Notes from Bang on a Can’s Long Play Festival

When Bang on a Can first announced they’d be starting a spring festival in Brooklyn called Long Play in 2020, I was thrilled to check it out. I wanted to capture the energy I’d felt at LOUD Weekend the year before that, where I rushed from room to room of MASS MoCA, attempting to see everything and anything I could over three days. It was that weekend, too, that I got the encouragement I needed to turn this blog into something more than a place I posted opinions on once a month. Long Play had the promise to be something similar, something as invigorating. Naturally, I was excited: I imagined myself running across downtown Brooklyn, catching every show I could and writing about it all.

Of course, things never happen the way they do in your head. When Long Play was able to come back in 2022, I felt a little apprehensive about going to a music festival. But I thought, “why not give it a try?” And so I did. And in the end, it was invigorating and life affirming and exactly what I needed. Not in the same way as LOUD Weekend was—obviously, my blog is what it is now and I’ve grown my writing practice exponentially since 2019. But it was exciting to go see live music again with people who love it as much as I do. There’s something about music festivals that gives you that “we’re all in this together” feeling. The last two years have made me forget how much live music is about sharing experiences that can’t be replicated with a group of people who might care about it all as much as I do.

Long Play took place over the course of three days in multiple downtown Brooklyn venues including Brooklyn Academy of Music, Mark Morris Dance Center, Roulette Intermedium, Public Records, Littlefield, and The Center for Fiction. Concerts started in the afternoon and went into the night. As usual for Bang on a Can, there was an eclectic range of artists and performances scheduled, from the minimalist classic In C to DeForrest Brown Jr.’s techno to the rock band Infinity Shred to jazz luminaries The Sun Ra Arkestra. Based on the sheer number of performances, I imagine it’d be hard to find another attendee who had the exact same weekend schedule as you, which is part of the fun of it.

There was some concern about Long Play replacing the annual Bang on a Can marathon, because the marathon was free and Long Play wasn’t. But they were, fortunately, fairly open about letting people attend events. The general feeling of the weekend was that of friendliness and warmth. It was nice to see that that hadn’t changed.

That feeling that some things stayed the same carried through to my first stop of the weekend, which came before the first day actually hit. I attended Terry Riley’s In C performed by the Bang on a Can All-Stars alongside choreography by Sasha Waltz on Thursday evening. In C makes an appearance often with Bang on a Can—it was performed at LOUD Weekend back in 2019, for example—but feels apropos considering the institution’s commitment to minimalist and post-minimalist composition. This time around, dancers matched the short, repeating phrases of music, interlocking in rhythms that mimicked the music against a shifting neon light reminiscent of MASS MoCA’s James Turell exhibitions (particularly “Into The Light”). It felt very Bang on a Can (trademarked), and that was pleasant, but there’s only so much you can do with In C. By the end, many of the people leaving complained it was too long. I felt the same, but was oddly comforted by hearing something I’ve heard so many times.

My first stop of the *official* weekend was my friend Phong Tran’s set at 6pm on Friday, which I ran to after picking up my wristband. The room was doused in swirling green light as Tran stood in the center and played synthesizers. Public Records is known for its great sound quality, and Tran’s set made full use of the space’s capabilities: Every melody he played filled the room with vibrant sound, creating a consuming wash of music as he played tracks from his 2021 album, The Computer Room. They felt alive in the space, bubbling up from the surface and sticking to the venue’s walls.

Friday evening ended with a rousing performance by Dither Quartet in which seemingly everyone from every corner of the new music community was in attendance. Dither was one of my favorite performances at LOUD Weekend in 2019, so again, I felt like I might be reliving a past that’s long-gone and not able to be returned to. But I wasn’t all that mad about it. They played four pieces, by composers Nate Wooley, Aeryn Santillan, Amirtha Kidambi, and inti figgis-vizueta, three of which were premieres. Kidambi’s work was my personal favorite of the bunch. She sang with them, and Brian Chase played drums, too. The piece, which was Kidambi’s first for this instrumentation, moved from lyrical melodies into full-blown grooves and guttural screams, eventually bursting into a finale made of free-wheeling guitars, drums, and vocals that harnessed the innate power of every instrument. The audience cheered a lot throughout, maintaining a feeling that this was a rock concert, not a prim and proper classical show. I’m all about that.

The one show I really, really wanted to see at Long Play was a Saturday afternoon performance of two pieces by Éliane Radigue, Occam X and L’ile re-sonante. Radigue’s music is still in the process of resurfacing; it’s only in the last 20 years that we’ve seen her name start to pop up often at all. Much of her early electronic composition was live sound installation-focused, centering the in-person experience of feedback and long-held tones and the concentration it creates. At Long Play, we heard one of her acoustic works and one of her electronic works, each of which explored a different side of her impulse to create innate close listening. Nate Wooley performed Occam X, a 15-minute piece for trumpet that involves subtle timbral shifts of barely-there tones. The room was packed with listeners straining an ear to hear him, captivated by the process of uncovering these hidden layers of sound. I snuck into the back, late because of the train shutdowns, but even for those final few minutes, I got the feeling I wanted to get: That we were all in a room together, focused on nothing but the miniscule waves of sound emanating from Wooley’s trumpet. 

Michael Pisaro’s performance of L’ile re-sonante, of which I saw in entirety, was absolutely mesmerizing, though a tad too long. Here, public records’ spiraling, color-shifting lights and full-bodied sound system was on display. At first, the room was dim, matching the deep, pulsating open tones of the piece, which slowly blooms from darkness into light. The lights gradually changed colors, brightening as the music did. In a moment of transition, where music grew from a pulsating bass into a sparkling prism, refracting sound in many directions, I was able to reach the sense of heightened meditation Radigue’s music projects. There’s something about being in a room where you can feel the pulse of the sound in your bones; it becomes part of you and time ceases to exist. All that’s there is the present, a foreign feeling in a world driven by the future. The music then faded back into darkness and audience members began to funnel out and go elsewhere. The ending took its time, perhaps a little too much. But the cycle remained, showing a process of growth, rebirth, and disappearance.

On Sunday, I caught a few more sets: David Lang’s death speaks featuring Shara Nova, pianist Jenny Lin, who played Galina Ustvolskaya sonatas, electronic/dembow/dreampop band Balún, and guitarist Kaki King, who ended my weekend with an intimate, acoustic set of songs new and old. I ran into a few friends again, I wandered the streets of Brooklyn with a feeling of hope. If I’m being honest, going to the entire weekend was kind of like exposure therapy for me. I’ve grown a lot closer to my bed than I ever was before over the last couple of years. My lifelong claustrophobia that I try to push down and away is continuously resurfacing in new ways these days. But I was there and I lived it. I talked to friends. I made new friends. I met people I’ve only ever met on Zoom or the phone. And I’m still standing. Perhaps I’m even a little more hopeful. 

Until next year.