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Evan Ziporyn of Bang on a Can All Stars Talks About the West Coast Classical Music Scene and the Evolution of the Ensemble On Its 25th Anniversary

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Photo by Christine Southworth, courtesy Bang on a Can All Stars/used with permission
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Bang on a Can All Stars, one of New York's premiere ensembles, is celebrating their 25th anniversary tonight at the Disney Hall. If you can't make it to the concert tonight, you can join in on the festivities by downloading their latest album for free. The album "Big Beautiful Dark and Scary" is available for download, you just have to share a memory on their website about an experience with Bang on a Can. If you don't have one, you can start making them by reading this interview with BoaC member Evan Ziporyn. We got to ask Ziporyn about his 25 years with BoaC, Steve Reich's 75th birthday, and his experience with West Coast musicians.

LAist: This is the first BoaC performance in LA in quite a while, and the first at the Disney Hall (note: original BoaC members Gordon, Wolfe, and Lang performed in 2010). What are your thoughts/expectations going into this performance?

Evan Ziporyn: Not to jinx it, but the last time we played in LA was 9/10/01 - unfortunately an easy date to remember. Believe it or not, that's also the only time I even saw Disney Hall - we weren't playing there, we just drove by it, it wasn't even finished - so we're all pretty psyched about seeing it in a finished state, playing there, and not having the world turned upside down the morning after....

On a musical level it's a very special program. 2x5 is the only piece Steve actually wrote specifically for us, so that's one thing, but like many of his pieces he intended it to be done music-minus-one style: live band with tape. For this show we're doing it with all live musicians, two rock quintets, something we've only done twice before, at Carnegie and then at the London Barbican. As for Music for 18, it's a hard piece to talk about without seeming hyperbolic. I've done it may times with Steve's own group, but in this case we're joining an amazing assemblage of musicians put together by Steve Schick, the original percussionist in the group - so it's a coming together of many important strands, both musical and personal.

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Does BoaC have any non-performance related activities planned for Los Angeles? Or anything special for Steve Reich's birthday?

We've been working with Steve for so long that we can actually remember when his birthdays weren't public events.

Is this your first collaboration with red fish blue fish?

We consider them family...Steve Schick is a seminal part of Bang on a Can, has been for 25 years, since before the All-stars. As fellow members of the All-stars we toured the world together for close to a decade, and I myself composed a large piece for rfbf in the 90s. Steve also brought them to several early marathons as well. But yes this is the first time the All-stars have worked with them.

And as a contemporary ensemble that mostly performs in the East Coast, what are some of the impressions that the group has in regards to the West Coast Classical music scene?

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Just for the record, we'd gladly perform out here MUCH more often...speaking personally, I lived in the Bay Area for almost a decade, and even before then I was profoundly influenced by West Coast composers like Lou Harrison, Terry Riley, etc. This year we devoted our summer festival to John Adams, and in November my gamelan, Galak Tika, premiered Terry's first-ever gamelan piece in Cambridge. We've also worked with quite a few California composers and musicians - Pamela Z., Dan Plonsey, Wu Man, Sqwonk, Chris Adler, etc. But I don't know that the West Coast/east Coast distinctions are so pronounced any more, though you guys do have much nicer winters than we do back east.

Most audiences would consider the music you perform as contemporary or avant-garde. For someone who is not familiar with your group's work, or Steve Reich's, what can they expect at this performance?

In the 20th century some prominent contemporary composers presented a forbidding aspect to the world, made it all seem scary, and unfortunately we're all still paying the price for that. It's important to remember that minimalism - in particular Terry Riley, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich - was in part a reaction to that, an attempt to reconnect with the rhythms of the body, with consonance, with groove. I don't think it's going out on a limb to say that Steve's music is sublimely beautiful, compelling, and hypnotic.. Music for 18 dates from the mid-1970s, when Steve's harmonic palette became extremely lush. I asked him about this and he said, "I just said to myself, 'you mean I get to make it pretty too?'"

Do you automatically defer to his interpretation of the piece or is there any collaboration involved between the group and the composer?

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With every piece we try to give the composer his or her due, this is not just a matter of reading what's in the score, but getting to know their sensibility, the things that aren't on the page. A lot of the composers we work with don't always use conventional notation, or are using it as a shorthand; discovering their sound world is one of the most interesting parts of the process. Once we have a piece - have performed it a few times, feel like it's inside of us - things take their own course, and at that point the music might evolve into something that neither the composer nor the group originally anticipated, but hopefully always in a way that's organic and unforced. This is even the case the Bang house composers, including myself! Every piece on the new disc is an example of this - but particularly the pieces by Michael Gordon, David Lang, Julia Wolfe, and myself.

As a founding member of BoaC, what's changed since its inception?

When we started the new music scene seemed frankly a little bleak - a lot of petty turf wars over some fairly petty turf. It's all so distant now that it's hard to explain what all the acrimony in the scene was about, and that's a truly great thing. There seems to be new spirit of excitement and open-mindedness among musicians and audience members. This is exemplified by the new members of the band, Ashley & Vicky, and also by the red fish gang Steve Schick has brought together for this show. It's inspiring and gratifying.

Of course this also goes hand-in-hand with the increasing difficulty of keeping music and art viable in today's economy. Grant money drying up, and not even the pipe dream of record sales to sustain one any more...It was never easy in that regard, but luckily when Bang started we were too naive to worry about such things.

Since there's no conductor, who quiets the patron when their iPhone goes off in the middle of a performance?

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One for all and all for one, maybe we do it as an ensemble. On the other hand, our great friend Iva Bittova always found a way to incorporate wayward sounds - a baby crying, a phone ringing - into her performance...so there's always the possibility of establishing a new collaboration!