The post below was written by William Robin, a musicologist who received a 2015 Paul R. Judy Center for Applied Research grant to study the social history of new music in the United States from 1980 to the present through the lens of innovative ensembles.
As a musicologist who focuses on the world of contemporary composition, one of the main issues that I examine in my scholarship is the question of institutional identity. What does it mean that New Amsterdam Records, or the ensemble yMusic, or the composer collective Bang on Can constructs a particular image for itself as an organization—and how does that image affect broader developments in contemporary music? This was a question that I attempted to address in my 2016 dissertation, which focused on a twenty-first century scene of American musicians often labeled “indie classical.” Institutional identity is often conflated with branding: how an organization positions itself, with publicity campaigns and marketing initiatives, in a musical marketplace. But the question of identity also, importantly, centers on the priorities of composers and performers who found such organizations; the repertoire that they perform and record; the manner with which they present themselves to the public; and the complex relationships that they have with other actors in new music.
Given the importance of alternative ensembles in contemporary music in the present day United States, the question of identity seems paramount: the decisions that these groups make—what they play and how they play it—significantly shape the world that we live in. As part of my dissertation work funded by the Paul R. Judy Center for Applied Research, I examined two prominent ensembles active today: Bang on a Can All-Stars, first established in 1992 as an outgrowth of the Bang on a Can composer collective; and yMusic, founded in 2007 by six freelance performers based in New York. On the surface, these organizations appear quite similar in approach. They are amplified chamber ensembles that perform rock- and pop-inflected in clubs as well as concert halls; they strongly emphasize collaboration as part of their artistic practices; and they frequently participate in the same institutional settings, such as Merkin Concert Hall’s Ecstatic Music Festival or university arts presenters across the United States.
But one essential issue that I addressed in my research, and that deeply shapes and differentiates the identities of these institutions in the present day, was the question of why: why did these particular organizations come into being? What purpose were they originally meant to serve? And how does that initial mission shape the approach of each ensemble in the present day? In this blog post, I want to offer a bit of background on these groups, in order to give the sense of how their origins intersect with their current identity, and the implications this has for contemporary classical music.
The Bang on a Can All-Stars were founded for deeply practical reasons. In the early 1990s, after successfully presenting several marathon concerts in downtown New York, the founders of Bang on a Can—Julia Wolfe, David Lang, and Michael Gordon—received requests to present marathons in various cities around the world. The logistics of producing a marathon concert in Toronto or San Francisco, however, seemed daunting; as an alternative, the founders envisioned forming a group that could make the ethos of the scrappy festival portable and tourable. They reached out to six freelance musicians in the New York area who had all played in previous Bang on a Can marathons, but who had never performed together in the past: pianist Lisa Moore, percussionist Steven Schick, clarinetist and composer Evan Ziporyn, bassist Robert Black, cellist Maya Beiser, and guitarist Mark Stewart.
In interview, Lang told me that he, Gordon, and Wolfe wanted an ensemble with a specific sound and unique instrumentation. The unusual nature of the All-Stars’ set-up—piano, clarinet, cello, guitar, bass, and percussion—was the result of the fact that the Bang founders wanted to work with specific players, rather than specific instruments. A repertoire quickly formed out of new commissions, rearrangements of works by Bang’s founders such as Lang’s cheating, lying stealing, and reworkings of open instrumentation pieces like Louis Andriessen’s Worker’s Union. The composers and performers that I interviewed consistently referenced the idea that the All-Stars represented the “sound” of its parent organization: the ensemble’s mixture of classical and rock instruments—early marketing materials emphasized that the group was half rock band, half classical ensemble—and its hard-edged, amplified repertoire represented the aesthetic of Bang on a Can in tours around the world as well as recordings on Sony and Cantaloupe.
The existence of the All-Stars has deeply informed the musical practices of Bang on a Can’s founding composers. In a 1997 interview with the Yale Oral History of American Music project, Wolfe was asked about the importance of the All-Stars as a voice for her composition; she replied that:
It’s really great. I don’t know whether I really thought about it at first. Because when we first started I wasn’t really oriented that way. In fact, I think I had just started to write for large ensembles….But I’ve really appreciated working with people that I know, how they work and what they can do.
Indeed, it is striking that Wolfe’s recent major successes—the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Music and, in September 2016, a MacArthur “genius” grant—are directly tied to her recent music for the All-Stars, in the form of the large-scale works Steel Hammer and Anthracite Fields. And the identity of the All-Stars has shaped the new-music scene beyond just the Bang composers themselves: the group is the house band for Bang on a Can’s crowdfunded People’s Commissioning Fund. The All-Stars have thus helped bring into existence chamber works by musicians as widely flung as singer-songwriter Thurston Moore, composer and multimedia innovator Pamela Z, and jazz percussionist John Hollenbeck: the ensemble has diversified the world of contemporary composition.
Though it is a decade and a half younger than the All-Stars, yMusic similarly embraces bringing figures from outside of classical music into its purview: the ensemble’s 2011 debut album, Beautiful Mechanical, features instrumental works by musicians such as Annie Clark, the leader of indie band St. The ensemble’s website declares that “In addition to performing their own repertoire, yMusic serves as a ready-made collaborative unit for bands and songwriters”; its members have worked with such prominent rock musicians as Bon Iver, The National, and Paul Simon.
But this identity, like that of the All-Stars, is deeply informed by the origins of the ensemble itself. Back in 2007, violinist Rob Moose and trumpeter C.J. Camerieri sought to create a group that would embody what they perceived as an emerging overlap between the contemporary music and indie rock; as Moose told me, he “thought there was a movement and a general interest in combining the chamber music-y world with the band world, and felt like that was where I lived.” Like how the All-Stars emerged, the pair of musicians decided to call up friends that they thought would be a good fit for such an ensemble, which resulted in a similarly unusual instrumentation: flute, clarinet, trumpet, violin, viola, and cello. As Camerieri said in an interview,
yMusic doesn’t make sense instrument to instrument, but it makes sense person to person. And we’re all friends and we all talk about music incessantly, talk about our favorite composers and songwriters, and dream gigs, and how to make it happen. It’s really an individual-specific group.
The sextet first rehearsed together in May 2008, and by late 2009 had begun to assembled a repertoire of instrumental works to perform, which culminated with Beautiful Mechanical, a released on August 2011 on New Amsterdam Records.
Between 2013 and 2015, I observed yMusic work closely with graduate student composers at Duke University, as part of a residency program co-sponsored by the school’s music department and its performing arts presenter, Duke Performances. The residency setting was a fascinating way to see how the identity of an ensemble is rearticulated—whether reaffirmed or transformed—in a new context. I interviewed the members of the group as well as the composers, administrators, and professors with whom they worked at Duke. A lengthy chapter of my dissertation, which you can read here, scrutinizes the logistics of the residency and unpacks how yMusic’s identity shifted in the practices of the Duke experience.
Most significantly, I discovered over the course of my research that the identity of yMusic deeply informed the music written for it by the Duke composers. The unusual instrumentation of the ensemble—that it makes sense person to person, not instrument to instrument—offered a challenge to the students: they had to reckon with the presence of the trumpet, a loud and cutting instrument, in the context of a small ensemble. Several Duke composers also directly confronted what they perceived as the typical “sound” of yMusic in their individual pieces. Composer Sarah Curzi considered how yMusic emphasized collaboration in their own work, and subsequently developed a back-and-forth relationship with the ensemble in rehearsal, such that the performers played a significant role in helping her develop her musical ideas. Duke student Ben Daniels was a huge fan of yMusic’s pre-existing repertoire, and was thus excited to write a piece for the musicians that was steeped hocketing techniques because he knew that they could execute these rhythmic devices flawlessly. And composer D. Edward Davis, though less specifically drawn to yMusic’s postminimalist repertory—his work is typically concerned with the relationship between environmental sound and silence—decided to structure the piece that he wrote for the group around a polyrhythmic device that he knew the ensemble could execute because of how he heard it play on Beautiful Mechanical. These composers all considered yMusic’s sonic identity—the fact that, in building and recording a circumscribed repertory of works, the ensemble had come to be associated with a specific sound—and accounted for it in their music.
yMusic and Bang on a Can’s All-Stars tell us much about the relationship between alternative ensembles and institutional identity: the origins of such groups continue to shape how they construct their own personalities in the present day, and how other composers—not to mention critics and administrators—approach them. My next project, a book focused on new music in the United States in the 1980s and early 1990s, will similarly consider the question of identity among ensembles and other institutions in this period.
This project was supported by a grant from the Paul R. Judy Center for Applied Research.