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30 Years of Bang on a Can: A Conversation with Bassist Robert Black

17 August 2017

Robert Black, Bang on a Can All-Stars, Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon, David Lang, Cantaloupe Music

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This year sees Bang on a Can celebrating their 30-year anniversary. These pioneers began performing in a new un-classifiable style, and now, 30 years later they grace the Royal Albert Hall with a concert at the BBC Proms, featuring a world premiere by Michael Gordon, as well as works by Philip Glass, Louis Andriessen, Julia Wolfe and David Lang. Primephonic was lucky to have had this dynamic ensemble performing at the NYC launch of its streaming subscription earlier this year. Primephonic contributor Seán Ó Dálaigh had the chance to talk to one of it's long-standing members, the bassist Robert Black.

What is the most valuable piece of advice that you give to young and emerging music makers?

What I would advise, and what I think worked for me, is that it’s important for people to find out what makes them tick, what is their real passion, and to pursue that. Not everyone really knows exactly what makes them tick and why they do what they do. So I think that self-reflection and examining ‘why are you doing what you are doing?’ is important. I think a certain clarity comes from that, which makes other things then obvious what to do next.

…and to performing musicians specialising in exploring unheard works?

Well I remember a story that Michael Gordon told me when we were first starting Bang on a Can years ago. He said, “You know, we were taught as we were growing up that nobody likes the kind of music we were doing and nobody will like this music”. And he looked at me, square in the eye and said, “That simply is not true”, and he was absolutely right, it’s just not true that people don’t like this music. So my advice to people who play that unheard-of music is that you just have to find the people that are out there that want to hear it. They are there. It may not be a Madonna-size audience but you have to think back to your first question, ‘why are you doing this then?’  

Bang on a Can All-Stars

I was exactly 2 months old when BOAC first performed on Mothers day, 1987. What has changed since?

I think a lot of things have changed; certainly the nature of the music that composers make now is really quite different. 30 years ago we were still just coming out of the battles that were being fought over modernism and minimalism and experimental music, those kinds of things. The ‘uptown-downtown’ dichotomy, which I don’t think is really part of the dynamic anymore. It’s certainly not the main story, which is a big change. I think another big change, and this is one of the things I think that was really remarkable about BOAC and why it got the attention it did, is that there are so many musics that go on in the world other than just the classical western tradition, and BOAC was one of the pioneers of taking all those other musics – rock music, jazz music, experimental, indie rock, music from Bali, all these different kinds of things – and incorporating them. We would say there was the music we studied at the conservatory and then there was the music that we listened to and played in garage bands at night so we tried to combine those. That’s a big change in that this situation is just normal now.  

It must be very exciting to be a part of BOAC, who have done so much work for the dissemination of new music. In looking for new works to programme, what are the factors that personally inspire/interest you?

What I like and what attracts me are people who are doing things that have a very strong personality. Once again I would think back to the very first question you asked, about the composer/musician who really knows what they are all about and why they do what they do and have a strong opinion about it; that becomes really attractive because there is strength behind the ideas. It can be in any number of genres or styles but it’s that strength of commitment to what they are doing which I think is really interesting.

Your work ‘Possessed’ is a fascinating project in which there is a site-specific dimension. Is the site-specific aspect always important in your creative practice?

Well certainly a piece like ‘Possessed’ could only have happened there. The music that I improvised was all suggested by the location. There have been a couple of other times I’ve done that; I remember once doing a project with native American, Robert Mirabal in the Pueblos in the south west of Colorado. There are some very ancient dwellings there, also very site-specific improvisation. I would say that that is maybe part of my work but it’s not the all-defining thing that I do.

The double bass with its vast array of sounds, timbres and colours is definitely one of the most exciting instruments in our age of extended experimentation in the search for new sounds. Can you tell us anything about your relationship with your instrument over the years?

Really, I feel lucky to play the instrument because I am excited by it every day.  In the 18th century there was a thing called ‘the golden age of double bass’, where there was this flourish of solo activity, a lot of virtuosi, which was unprecedented. I kind of disagree; I think the golden age of the double bass is right now. There is so much going on, so many people doing interesting things and playing so well, it’s amazing. Even after exploring new music and extended techniques and that sort of thing for the last 40 years what surprises me is there is still more to discover. There are still new ways of making music and there are new sounds coming out of the instrument. Michael Gordon and I are working on a new piece for me and we were experimenting with retuning to the instrument in radical ways and just got sounds you would never guess were from that instrument. So, you know, the journey is still not over.

What are you working on at the moment, and any recordings or concerts coming up in the near future?

A couple of years ago I commissioned Philip Glass to write a piece, a solo bass partita in 7 movements, so that’s recorded and it’s in the process of being released. That was an exciting project; it also has poetry in between in each of the 7 movements including Laurie Anderson, Yoko Ono, Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen and others. Also, there are these fantastically amazing pieces by this German artist Hanne Darboven. They are about 75 minutes long, very minimal, pattern-based things. She wrote 4 of these and I’ve been playing them at the Dia museum in Chelsea. So I’m working out plans to record them all in a site-specific way.  They are really mesmerising pieces. There are a few other composers I have been talking to, getting works written for me, John Luther Adams; we’ve been talking about writing a quartet. I just came across a fantastic Swiss composer Marcel Zaes, who also writes these long extended pieces, so we’re working on something together there. And I do a set of these very funny little short pieces I call ‘It Music’. They’re little vignettes, kind of theatre pieces, and I’m getting ready to video record those. In one, for example, I play on the double-bass case with the zipper. Or I spin the bass around, making sounds with it; I play it in every kind of way but the normal ways. They are very funny.

You are just back from an international tour. How was it?

Yeah, we just got back a couple of days ago from Athens and it was wonderful. We did two different programmes there, Julia Wolfe’s Anthracite Fields with a choir from Athens and they were terrific. We’ve done that piece with a couple of other non-US groups and it’s always very exciting to hear how they approach it. They had a lot of energy and brought a raw excitement to it. And then we did the arrangement of Brian Eno’s Music for Airports after that. Outdoors, we were sort of in the middle of this big canal and people were sitting across from that; it was a lovely night performance. So Monday we have the concert with you guys [at the Primephonic streaming launch] in New York and then we go to Amsterdam to do Anthracite Fields with another choir.

The list of artists you have worked with, from John Cage to Elliot Carter, Yoshiko Chuma to Rudy Burckhardt is impressive, and must carry with it many stories. Are there any stand-out tales from your collaborations?

Well you’re right; every encounter with a composer, musician or artist is pretty unique. It’s hard to pick one or two stories that exemplify that; I wish I had documented every time I’ve worked with a composer because so many times the way they sing something or the way they describe something or even just their body language, it tells you something about what they were thinking.  Everyone is different – it’s like fingerprints or snowflakes – and like I said, I wish I had documented all of that because it would be an amazing archive.

Bang on a Can All-Stars

With Michael Gordon, many years ago, when he wrote his piece, ‘Painted Black’, he was trying to describe it and he really wasn’t finding the right words, but his hands were doing these gestures. I kept looking at it and I was thinking ‘it looks like he’s sort of playing a guitar’. Then it just dawned on me; ‘oh I think that’s what it is. It is kind of like an electric guitar idea. There is these noise sections for the bass and each different section is like a guitar stomp-box, here is the distortion, here is the delay, here is the overdrive and all that kind of stuff’. And I would never have gotten that without having watched him do this gesture. It’s things like that, little insights, that I find so fascinating.  

How does it feel for you personally, looking back over the last 30 years?

Yeah again, I was talking to Michael Gordon recently, there was something coming up about the 30 years thing and he said, “You know I’m not all that sentimental, I don’t look back. I’m always thinking about what’s next and how are we going to keep going, what’s the next project etc.” I agree with that so for me it’s weird when I think about 30 years ago, you said you were what, 2 months old? 

2 months exactly…

I mean that’s just weird to me I don’t view it as that kind of longevity, historical thing. 

I guess BOAC is always about looking forward, in an exciting way? 

Yeah for sure.

Robert Black of Bang on a Can in conversation with Primephonic contributor Seán Ó Dálaigh


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