Interview: Bang On A Can

Jayson Greene

By Jayson Greene

on 04.01.11 in Interviews

When David Lang, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe first met in the late 1980s, they were engaged in a mutual search for music that didn’t exist yet. The three composers had been inspired by mavericks like Meredith Monk, Steve Reich and Philip Glass, but they were after something still different: something that wasn’t quite minimalism, but drew on its pulse; that wasn’t rock, but that showed evidence that rock existed; that wasn’t classical, but sprang from its traditions. A hybrid, pluralist music, a middle place in contemporary classical. Sensing a void, the three banded together to form Bang On A Can. Through the sheer force of their shared talent, will, and intellectual curiosity, they slowly built their organization into what could be called an empire if it weren’t so benevolent and de-centralized: Bang On A Can is now a summer festival, a school, and a traveling band of musicians.

And, since 2001, a record label. The three founded Cantaloupe Records for much the same reasons they have started everything: They wanted to do it more their way. Ten years later, they have become one of the most vital labels in modern classical, issuing definitive recordings of works by minimalist masters like Steve Reich and spotlighting the variety of funky, polyglot talents that passed through their orbit. To celebrate Cantaloupe’s 10th anniversary, Jayson Greene spoke with Lang, Wolfe and Gordon about beginnings, and about how to keep pushing yourself when you’ve succeeded beyond your wildest imagination.

Happy 10th anniversary! That is an auspicious age for an independent label to reach. Looking back, what actually led you guys to decide to start Cantaloupe?

Julia Wolfe: It was a long conversation. We’d made a ton of really great records for several labels, but it reached a point where we just weren’t sure we could control how we wanted to represent ourselves. We loved every recording that we made, but moving forward, we wanted to be more inclusive, to put things out that we thought were interesting regardless of whether or not we thought they would be a big seller or something like that. We weren’t sure whether we were ready or not. Luckily, we had a very young office at the time, and they were very gung-ho: “Let’s do it!” which I remember being very encouraging at the time. It’s been great, very artistically freeing. You’re not thinking “sell first, curate later”; you’re thinking “curate first, sell later.”

Did you have any idea how to do this when you started? Did you have any clear idea how it was going to work, what it was going to cost, who was going to do what?

David Lang: Do we know that now? [Laughs].

Michael Gordon: We had one great thing fall into place early, and that was that Harmonia Mundi agreed to distribute us when we started. That kind of felt like, “Well, we might not know what we’re doing, but these guys must know.” [Laughs] I wanted to add one thing — I don’t know if you guys remember this — but after we had two records on Sony Classical, we had a meeting with the vice president, this guy who basically was talking to us like we were a rock ‘n ‘roll band: “Okay, guys, now we need the hit record.” And after we did the Music For Airports for Universal, I don’t know if you remember, we sat down with them, and they were like “Okay — the name of your next record is going to be Om.”

Lang: I think they just thought, “‘You do Music For Airports and then you build on that into a new audience to sell more copies.” Our feeling was: You make this record that’s really great and you establish that you’re sincere. And that gives you some freedom to be able to do some things that go in a different direction, or show a different side, or are maybe not as commercial. Their feeling was, you have to always build something toward a commercial goal.

I think for us, what’s really great about Cantaloupe is that it’s completely aligned with the mission of the rest of the organization. We’re interested in finding weird music wherever it is. We don’t wanna look through a list of composers we like and then consciously program the one that’s the most commercial. We don’t think that way for the festival and we don’t think that way for choosing people for the school, or commissioning them for the People’s Commissioning Fund. We didn’t want to have to have that kind of way of thinking about it for the record label either. To me, the most exciting thing about it is that there is now a range of things Bang on A Can is able offer to all these odd people that we are hanging out with. We can play the music or we can tour the music or we can commission the music or we can record the music, or all those things in some combination.

Looking back, what have you learned, crash-course style, about the realities of releasing music on a label?

Gordon: I guess you learn that you can’t really figure out how people are going to respond to any of your music. Something that you just think is so great will be something no one reviews or listens to, and then some other record seems like a real sleeper to me, all of a sudden there’s an NPR program on it. So that’s why when we talk to other artists on the label, and they’ll ask something like, “Well, do you think this is a good time of year to release the record? Or should we put it out later, or should I go with this cover or that cover, should I do this piece or that piece?” We just go, ‘Look, do what you want.’” [Laughs].

Wolfe: Although the covers, I have to say, I think are very beautiful, and we all have a lot of input on that. When I look at some of the other new music covers that are really bad — you know, that kind of old model of having a geometric design on the cover or something like that — I remember that we do have strong opinions about that. It should just be interesting and cool, you know? We all grew up on cool LP covers. Everyone in the room weighs in, says, “Ooh, I like this but not this.”

Lang: I think that’s how every decision gets made at Bang on A Can, for better or for worse. Everything gets passed around to everybody else. If we were a corporation, you’d imagine that everything would get watered down that way, but for us what happens is everybody finds the thing that we all believe in, so with the end product, we can stand behind it.

Wolfe: We are all so into recording — it’s an art unto itself. Sometimes we are making projects for recording — the recording is the driving force of creation. It’s such a great way to create music. It’s one of our favorite things to do.

Does the creative energy often flow in that direction — from conception to studio and then back out to the concert stage?

Wolfe: I think it happens both ways. Sometimes things get adapted, like with Toby Twining’s latest record, Eurydice, which was created in a theatrical setting and then got transformed into a slightly different format for the CD. But I think that no matter where it started, once you get into the studio, incredible things start to happen. Everyone finds things, hears things; you start listening in a way you don’t listen anywhere else. That just can’t happen in a rehearsal.

Do you spend a lot of time listening to the recordings before they come out? Do you make sure they have a “sound?”

Lang: You know, every project is different. Some of them we’re completely involved in, and some are a more Bang On A Can-initiated project that they supervise, so we listen to it as they sent it to us. The All-Stars ones, of course, everyone’s in the studio commenting — all the players, everyone involved. We’ve all been in there, making our comments about, “this take is better than that take.”

Gordon: I don’t think there’s a particular label aesthetic. Everybody makes their own recordings. The new record the All-Stars are making is recorded with an engineer who has an extensive background making rock and pop records. It’s recorded in a studio and everything, and meant to be recorded like a rock band: close-miked, even if it’s a cello or a clarinet, and mixed not like we’re on a beautiful-sounding stage, or a gorgeous cathedral, and we’re capturing the resonances. We’ve done those recordings before, you know. Julie, David and I made this recording with a baroque orchestra in this special hall in Berlin, and when we complained that we couldn’t hear the basses, the tone-meister went over and lowered the mic a quarter of an inch — because there were only two mics in the recording session.

Lang: And that was a beautiful recording, too! But really old fashioned, and everybody was aware as we were making this recording that we would never see a recording made this way, ever again. [Laughs].

Gordon: But, you know, the process changes. We were just making this record JAW, by these two guys in Kyrgyzstan, who we invited over to be a part of our summer festival. They played a lot of music, and a whole bunch of ethnic Kyrgyzstan instruments, but the jaw-harp kind of blew everyone away. We were like, “Well, I wonder what a whole record of jaw-harp would be like. Would you make it for us?” And they did.

With the Toby Twining record, he was adapting instrumental music for a play, and when he sent over the first rough edit of the music he had these stuffy actors reading lines from the play in a kind of a fake English accent between each piece. We called him up and said, “Toby, what are you doing?” It took him a second, but he realized, “Oh yeah, right, I’m not trying to capture the music I wrote for this play; I’m making a record.” He was trying to be loyal to the production. A lot of groups make those decisions for themselves, and what we’re really trying to do is support — we don’t think So Percussion or Ethel or Alarm Will Sound need to be told, “This is your next million seller!” Because they all have ideas; they’re all artists.

Lang: And we want to talk to them the way we also want people to talk to us. We all have an idea, both for BOAC and for ourselves individually, of what our trajectory could be. We remember dealing with record labels where we hoped that was the way we’d be spoken to. We would like to speak to other people that way, too.

Wolfe: I think these other projects take us to a place where we might not always have imagined we would ever go, but that’s interesting too. There are projects that Ethel have developed that might not be the same kinds of projects we would design for the Bang On A Can All-Stars, but that can take us into a realm where we’re going to see something new. We’re also going to reach a new listenership. And that’s an interesting way to operate. The more streamlined, curatorial work we do — the marathon, the festival — that’s really got our hand print on it. But some of them are more of a seal of approval than a hand print.

The name Cantaloupe is an amazing name. Who came up with it, and why?

Wolfe: I remember we looked in the dictionary under “Can.”

Gordon: Harmonia Mundi asked us to find a word or a label that was also a word in French. We looked at all the words that began with “can” that were also words in French.

Was there a list of finalists?

Lang: I remember we tried to do “canister” also. I like Cantaloupe because the Beatles albums came out on Apple. We can have a fruit, too!

I wanted to talk about some of your seminal releases, if you don’t mind. I’m just going to bring them up, and would love for you to share your thoughts, impressions, memories, etc. Let’s actually start with the most recent first, the wonderful, and bone-chilling, Cruel Sister.

Wolfe: Well, we were talking about conventional, old-fashioned recording, and this one was somewhere in between. It was recorded in a hall, a very beautiful-sounding hall that was part of a school gymnasium in Germany, I can’t remember which town. But it’s somewhere in between the studio that close-miked, in-your-face sound and that beautiful, old-fashioned, washy sound. And that was interesting, because in a way, it came from Ensemble Resonanz, who recorded the piece: The guys who recorded it recorded in a van outside the gymnasium; they had all these wires going in, and they would smoke and hang out in the van. This is totally unrelated, but it was recorded when Obama was elected. I just remember how fun it was, because the two German recording engineers showed up with champagne the next day: “We are so excited for your new president!”

Let’s talk about David Lang’s Child next. That has some of my favorite pieces of yours on it.

Lang: The great thing about it was I got these five commissions in a row, where five different opportunities, within like a month, came up to write pieces for exactly the same instrumentation. And so my idea was to string them all together in a suite. So I wrote them all, one after another, with the intention that they would go together. But what happened was that the group I wrote them for, Sentieri Salvaggi, sent me a recording of them doing “Sweet Air” that they made for their own label at the time. They did this recording with a bunch of other pieces, and I really loved what they did. I thought the recording was fantastic. So I just asked them: Hey, that was really good. Why don’t you record the other four? And they went, “Uh, okay.” And that’s basically all that happened. They would record them and send them to me, and I would make comments, and that’s how I made that record. The individual pieces have all been recorded, but this is the only place where they all live together as the suite I intended them to be.

Phil Kline, Zippo Songs

Gordon: That’s a beautiful collection of songs, all made of scrawlings that old Vietnam soldiers etched on their Zippo lighters, and he has a beautiful, artistic way he twists those words and make those songs very striking.

What year did that recording come out? I remember it making quite an artistic impact right before Bush’s reelection.

Gordon: Zippo Songs got a lot of press because of the Rumsfeld thing — one of the songs uses his “known knowns/ unknown knowns” press conference for a song.

Michael Gordon, Decasia

Gordon: Well, that recording was made after the premiere of the piece. We did the piece first in Basel, and then kept the entire orchestra for a third day. And because it was played on a cheap triangular set, there was no possible way to record it anyway except just trying to capture what the sound was at the concert. So they actually just put the mikes right in the center of this huge space, which has no natural acoustics because everything is amplified. We decided to record the CD basically like it was a concert, but with no audience. And I’m so happy we did that, in the end.

Wolfe: There’s also a very strong American/European combination on that recording. If we’re talking about our sensibility, it’s very American, in a way, but we love these European ensembles, and we love to support them. It’s a very different recording world in Europe; it’s a very different scene on all fronts. And some of those new-music groups, these ensembles, feel really on their own. We think we’re on our own, and they sometimes feel way more isolated.

It’s interesting to hear you talk about being pioneers and feeling isolated. It seems like you might finally be at a point in your career where you don’t feel isolated very much at all anymore. I know so many people who came through Bang on A Can who are now mainstays of the contemporary music scene; I see them wherever I go, every concert I’m at.

Wolfe: It does seem like that was a wonderful breeding ground for all of this creative work. I feel really proud of encouraging all these guys. It seems like they are motivated to take things into their own hands and forge their individual voices.

It’s really important to us to put out the music of some of our heroes, too. So it’s no small thing that we put out these really beautiful CDs by Steve Reich, or Terry Riley, or Frederic Rzewski, or Louis Andriessen. They’re all hugely in our minds, and they’re really special recordings. We’re really picky about who is going to realize that music. I remember we asked Steve Reich about So Percussion, and he feels, like we do, that it’s the definitive recording of Drumming. That’s felt very gratifying, too, to see this huge generational spread represented in our records.

Does it feel less like you’re going it alone these days? Does it always kinda feel that way?

Wolfe: I think we’re really lucky that times have changed. But at the same time, there was something interesting about being in that difficult time, the severity of early minimalism, especially. It was so radical. The early works of Reich, and Glass, and the work Meredith Monk was doing — there was an incredible excitement then about tearing things down and building it up. But I think it wasn’t as friendly of a time. I think people felt much more isolated. Now from indie-rock guys writing for the concert hall to the concert hall writing for indie rock bands — yeah, it’s very open and I think much more liberating. But there’s something to be said for the tension, too.

Lang: I miss the tension. [Laughs] This is like my uncle, saying “Oh, these times you remember, when we lived in a little tiny room, with all the children in a single bed, and we didn’t have enough money to pay the rent — those were the best days!” I do miss it, though; I feel that when we started out, there was something really important about voting for this music. And I think it’s not so much that this music has triumphed, or that our way of making things, or that the people who follow in our footsteps, have been proven correct.

But I do feel like the things that this music was rebelling against didn’t make the best argument for themselves, for why they should stick around. One of the things that’s interesting about Bang On A Can is that we built this support system where people who are interested in this kind of music can find us, and we can find them, and we call tell them to be optimistic, and we can introduce themselves to each other, and we can help them. I wonder what the world would be like if other kinds of music that we didn’t like had that kind of support system, too!

Wolfe: It does make you say, “What is it we really value?” And I think one of the things that we have always cared about is where the experimentation is. It wasn’t just, “Hey, do you wanna put a drum set on this piece, because everyone has a drum set in their pieces now?” It’s, “Where are we going?” We’re not setting out to create new Bang on A Canners, but we’re listening to find something that’s pushing a boundary, that’s challenging us. It’s about setting an open scene for conversation. The early days, though, there was something so exciting about the uncertainty: it was such a big question mark.

Gordon: When we were young composers, the entire contemporary music establishment were all 12-tone composers and modernists. And the interesting thing about it was that you would go to a concert or see a new-music ensemble and hear one really good piece by someone and then five really bad pieces by their students all trying to sound like them. They were really invested in this idea that they were the world and in order to be true to that world, you had to do the exact same thing. Thirty years later, it’s really surprising, because you would think: wouldn’t you want to hear your students do something that’s going to surprise you?

Lang: I think the other more important question that you would wanna ask is, “Don’t you want to do something yourself that surprises you?” I think actually all of these things we’re talking about come out of all of our music, and I think this is where we’re all left. I think all the things we’re doing as composers are, in our own ways, pushing boundaries. There’s something about that elemental boundary-pushing that we all try to keep doing. I think when we were younger, maybe it was easier to feel we were doing something experimental as a reaction to a world that wouldn’t support the music we were making. There were external elements to point to. But now we have to keep that up for ourselves. We push ourselves, and we also push each other.