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Tuesday, October 17, 2017

On a Road Trip with Bang on A Can All-Stars

Photo by Timothy Norris, courtesy of Ford Theatres
Artistic collectives don’t often last 30 years. Artistic goals formulated and shared when artists are just starting to figure out who they are often change as they mature and find their individual voices. Egos sometimes get in the way. Outside circumstances can lead the best intentions astray. And friendships can simply fizzle out. That is what makes the journey of the three Bang on a Can composers—Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe—so special. Starting from a marathon concert in a Soho gallery, they have since created hundreds of new pieces, records, productions, marathons, and summer festivals all over the world. They've won awards and mentored young musicians, sometimes together, sometimes separately. But they are still the best of friends and collaborators—on the road together, sharing the journey.

But they did not travel alone. Along the ride are some of their staunchest supporters and loyal friends—the musicians who have played their music over the years. The compositions of the Bang on A Can All-Stars—as the musicians are collectively called—have changed over the years, but the core still remains. And newcomers have become regulars. Six will perform in Road Trip, the 30th year commemorative piece: Ashley Bathgate (cello), Robert Black (bass), Vicky Chow (piano), David Cossin (percussion), Mark Stewart (electric guitar), Ken Thomson (clarinets). Here, four of them share their fondest memories and what has changed or not over the years.

Bang on a Can All-Stars: Ashley Bathgate, David Cossin, Robert Black, Ken Thomson,
Vicky Chow, Mark Stewart. Photo: Peter Serling
David Cossin

I started subbing for Steve Schick (the original percussionist) 20 years ago. There have been many memorable moments over the years. What comes to my mind first is some of the collaborations we have had. Cecil Taylor, Terry Riley, Don Byron, and Thurston Moore were all very inspiring to me.

For me Bang on a Can feels more the same than having drastic changes. The mission is still the same. There have been changes in personnel, but the idea to make interesting new music with many great musicians has stayed the same. I still feel that to be part of all of this is a real gift, as how I felt when I first performed with them so long ago.

Vicky Chow

I’ve been playing with the Bang on a Can All-Stars since 2009. Bang on a Can was an organization I admired as a student. I would have never thought that I would be able to play in the group! I remember one day in class at Manhattan School of Music, my teacher was showing recordings of different new music ensembles around these days. They showed a live performance of Bang on a Can All-Stars performing Tan Dun’s Concerto for Six. After I heard it, I thought to myself, “That! That’s the type of music I want in my life and that’s the type of music I want to play!” And somehow, a couple years later, they were looking for a pianist, I went in for an audition and did a concert with them. I didn’t hear back from them for six months even though I thought I had done well. Then I did a tour with them in China and shortly after that, I was called to join them officially as their pianist! I was ecstatic.

And when I joined the group, it opened my eyes to so many musical worlds that as a classically-trained pianist, I couldn’t conceive of. My colleagues are all such amazing musicians and a constant source of inspiration for me. They challenge me to try to be better, and to learn more about the sound world around me. I would have to say that I wouldn’t be the person or the musician I am today if it weren’t for the people I've made music with for the past nine years. And to that, I say, “Thank you Bang on a Can! You’ve changed my life.”

Ashley Bathgate (a member since 2009)

One of my all-time favorite performances was at this super funky, hole in the wall, underground rock club in Beijing called D22. Vicky and I had just joined the All-Stars that fall and our first tour together was to China. We ate some Sichuan food next door before the gig. I don't know if it was good or not cause I couldn't feel my tongue. Each table had a button on it to call the waiter for more water or more food. When you pressed it, this arpeggiated tone sequence would sound out. The whole restaurant was echoing this one chord all night from table to table. We still joke about it to this day.

We went on stage around 11pm, jet lagged, all crammed together on a tiny stage, bathed in neon lights and cigarette smoke, playing Eno, Workers Union, Nancarrow, Hermeto Pascoal, and some other BoAC classics to a bunch of serious music lovers. They were literally up for anything we threw at them. Something about the vibe that night was just right. Something about bringing this music all the way to China and having people understand it and celebrate it with us felt so good to me.

Afterwards we stayed and drank these signature cocktails with 22 (maybe more like 10 but who knows) different liquors that basically obliterated us and that's the last I remember of that story!

I think the thing that has changed the most for me is really my own perspective within the ensemble. I joined this band at 23 years old and I am 32 now. That period of time can be very transformative for most people, figuring out who they are and what they want. Certainly it was for me as a musician coming right out of grad school with a classical training and focus, suddenly thrusted into the NYC contemporary music scene and a touring lifestyle. I basically came of age with these people (most of them being older than I), had numerous first experiences with them and found my musical voice with them at my side. They are my teachers, my peers, and my friends. They've seen the best of me and the worst of me. The landscape has stayed relatively the same, but the viewpoint has evolved, as I have evolved. 30 years is a long time, 25 years for the ensemble ... even eight years in something is a long time. Things that last that long are rare. They rely on how much you care about the thing you are all working towards and how much you care about each other. They rely on a willingness to change and to grow.

Robert Black (original member)

One that I vividly remember is the dress rehearsal of Steve Reich’s 2X5 at Carnegie Hall with all live instrumentalists. At one moment, it was as if the entire place began to levitate. Mark Stewart [who plays guitars] felt it too and we both looked at each other with surprise and wonderment.

What has changed over the years is the addition of various programs (Summer Institute, People’s Commissioning Fund, Cantaloupe Music, One Beat, etc.) and more importantly, the addition of an incredible group of people who work in the office. They make this endeavor a joy. What has stayed the same is the commitment and excitement to keep doing new, innovative, groundbreaking work. The journey never ends!

Road Trip will be performed at BAM Howard Gilman Opera House (30 Lafayette Ave) on Oct 27 and 28.


  1. I am so sorry I didn't get to see this show. Is there any kind of record or video of it?

  2. I would love to join a band I love like you did with Bang on a Can! A local well-known group in my area looks for a new guitarist and I would love to join, but I'm so afraid too :') My horoscope for 2018 told me to push myself more, so this would be the chance, right? We'll see ...


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