors established the six-member Bang On A Can All-Stars as a regular ensemble. They now boast a repertoire of more than fifty pieces, mostly commissioned for the group, and the ensemble carries the festival's inclusive and radical message throughout the world, touring regularly. It even played Music For Airports, fittingly, in England's Stansted Airport terminal last spring.

But the festival has never officially shown up in Los Angeles in any guise. The directors' music has been performed by such local groups as the California EAR Unit, and Lang actually grew up here, so, says Wolfe, "We're a bit shocked that we haven't been there before. When we do the festival, the large majority [of the audience] is from the New York area, but the others are often from California - L.A. or San Francisco. California is one of the other major centers of new things happening."

However inclusive Bang On A Can's mission statement is, Eno's Airports entered the ensemble's repertoire as something of a curve ball. The sixth entry in a growing discography, and the first on a new contract with Point Records (partly owned by Glass), it promises to be their best seller to date. The other albums - three on the small new music label CRI and two on Sony Classical, Industry and Cheating Lying Stealing - veer toward hard-edged or patently "difficult" music, stirring in elements of dissonance, timbral experimentation and reinvented rock rhythms.

That desire to explore genre-splitting concepts can be heard in the Bang On A Can directors' own compositions, whether performed by the All-Stars or heard on such albums as Wolfe's Arsenal Of Democracy (Point) or Lang's Are You Experienced (CRI).

The four-part Music For Airports is something else again: slow-brewing, soft-edged. Gordon, who had the initial idea for Bang On A Can to do the piece, remembers when Music For Airports first hit the scene in the late '70s.

"Brian Eno was a fairly famous rock star, with Roxy Music," Gordon recalled, "and all of a sudden he makes this record with no drums and no lyrics and no vocals. It's just these four long pieces of music. And he said you don't even really have to listen to it. Just put it on in the background. It wasn't that far away from Steve Reich's Music For 18 Musicians, [which] people were calling 'trance music' or 'pulse music.' It also created a different sound world."

But one that was never meant to be played live.

Eno made it "with tape loops, and he made it to be [only] a record," said Gordon. "We felt this is better music than that. It's worth hearing this music in a concert; it's worthwhile playing this music."

For the live retooling of Airports, each of the three Bang On A Can directors, along with Ziporyn, chose a movement to arrange. Gordon remembers the laborious process of transcribing it from the original record.

"We were surprised by how detailed and complicated it was to do," he said, "and also there was a certain sense of structure that I think affected all of us. There's nothing about that music that pushes itself on you, or is even goal-oriented. There's no big proclamation. It's just there."

"It's very experiential," Wolfe added. "Maybe all music is, but this piece is especially so. I really dive into it. Now while I'm writing, I'm listening in a different way. I hear the Eno getting into my head."

One of the surprising aspects of the live version of the piece is the way it dovetails with other serious music. Gordon makes a comparison with the late Morton Feldman, whose slow, gradual music exerts its own state of clarifying emotional suspension. "The third movement of Airports, especially," he said, "really sounds abstract. You could take that one out and play it alongside Feldman."

Relative to the "ignorable as it is interesting" question, isn't a performance with live humans inherently more interesting than a recorded project? "You listen in a different way," Wolfe said. "You hear the pipa, with its twang, and you know that's just not a machine. So you're probably listening with a little more hyper-focus than you would the original."

Lang noted that the music world is also more prepared for Eno live. "Twenty years ago, players wouldn't be willing to perform those kinds of things, and audiences wouldn't be willing to sit through them. The world has changed since then because of New Age music and minimal music and world music, which has all sorts of meditative aspects to it."

In a sense, the Eno project, if disparate from the usual Bang On A Can fare, fits snugly into their larger ethos. "It is the most ethereal thing in our bin," Lang admitted. "At least on some level, it might look like it's a stretch, but I think our mission from the very beginning has been to try and find a home for people and music who have no other home.

"We really love the American experimental tradition, of the oddball, lunatic composer... They made their own place where they belong; they don't belong anywhere else. What's really great about the Eno piece, and [what] ties [it] into everything else that we do is that this piece doesn't belong in any bin in Tower Records."

Bang On A Can is also keenly aware of the point - partly a marketing point - that Airports could naturally attract a new clutch of listeners for them. As Wolfe said: "Someone in the rock world who might listen to noise bands or Eno or alternative rock wouldn't necessarily find us. This is a bridge. Hopefully, they'll find more things that we do, and we'll find out more about them. We've really been wanting to break out of any specialised camp.

"We did that initially with the festival. We tried to break open those divisions in the new music world. We were doing very unusual programming, especially for that time, putting pieces that wouldn't normally be together in the same concert hall or the same city almost - or at least the same part of town.

"This is one further step. We're wanting to break out of any idea, if something is interesting, whatever the language is. If something is beautiful and wonderfully made, we want to be close to it."