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At Bang on a Can’s summer festival, musical explorations are instrumental

Nani Agbeli (left) led a Ghanaian drumming performance for Bang on a Can's summer music festival at Mass MoCA in 2018.Phillip Parks/Courtesy MASS MoCA

As a kid, Caroline Shaffer Robin played the trombone and the bass clarinet, but she eventually settled on the flute. While studying at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, she picked up another instrument: the hula hoop.

“I always have one in my trunk for emergency situations,” she says.

A free thinker, she used her classical training in Miami and at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee to earn a fellowship at the Bang on a Can Summer Festival in 2019. The experience was so meaningful to her that she and her husband, a percussionist, recently moved to North Adams, home of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, which has hosted the summer institute for young composers and performers since 2002.


“There’s plenty going on here,” she says. “There are wonderful people who share the same values as us.”

As an alumnus, she plans to spend as much time as she can absorbing the atmosphere and the performances at this year’s festival, which runs from Monday through July 31. That’s the kind of hobnobbing for aficionados of new music that Bang on a Can cofounders Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe envisioned long before they launched the summer festival 20 years ago.

“We knew lots of people involved in experimental music, but we felt we’d met them all by accident,” says Lang, another onetime trombonist whose choral work “The Little Match Girl Passion” won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2008. “We felt there should be a place where people interested in experimental culture could meet on purpose.”

Having launched Bang on a Can with a marathon concert in 1987, the cofounders spent years looking to the art world for cues on how best to implement their ideas for the summer institute.

“The art world is constantly renewing and questioning itself,” Lang says.


Conversely, he notes, in contemporary classical music, new work is typically evaluated in terms of whether it stands a chance of joining the pantheon of the classical tradition.

“I love that music,” Lang says. “I’m not saying I don’t love that music. But in the art world, all the industry is already saying we believe in the people who are working right now, and we believe their work should be challenging, should be seen and talked about and appreciated.”

This year’s “new music utopia” at Mass MoCA will feature more than two dozen young composers and players working with the summer faculty. Each day begins with a movement class, segues into workshops and rehearsals, and ends up with late-afternoon recitals (free with a museum admission) in Mass MoCA’s wide array of industrial spaces.

Participants are encouraged to explore the massive complex and draw inspiration from the art installations. Visitors to the galleries during the weeks of “Banglewood” (as the festival is affectionately nicknamed) will encounter musicians collaborating and practicing throughout the day.

“We and the students figure out how to take advantage of every single space at Mass MoCA,” Lang explains. It is, he thinks, a good lesson for an aspiring musician: Don’t fence yourself in.

“We talk to them about how to work with electronics, how to improvise, how to collaborate with each other, how to design a program, how to sign a contract, how to decide what your mission is. We talk to them about what you want to do more of, and what you want to do less of.”


This year’s festival will conclude with the return of LOUD Weekend, a three-day program presenting some of the fellows alongside a curated selection of new music. The bill includes works by George Crumb and Steve Reich, a solo set by the keyboardist Yuka Honda, the electric guitar duo of filmmaker Jim Jarmusch and composer Phil Kline performing a live soundtrack to films by Thomas Edison, and the world premiere of Can Dance, a commissioned series of films created by renowned choreographers set to the live accompaniment of the Bang on a Can All-Stars.

For Lang, Bang on a Can represents an invitation to explore.

“I think people should be entitled to have as narrow or wide an experience as they want,” he says. “I don’t have any problem with someone saying ‘My whole life is Mozart symphonies.’ But I think the thing that happens sometimes in music is that you’re encouraged to find your box. And then it becomes very difficult to find things outside of your box, even if only slightly.

“To me, the point of Bang on a Can is that it’s a way of listening for what is new in music. You can apply that questioning to everything you hear — in classical, but also in jazz, or popular music, or world.”

It’s a philosophy of life, he says: “An attitude of how you wake up in the morning and want to be refreshed.”



At Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, North Adams. July 11-31. bangonacan.org/summer_festival

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.