Our dear friend Robert Black. 1956-2023

No-one on the planet could make the double bass sing, dance, sound like a drum, spin like a top, like Robert Black.  And no one dedicated his life to the new with as much invention, musicality and passion.  We are all blessed to have been his friends.

Michael met Robert first and introduced us to him.  Michael met him at the North American New Music Festival in Buffalo in 1985. Robert had long hair all the way to his waist, was not yet 30 years old and was already famous in the world of contemporary classical music. In 1985 no-one wanted to play new music, and new music is all that Robert wanted to play. He had already commissioned and worked with almost everyone. Michael asked him if he would look at the bass part he had written in a chamber work that had a tricky passage. Michael had written some low notes that leaped up to high harmonic double stops. Robert looked at the part and said something like: I don’t think that’s doable. Let me try. He proceeded to nail the leap up, and the double stop harmonics rang through the room, after which Robert produced one of his amazing smiles: I guess that is possible.

When we started Bang on a Can with a 12 hour marathon concert in 1987, we invited Robert to play. He performed 4 solo pieces: Theraps, which he had worked on with composer Iannis Xenakis; Hartt School of Music Professor James Sellers’ Get Hot or Get Out; Jacob Druckman’s Valentine; and Tom Johnson’s Failing. One of the great secrets about Robert is that he is not only a virtuoso, but he is a comic genius as well. His performance of Theraps and Valentine showed off all of his chops. Get Hot or Get Out showed that Robert could rock on the Electric Bass Guitar, and his performance of Failing had the audience roaring with laughter.

A few years later, in the early 1990s, we were asked, as Bang on a Can, to travel to Minneapolis and give a concert there. We asked Robert to join a few of the other outstanding performers we had been working with in forming an ensemble, which was called the Bang on a Can All-Stars. At that time, there were few if any precedents for this kind of amplified chamber ensemble with electric guitar. We didn’t realize then that 30+ years later, with a countless number of tours worldwide, including performances in China, Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, Mexico and all over the United States and Europe, we would still be making music together.

Here are just a few highlights that we remember, vividly. The Bang on a Can All-Stars’ first performance at the South Bank Centre in London, in which each member of the group performed a solo piece – Robert played Failing. An amazing solo bass concert of Robert’s own music and improvisations in an historic castle in Germany, as part of a Bang on a Can residency. A five-concert residency at the Adelaide Festival in Australia, on the cusp of Robert’s 40th birthday. A countless number of Marathon concerts, standing backstage with Robert, exchanging light banter, and then seeing him walk on stage and be Robert, over and over again. The commitment to livestreaming during the pandemic that compelled Robert to create his First Fridays series, in which Robert gave an online concert every month, with entirely new repertoire in each episode and increasingly sophisticated lighting and visual design. And just a few months ago, with the entire Bang on a Can collective in Bogota, Columbia, where, between sets, we were able to sit backstage with Robert, hearing the excitement in his voice as he talked about his latest projects with Philip Glass, Eve Beglarian and John Luther Adams.

Robert Black was magic – we will miss him.

-Michael Gordon, David Lang, Julia Wolfe

Mark Stewart, from the Bang on a Can All-Stars:

After 30 years on the bandstand with Robert I am still in awe of him.

His artistry and humanity were commensurate, and of the highest caliber.

Among so many qualities he was deeply kind, often playful, gently yet fiercely devoted to the composer and his colleagues onstage, generous and brilliant with his mirth and, perhaps rarest and most precious, a deep listener. He could always respond accurately and beautifully to what was going on, be it music or a conversation. His humility was real because his wisdom came from listening. In rehearsal when he spoke he had the floor.

Robert taught us all that integrity is a dish best served sotto voce.

As an instrumentalist he carried a very big stick: the late 19th century French amber hued bass he named “Simone.” We all heard their partnership on stage but if you never saw Robert dance with Simone, go find some footage. Robert was as celebrated in his dance world as he was in his sound world.

As a chamber musician he was priceless. I never looked to my left, (for a phrase, a groove, a crescendo, a moment, etc. ad infinitum…) without being greeted by his return gaze, his “I’m in!” already fully engaged in the task at hand. The task we would then greet together, shape together, revel in…together.

Robert visited me last in a dream. And his singular wit and wisdom were present.

It was a big gathering of lots of folks and we were about to sit down to eat.

Someone said, “let’s have the cake!”

I turned to Robert and said, “shouldn’t we eat the real food first?”

Robert smiled and said, “it’s always a good time for cake.”


Photo: Stephanie Berger