Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival Report

Irish composer Emma O’Halloran reports on her attendance at the recent Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival in the US

Photo Adam Cuthbért

Photo Adam Cuthbért

This past July I was delighted to attend the 12th Annual Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival at MASS MoCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art) in the Berkshire Mountains of Western Massachusetts. The festival is a three-week musical extravaganza dedicated entirely to adventurous contemporary music, and it drew 37 music-makers from around the globe, including fellow Irish composers Alex Dowling and Finola Merivale.

Bang on a Can Festival is unique in that it is housed in one of the largest contemporary visual art centres in the United States. Throughout the festival we were surrounded by art, and encouraged to interact with it. Daily lunchtime recitals gave fellows the opportunity to perform anything they wished in the galleries of their choice. These concerts featured improvisations, contemporary repertoire, and performances of works composed by fellows during the festival, and the locations of these performances were all carefully chosen to highlight the link between new music and art.

Prior to attending the course, the composer fellows each wrote a work for one of the festival ensembles, and over the three weeks we attended rehearsals for these pieces. It was amazing to see the amount of care taken in order to bring the music to life; the musicians really engaged with every piece, and wanted to give us the best performances possible. In addition to sitting in on rehearsals, the composers attended daily composition seminars led by Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolfe. These seminars provided us with a forum to present our music and thoughts, and to discuss various compositional issues that were important to us.

Emma O’Halloran

Bang on a Can guitarist, Mark Stewart states ‘the word ‘musician’ is too often used to discourage people from participating in their birth right as sound-makers’, and this was an important theme throughout the three weeks. The festival structure is one that encourages collaboration, exploration, and a wider appreciation of sound, and in addition to recitals, seminars and rehearsals, the fellows learned and performed various styles of music that were designed to make us rethink how we viewed the art of music-making. African drumming classes were taught by ear; Latin jazz involved quick arrangements and off the cuff performances; Sound Painting required rapid memorization of a dizzying amount of hand signals in order to perform a concert that was composed in real time; and the Orchestra of Original Instruments allowed fellows to reconnect with their inner child by exploring new ways of creating music with instruments we had never seen, and sounds that we had never heard before.

I had an amazing experience at Bang on a Can, and what I gained was priceless. I met some of the most exciting composers and performers of today, and what was thrilling was that almost every fellow was just as passionate about some other musical outlet they had, be it pop, folk, jazz, electronic dance music, rock or hip-hop. Indeed, it felt like I was witnessing a new breed of music-maker, one that didn’t make distinctions between concert music and other styles. Bang on a Can challenged us to open our ears, take risks, collaborate, and to simply experience joy in what we do. I look forward to hearing what my new friends will produce over the coming years, I will certainly be working with many of them in the future, and in general, I’m filled with a renewed energy and excitement for making music.

Listen to some of the works by the composers performed at the Composer Premiere Concert

See also: short video montage from the summer school from our colleagues at NewMusicBox

More about Emma O’Halloran

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