Melbourne loves Bang on a Can

As we keep an eye on the USA today (pretending to understand how the electoral college system works), here in Melbourne, we can celebrate great things from the US with the super-awesome, ever-delightful Bang on a Can All-Stars sextet from New York (a blue state with 29 college votes). After 20 years, they finally debuted in Melbourne on Monday night and have their second and final concert tonight, Wednesday.

Bang on a Can. Field Recordings. Photo by Stephanie Berger
Bang on a Can. Field Recordings. Photo by Stephanie Berger

And how welcome they were in Melbourne. In the balcony a little boy waved as they bowed, and grandpas in the front rows bopped away like teenagers to the encore written by Thurston Moore. There really is nothing quite like sitting in an audience and feeling them fall in love with the performers and creators on the stage.

I know what it's like, I've had a serious crush on this group since I saw them in Adelaide in 1996, when Barrie Kosky brought them to the Adelaide Festival. They played music I hadn't heard; music that made me re-think what I knew about music. Dammit, they changed my CD collection into something cool and made me want to live in Manhattan.

Bang on a Can was formed in New York by composers and musicians David Lang, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe. 25 years ago they held a one-day concert of unknown, new and experimental music in a SoHo Art gallery; today BOAC supports, commissions, plays and celebrates new music all over the world. The also still run the annual marathon concert in New York. One year I'll go.

Committed to changing the environment for new music, they believe “that people needed to hear this music and they needed to hear it presented in the most persuasive way, with the best players, with the best programs, for the best listeners, in the best context”.

In 1992, the Bang on a Can All-Stars were formed with the best musicians to tour to the best festivals and concert halls. Now that Melbourne has an amazing newish concert hall at the Recital Centre, the best listeners can gather to hear them. It only takes one concert to be hooked.

The six-piece group has some new members, but fans will be thrilled that a couple of founders (Mark Stewart and Robert Black) are playing in Melbourne and that th

e newer members (Ashley Bathgate, Vicky Chow, Ken Stewart and David Cossin) are just as terrific. And this concert can't forget sound engineer Andrew Cotton. Combining technical skill with passion and glee, these are musicians who are so much a part of their instrument that they can't be separated. You can really watch the music being created as they play.

Their All-Stars genre-shattering sound is difficult to describe but impossible to forget. Music isn't traditionally written for bass, cello, clarinet, electric guitar, piano and percussion. For me it's the sound of electric guitar, cello and clarinet. Like caramel, salty peanuts and chocolate ice cream, it sounds wrong until you try it – and once you do, you'll never want vanilla blandness again

Monday's concert was Field Recordings, a co-commission by Bang in a Can, the Barbican Centre London and over 200 people who financially supported the project. Nine composers were asked to find something to record and create a piece that included the recording. From a film of a cat looking for a drink to a recording made in a bag at an airport to readings from John Cage's diary, the mix of recording, film and live music creates something that can't be fully appreciated through headphones and joyfully celebrates the art of connecting by looking/listening/seeing from a different perspective.

Tonight (Wednesday) they are joined by students from the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music in a concert that includes Brian Eno's Music For Airports, which has been transcribed for a large ensemble and BOAC founder Julia Wolfe's Big Beautiful Dark and Scary.

Big Beautiful Dark and Scary
Big Beautiful Dark and Scary

Wolf wrote this piece after watching 9/11 attacks with her two young children, two blocks from the Twin Towers. I've seen/read a lot of work about these attacks, but they always seem distancing. Music is the art that captures the emotion and lets us, who are so lucky to have not experienced anything like it, know for a moment what it felt like. Wolf's piece can't be described better than big, beautiful, dark and scary, and I can't wait to see and hear it live tonight.

(And, as the number 275 appears earlier than expected, maybe some extra celebrations will be in order.)


Anne-Marie Peard

Anne-Marie spent many years working with amazing artists at arts festivals all over Australia. She's been a freelance arts writer for the last 10 years and teaches journalism at Monash University.

Anne-Marie Peard

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