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The ‘magical’ Bang on a Can marathon moves online

Bang on a Can regular Pamela Z will broadcast original music for voice and gesture-controlled MIDI instruments.rubra/Courtesy of Ars Electronica

Measured against previous Bang on a Can marathons, the six-hour duration of this weekend’s concert is short.

Twelve hours is the standard, said composer and Bang on a Can co-founder Julia Wolfe over the phone from her New York City home. Once, during an anniversary year, it might have been 27 hours. "We all brought sleeping bags and slept there, and at sunrise there was [Steve Reich’s] ‘Music for 18 Musicians.’ It was pretty magical,” she said.

These events, which showcase a broad array of musicians and musical styles, have been the foundation of Bang on a Can since its 1987 debut, when the founding triad of composers Wolfe, Michael Gordon, and David Lang presented their first marathon in New York City. And with the coronavirus-induced suspension of all upcoming Bang on a Can events — including its annual summer residency at Mass MoCA in North Adams — the organization has returned to its roots. On June 14, Bang on a Can will host its second all-online marathon concert since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, and Wolfe said there will be more to come.

The lineup is characteristically eclectic, drawing on many corners of the new music world. Each performer will be broadcasting from their own home or studio. Wolfe, Gordon, and Lang will host live interviews between segments, while sound engineer Jody Elff coordinates the broadcasts behind the scenes. Sunday’s marathon begins with a performance by Black banjo player and composer Rhiannon Giddens, a critical figure in the movement to drag the often hidebound and mostly white world of American old-time music into the 21st century. Six hours later, the influential minimalist composer Terry Riley closes things out. These two bookend a formidable lineup of performances, including a handful of world premieres written especially for members of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, the collective’s associated small ensemble.


“I’m really excited about the commissions," said Wolfe, who helped select the composers. “There’s some really fun pairings of people.”


Merely commissioning isn’t a remarkable thing, she said — it’s just what Bang on a Can does. But it feels significant to be commissioning something brand-new for this moment when so many composers are seeing work dry up.

The stream is free to watch, but supporters are encouraged to buy tickets at whatever price feels reasonable; 10 percent of sales will be donated to the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama-based nonprofit working to end mass incarceration (founded by “Just Mercy” author Bryan Stevenson). “We really felt like we could not put on a concert without contributing to the conversation right now about justice, equality, and issues of race,” Wolfe said.

The artist and singer Pamela Z, a Bang on a Can regular since the mid-'90s, doesn’t like it when normal concerts are too long. But these marathons are different, she explained over the phone from her San Francisco studio. Come Sunday, she’ll be broadcasting a set of original music for voice and gesture-controlled MIDI instruments.

“It’s exciting to be so immersed in such a broad range of work all in one day,” she said. “Also, the fact that each one of the performances is relatively short. It’s kind of like, if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes." Once she appeared in one marathon, she couldn’t get enough of them. And when she used to split her time between the coasts, she would try to plan New York visits around these concerts even if she wasn’t performing.


As much as the music, the community keeps Pamela Z coming back, and that’s true for many other artists and listeners who love Bang on a Can. People often travel from far and wide to attend marathons and they can feel like family reunions in many senses — including noise and chaos, Wolfe noted. Typically, she prefers to pick a place to sit where she can best focus on the music.

But now, with the joyous hubbub of reunions and forming new friendships moving to online chat boxes like the one on the Bang on a Can website (or the one hosted by experimental music blog The Road to Sound) Wolfe can easily tune out everything and listen — and there are pros and cons to this, she said.

“Sometimes [at live marathons] I’m like ‘Don’t talk to me right now, I’m listening to this piece!’ That doesn’t happen right now," Wolfe said. “Then again, we miss that, the seeing each other.”


Sunday, June 14. 3 p.m. www.bangonacan.org

Zoë Madonna can be reached at zoe.madonna@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.

A.Z. Madonna can be reached at az.madonna@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten.