The Marathon concert is the heart and soul of Bang on a Can. The annual 12-hour Marathon has become one of the most diverse, open and exciting music events in the world. "Imagine Lollapalooza advised by the ghost of John Cage," Vanity Fair wrote. "There are other places to hear new contemporary music, but it is seldom offered with such a potent blend of intensity, authority, and abandon."
The Marathon is a collision of new musical styles and ideas. Marathon 2007, which marked the 20th year of this iconic New York concert event, clocked in at 27 hours and 10 minutes of continuous live music, presented for free at the World Financial Center Winter Garden with the River to River Festival; Marathon 2011 came in at the more standard 13 hour mark. Throughout each of these ear-bending extravaganzas, 5,000 + people saw and heard an impossible range of innovative musicians and composers including a group of 9 bagpipers descending the stairs in a new work by Julia Wolfe; the layered sound and video of indie-rock phenoms The Books, and post-rock superstars Tortoise; the Bang on a Can All-Stars playing Brian Eno's Music for Airports at midnight, plus sets with Philip Glass, Owen Pallett, and Ryuichi Sakamoto; sensual high-tech songstress Juana Molina at 3am, Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians in a transcendent performance at dawn, Asphalt Orchestra playing Frank Zappa and Yoko Ono on the outdoor plaza, the legendary Sun Ra Arkestra decked in sparkles, Michael Gordon's Gotham played from the rafters, the Young People's Chorus of New York singing Meredith Monk, Ars Nova Copenhagen singing David Lang, and an explosive set by Glenn Branca to end it all.
Composers Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolfe created the first Bang on a Can Marathon concert in 1987 in order to break down the barriers that separate musical communities. Their idea was simple: instead of sorting music by style, genre, or venue it would be more powerful to group music by innovation, finding the rebels in each musical community, the restless creators not content to leave conventions unchallenged. Putting all of these fresh voices back to back on one gargantuan concert would allow the audience to experience the excitement of the innovation and breadth of vision. Their first Marathon, in the Exit Art Gallery in Soho, featured appearances by such leading lights as Steve Reich, John Cage, Pauline Oliveros and Milton Babbitt, alongside music by young composers whose musical voice had no home.
Since then the marathons have included an astounding range of revolutionary music and musicians, from John Cage to John Zorn, from minimalism's godfather Terry Riley to Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, from the 30-voice Finnish shouting choir Huutajat to the hyper-intelligent brutality of Iannis Xenakis, from the political sophistication of composer/pianist Frederic Rzewski to the high energy strumming of Japan's Kazue Sawai Koto ensemble, from the eastern minimalism of Arvo Pärt to the speed-of-light Bulgarian wedding band of Ivo Papasov, from the brainy rituals of Karlheinz Stockhausen to the turntable manipulations of artist Christian Marclay to the Balinese fusion of Gamelan Galak Tika and the pulsing electronic beats of Dan Deacon, alongside the new voices of hundreds of younger and unknown composers. It is in the range of these musics that one sees how big the world really is, and how big it can be.
In the past 20 years, the festival has made its home all over New York City from Exit Art Gallery to the R.A.P.P. Arts Center, La Mama, the Kitchen, the Society For Ethical Culture, Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall, the Henry Street Settlement, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Symphony Space, to the Winter Garden at the World Financial Center. Out of town Bang on a Can Marathons have been presented annually for the past 10 years at Mass MoCA, spotlighted in the US from San Francisco to Baton Rouge, and overseas in London, Amsterdam and Hamburg.
What links all of these marathons are the range and diversity of radical new music, the passion and intensity of the performances, and the enthusiastic response of a broad listening public. Bang on a Can believes that the marathon concert helps to build the world in which we want to live, in which new ideas have meaning and new voices are heard.