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From C to Shining C

The University of Richmond brings the accessible avant-garde.


“I grew up at a time when a composer would go to music school and learn to write music only someone with a doctorate can understand,” Bang on a Can co-founder David Lang says. “It’s not a healthy attitude. Music can be complicated, but audiences have to have a way to access it, find it interesting and bring it into their lives.”

Lang’s group is a spinoff from a New York festival. The name was originally a joking suggestion from co-founder Julia Wolfe: To differentiate the event from the austere pretentiousness of the avant-garde, they should call it “a bunch of composers sit around and bang on a can.”

The group’s Feb. 25 performance at the University of Richmond will feature one of the founding fathers of the minimalist movement — composer Terry Riley, creator of the extremely influential “In C.” This landmark composition consists of 53 short phrases that each musician plays through in sequence. Only the order is set; how each figure is played, how many times and at what tempo is left to the discretion of the musician. A steady pulse of eight notes sets the rhythmic architecture. (To download a free copy of the score, visit

“‘In C’ was a reaction against the elitism of the avant-garde,” Lang explains. “He was interested in creating egoless music, which has a beginning and end, melody and harmony, but takes out the element of control. The music develops democratically; the composer can sit in the audience and not know how it will unfold.”

The freedom of expression in modern music was a major draw for the members of eighth blackbird, according to violinist Matthew Albert. “We have the opportunity to create an interpretation that defines the canon,” he says. “That doesn’t happen with a classical string quartet.”

Eighth blackbird’s name – all lower case, in the manner of k.d. lang — comes from Wallace Steven’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” The eighth stanza is musical: “I know noble accents/and lucid inescapable rhythms.” The Feb.18 concert at the University of Richmond is a harbinger of a yearlong stay; the group will be Tucker Boatwright Artists-in-Residence in Music for the 2004-2005 school year. Starting in September, the Chicago-based musicians will spend a week of every month playing and teaching on the campus.

For both bands, the central intent is to open up the audience to many new ways of listening. “In every concert we want to perform pieces that have different points of view,” Lang says. “There are lots of composers, lots of interesting opinions. …” S

Eighth blackbird performs on Feb. 18 at 7:30 p.m. The Bang on a Can All Stars with special guest Terry Riley perform Feb. 25 at 7:30 p.m. Both performances take place at the University of Richmond’s Camp Concert Hall. Tickets for each cost from $12 to $24 and can be purchased through the box office at 289-8980.

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