NORTH ADAMS — Every summer Bang on a Can descends on North Adams to take over Mass MoCA and even parts of the local night life. With around 40 young musicians and another dozen faculty members, North Adams becomes transformed by the sound of contemporary classical music.
This is the organization's 15th annual summer music festival. It began Wednesday and wraps up July 30 with the six-hour Bang on a Can Marathon.
"We show up at Mass MoCA for about three weeks and basically take over the museum," said composer and co-founder Michael Gordon, "because Mass MoCA gives us a pass and they say do anything you want and use any facilities you want."
The Bang on a Can faculty features some of the finest musicians in the world, such as violinist Todd Reynolds, cellist Ashley Bathgate, and guitarist and musical instrument creator Mark Stewart, as well as lauded composers like Gordon and his fellow co-founders, Julia Wolfe and David Lang.
Attendees come from all over the world to attend a sort of contemporary classical music summer camp that builds their skills at the beginning of their careers.
Gordon says that the gathering serves as ground zero for young musicians with an interest in performing music by living composers who, as Gordon puts it, "continue the classical music tradition into the 21st Century."
"A lot of these people are lonely, because they don't necessarily have a large community," he said. "One of the things we're doing here is community-building. All these people show up here and they go, you know about this weird cello technique, I thought I was the only person in the world that knew how to make these sounds on the cello or you know about things on the flute or you know about some music and I thought I was the only person who knew about who knew how to play the flute the wrong way by blowing into the other end."
The meeting between the musicians is defined by the excitement that exudes from the discovery that there are others like them in the world — and the faculty loves it as well. Creating these connections only strengthens the field they work in.
"Sometimes I think we're basically kind of a dating service," said Gordon. "All these people are showing up and what they really want to do is meet each other and go off and do something. We try to facilitate that."
Gordon says the impetus of attendees is to continue working together after the summer festival has ended, forming ensembles and working with the young composers who attend the program, creating generations of Bang on a Can graduates who shape the heart and soul of what contemporary classical music has become.
"I couldn't start naming people because there are so many and there's so many ensembles that we've helped to support," Gordon said.
"There is a very big and vibrant community right now and one of the great things is that people are spreading out. It used to be that they came to the summer music festival and they moved to Brooklyn, but now people are going back to Phoenix or Minneapolis or whatever and starting their own ensembles and doing their own music marathons and commissioning music and getting things going, so it feels like it's a very optimistic time to be in this field."
As the Bang on a Can influence widens nationally, it deepens locally, with huge efforts to connect with the local audience, each summer offering a number of free performances, most notably the annual concert at Windsor Lake, which this year takes place 7 p.m. on July 27.
"I think we've got levels of fans here," said Gordon. "And I think people know us for different things. While we're here for the three weeks, we do some very esoteric music for hard-core contemporary classical music fans, but we also do very general types of things. The music is very accessible and general, because we try to make a bridge to the town."
Part of that bridge also features Kids Can Too, which gives families a chance to spend some time with the Bang on a Can faculty, as well as other performances around the city.
"Something we do locally for the people of North Adams, and more people have been showing up to, is this program called Latin Music Big Band [10 p.m. next Friday at the American Legion]. For years it was just something we did with Fellows, and in the last few years I've noticed people from town have started to show up. It's really an unofficial event."
One big event is the performance by the Bang on a Can All-Stars July 23 at the Harriman-West Airport, featuring Brian Eno's "Music For Airports" and new works from the group's recent "Field Recordings" album. The group has played the Eno piece in airports all over the world.
"One of my favorite concerts is the World Premier Composer's Concert at 4:30 p.m. July 25," Gordon said. "Every year the composer fellows who come write a new piece. Every single person, every single musician fellow at the festival will be involved with that concert."
Gordon is also excited about the John Luther Adams concert Music for Percussion at 7:30 p.m. on July 28, featuring one composition made of bird calls that have been written down and then performed by 20 instruments, all arranged spatially in the Mass MoCA courtyard so that they surround the audience.
And, as ever, there are daily recitals in the Mass MoCA galleries at 1:30 and 4:30 p.m.
What sets this apart Bang on a Can from other classical music events? The energy of the young Fellows is on display, infecting the city and the audiences with what they have to offer.
"The aura and the energy and youthfulness and the hipness of the Fellows is really apparent and probably pretty contagious," Gordon said. "I think they're great messengers for the music, and also for themselves, for their talent. It is a much more relaxed and informal scene than if you're going to go hear classical music.
"They come with it and we encourage it. The looseness, the freedom, I think it comes across."