How a Scrappy Arts Group Survived the ’90s

How a Scrappy Arts Group Survived the ’90s

“When things get tough around us, we dream,” composers Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolff wrote in a letter to potential donors in 1996.

Bang on a Can, the contemporary music organization he founded more than a decade ago, recently lost nearly a fifth of its budget due to massive cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts. But Gordon, Lang and Wolfe were undefined.

“It’s a bang on one thing,” they added to the letter. “The way Arts Funding is collapsing, we are expanding new projects to create new audiences for a new type of music.” Within a year, the group had undertaken one such project: People’s Commission FundAn innovative program that collects small donations to give commissions to work for Bang on an All-Stars, an in-house ensemble.

The venture was a direct response to the dangerous atmosphere for American artists in the 1990s. When Newton Gingrich’s legislative manifesto, the contract with the US, swept a Republican majority in Congress in 1994, the NEA was on the chopping block. Since the late 80s, when evangelical Christians condemned the photographs of Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe on the basis of obscenity, the endowment of art was a central goal of the conservative ire. In 1995, Congress slashed the NEA budget by 40 percent – and, even more draconian, voted to end almost all grants awarded to individual artists.

For American creators, who had been dependent on those grants for decades, the dangers were obvious. “There is no art without music artists,” representatives of the American Music Center wrote to Congressman Bill Clinton’s NEA President Jane Alexander, before the congressional cut. “Direct support to artists makes research and development possible for the future in art, not only for artists but also for the future of art. Work can sometimes be muddled or controversial as a result of individual artists, but it is necessary. “

After the cuts, institutions scrambled to adapt to receive even less support than previously offered by the government. “Funding for individual artists has been stagnant for years, and the situation has worsened with NEA’s ongoing shortcomings. We decided to take matters into our own hands, and started appealing directly to people to support the new work, ”Michael Gordon wrote in 1999, two years before the creation of the People’s Commission Fund.

The director of Can on Bang had long been taking matters into his own hands, creating a home for avant-garde music amid a drop in public funds. Arriving in New York in the mid-1980s from undergraduate studies at Yale, Gordon, Lang, and Wolfe, were tired of new-age music festivals that seemed specifically to cater to a small circle of fellow musicians .

They wanted to reach a wider public. In 1987, he put on the first bang at the Can Festival, a 12-hour marathon that he presented as “spectacular supermixes” of musicians and genres ranging from serials to notes. He promoted concerts, held fairs, hung posters and pitched newspapers for coverage. They kept ticket prices low, sold beers at the venue – a gallery in Soho – and eschewed traditional concerts like the program notes. It worked: reaching the capacity of the gallery, more than 400 people fell in the early hours of the morning.

Bang on Can soon evolved into a multi-event annual celebration, for which large crowds showed the inconsistent pockets of Luis Andriessen listening to everything from Pauline Oliveros’ participation attention. “The audience was everything the classical music presenter could hope for,” New York Times critic Alan Kozin Wrote about the 1991 marathon. “Primarily youthful, open to a wide range of genres, and enthusiastic but discriminatory.”

In 1992, A Bang on Can established its All-Stars ensemble, an amplified sextet that expanded the organization’s footprint outside New York and embellished a hard-rocking, post-minimalist aesthetic. By the late 90s, the organization signed a recording contract with Sony Classical, held its marathons at Lincoln Center and budgeted nearly half a million dollars.

Although they see themselves doing it symbolically, the founders of Bang were not alone in believing that contemporary music could find a larger audience. It was an ethos that suppressed the era. At the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1981, around 10,000 people attended the sale of Philip Glass’s opera “Satyagraha”. Two years later at the New York Philharmonic, A contemporary music festival Unexpectedly became a box office sensation. The organization Meet the Composer spent the country’s orchestra with musicians in residence, paying for millions of dollars from the Exxon, Rockefeller Foundation and NEA A 1992 albums, featuring a lacrimos symphony from ’70 70 ‘by Henrique Gorecki. Sold one million copies For Nonsuch, igniting a new-musical crowd in the record industry.

And Reagan shrank through the years as public money for the arts, and some began to argue that American musicians didn’t really need such subsidies: they could survive, perhaps in the market Too.

“The healthiest thing for art is for them to be profitable,” John Duffy, founder of Meet the Composer, said in 1991. “The musician must come to a certain point where he earns from his work and he works. ‘Do not rely on governmental or private assistance.’

Through its first decade, Bang on a Can raised money in the contemporary music world with rare-minded devotion, showcasing its artistic merits and its success with audiences and attracting foundations and donors. Hence the loss of federal funding in 1996 was seen as a temporary setback. The organization designed the People’s Commission Fund to reduce the disappearance of NEA support for the creation of new works by individual composers. Instead, as stated in a description of the new fund, “our audience members and supporters become commissioners themselves, actively shaping a world where budding musicians can flourish.”

Announcing a dazzling postcard project from 1997 and demanding donations, he said, usually in a style with a backy bang, “Yes! I have passionate feelings about the future of new music! No! I’m not materialistic! I don’t need another toot bag, or umbrella, or toaster! I want the opportunity to get closer to the music that I support, the musicians who write it and the artists who play it! “Donor-members could contribute as little as five dollars, with benefits as well as a dinner invitation with a commission to access open rehearsals. By 1999, membership had reached 300 .

The fund was aligned with Bang on Cain’s larger mission to support experimental musicians who were not previously selected for NEA grants. The commission was among the first round of artists Musician-artist pamela jade One who manipulates and mixes his voice with electronics. “I didn’t have much experience composing chamber music,” she recalled in a 2019 interview. “Bang on a Can People’s Commission Fund was an important part of my growth as an artist.”

Bang Can described the new project as a more democratic alternative to distant foundations or wealthy patrons, who usually subsidized new works; One proposal called the fund “new music for the people”. (Archival records suggest that someone suggested that it be renamed, because the People’s Commissioning Fund has “been too socialist.”) But while it was a success, there is something troubling about the circumstances of its emergence: public An era of commodities turned into private enterprise. .

Even though it was part of a huge government bureaucracy, the funding of individual musicians by the NEA was really new music for the people. On the basis of paying taxes – Jane Alexander often remarked that the endowment of art cost the equivalent of two stamps for each citizen’s contribution – the American people commissioned new art, and a national system of cultural protection Invested in democratic governance.

Like many of his peers, Bang on a Cain was attempting to salvage remnants of NEA’s support for individual artists in the wake of the dissolution of endowments by the free-market conservative and religious authority. The People’s Commissioning Fund was overcrowded before Kickstarter and Bang on Can was anticipating the default mode of arts financing in the 21st century: simultaneously generating streams of income from many small sources, losing hands for grants, and more. , Petitioning people to open their wallet. But just as GoFundMe campaigns cannot substitute for public health insurance, private commission efforts can only do so much without strong government support for the arts.

The People’s Commission Fund has continued to provide significant support for emerging voices in contemporary composition, having commissioned over 70 works since its inception. If not for the epidemic, its annual concert by All-Stars would have been in January. Bang on a Can has moved its events online, however, and will host This is followed by a series of marathons On 21 February, including the premiere of 16 works.

The world the organization has built over the last few decades has served as an important model for later generations of enterprising musicians. But in the wake of the Great Recession and the now existential threat of pandemics, the ways in which Bang on a Can survived until the 1990s may no longer be sustainable. Two can only go so far without the help of the government. Now, when some remnants of this country’s support for culture have survived, it is time for the US to sign a new contract with its artists.

William Robin’s book “Industry: Bang on Can and New Music in the Marketplace” To be published by Oxford University Press on 22 February. That evening, he will discuss it with music critic Alan Kozin A live event Hosted by 92nd Street Y.



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