Todd Reynolds on the 10th Annual Bang on a Can Festival
The rock band Wilco, which hosted the recent Solid Sound festival, was not the first musical group to commandeer MASS MoCA. In 2002—just three years after the museum was founded – Bang on a Can, a group of musicians and composers dedicated to commissioning, performing, creating, presenting, and recording contemporary music, convened in North Adams to create a summer festival, presenting new music on stage and in the galleries.
Now celebrating its 10th anniversary through July 30, The Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival & Institute at MASS MoCA, fondly known as “Banglewood,” offers more than performances. Festival founders Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe designed the Institute component for up-and-coming musicians from across the globe who find themselves between the classical and contemporary worlds, in often-indefinable categories. They can participate in a broad range of workshops, such as improvisation, Balinese music, and the business of music. Composer “fellows” write music for the festival and have their work performed, and musicians get the chance to play in public alongside renowned faculty members such as Evan Ziporyn, Mark Stewart (Paul Simon’s musical director), and David Cossin (who performs with Sting), plus other leading lights in the contemporary music world.
Among those lights is composer/musician/violinist/
electronic music innovator Todd Reynolds (in photo by Kevin Kenneflick), who has been with Bang on a Can since shortly after its creation in 1987 and who has called North Adams home for the past six years. Reynolds, a classically trained violinist who veered into experimental music during college, has played with classical orchestras and chamber ensembles, performed as a soloist with Yo-Yo Ma and as an early member of the Silk Road Project, and worked with rock stars as part of his high-octane chamber ensemble, ETHEL.
After playing on scores of other composers’ recordings, Reynolds just released his own double CD, Outerborough, which NPR just named One of the Best Classical Albums of the Year (So Far).”
Reynolds is one of the few musicians to have participated in every Bang on a Can summer festival. On the occasion of Banglewood’s 10th anniversary, Rural Intelligence cultural correspondent Bess J.M. Hochstein spoke with Reynolds about the festival, his new release, his long and winding road in the music world, and musical robots.
Bess Hochstein: What’s a nice violinist like you doing all wired up? Did you start out as a traditional classical violinist?
Todd Reynolds: I started out playing and studying the violin at age 4 in Los Angeles, where I was born. I learned all the concertos and caprices that all the other boys and girls learned, and played them as if I’d be a normal classical dude until I went to college.
It was there [at The Eastman School of Music] that I started to realize that the lifeblood of classical music was not in the tradition, but in the evolution. I realized (finally) that people were writing ‘classical music’ today, and that that was how the tradition would continue to evolve. I set myself to learning music that was written in the present, and never looked back. This, of course, turned into setting my lens frame very wide, and I began studying jazz, rock and roll, world musics, everything that I could get my hands on.
Electronics and computer music came to me at that time as well, as did improvisation. I’d been a computer geek since I was in my teens, even selling computers at a Radio Shack just to be NEXT to them. Watching Jimi Hendrix and all the great guitarists led me to ask the question, “Why not on violin?” I just knew that someday everything would be able to be done inside a computer… I imagined that someday we’d have something as small as a laptop to do it with, and I was right, and boy, now my life is full of wonder and adventure as a result.
During my journey I’ve been Principal 2nd violinist of a major symphony orchestra (the Rochester Philharmonic), and studied with someone most maintain is one of the world’s most stunning violinists (Jascha Heifetz). I’ve passed through the Silk Road Project, and played as soloist with Yo-Yo Ma, sat concertmaster for Sir George Solti, and with my band ETHEL backed up Joe Jackson, Todd Rundgren and other rock luminaries.
BH: How would you describe your music?
TR: This is one of the hardest questions for any creative musician to answer, I’m afraid. Some have called it Quantum Ambient Electro-Acoustic Electronica. If I had to describe it, though, I’d have to say that it is an organic amalgam of all my experiences, tastes, learning, traveling, and straight out ‘loves.’
I don’t ‘try’ to write music; in fact, my most favorite times are when I’m on stage with electronics which allow me to orchestrate things in real time, and I start with a blank slate, silence, and compose right there on the spot for folks.
If there is one thing I hope people do hear in the music, it’s a language of hope, good spirit, joy, and possibility. It’s rarely dark, and when it is, there’s a bright spot in there somewhere.
BH: Were you a founding member of Bang on a Can? How did you get involved?
TR: I wouldn’t consider myself a founding member though I’ve been with the organization since its inception… I believed in the ideal and was so happy to be a part. When it came time to build the house band, now the All-Stars, I was off playing jazz, plus they wanted to form a non-traditional band (everyone has a violin!) which was weighted toward lower-pitched instruments. From that time forward I’ve been grateful to be the violinist on call for when they need one and am absolutely a devoted, committed member of the organization and the cause of celebrating music that ‘falls in the cracks between everything.’
BH: As part of the Bang on a Can faculty at MASS MoCA, what will you teach?
TR: The way the institute is organized, the faculty teaches by playing chamber music with the fellows. We sort of ‘coach from the inside,’ so it’s much more of a collegial representation than an embodiment of the teacher/student divide.
In addition, I teach some of what I do, which is improvisation/electronics/composition. The composition students are taught by Michael, David and Julie, each fellow writing a piece for an ensemble made up of fellows and performed on ‘composer concerts.’
BH: How would you describe your new two-CD release, Outerborough?
TR: It’s the inSide and the outSide of my experience. The first CD is all my own composition, and the second is music of my close and respected colleagues. It’s a view into both sides of a guy who’s a true composer/performer. I’ve interpreted so much music in my lifetime, that that bleeds over into my own expression. Listening to both CDs in the package gives one a glimpse into the sum total of that experience, or so I hope.
BH: You juggle many different projects. What can you tell us about Still Life with Microphone?
TR: This is what I call my solo show these days. It is still in process and when I perform with my video partner, Luke DuBois, with three screens of video and sometimes with the musical robots of LEMUR, this is what it’s called.
BH: The musical robots of LEMUR?
TR: Eric Singer of http://lemurbots.org (The League of Musical Urban Robots). I work with Eric and tour with him as well. We’re developing new things and taking our current work on the road whenever someone will have us. And someday, I hope to secure funding for Eric to build a specific set of robots for me.
BH: What about the new all-star string quartet you are playing with?
TR: I’m still sought to provide string quartets for people, so there is the Todd Reynolds String Quartet out there on some records and associated with certain projects like Meredith Monk and Kenny Werner. The band is, however, fluid, with a shifting cast of characters culled from the very best all-star new music chamber musicians in Manhattan, all of whom are as passionate about present-day music as I am.
BH: Do you ever still play traditional classical, unwired violin, in private or in public?
TR: Absolutely. My piano trio, Typical Music, where I’m joined by Bang on a Can All-Stars Ashley Bathgate (cello) and Vicky Chow (piano), just performed last week at Rockport Music Festival. We played a piece by Bang on a Can composer Evan Ziporyn in a concert celebrating his music, all of which is extraordinary.
After playing wired for so much of the time, it was brilliant to perform with the ‘sound system’ of Shalin Liu Performance Center, which is no sound system at all, save the unbelievable and tasty acoustics of that modern chamber music hall. It was a treat for all of us, and made me want to play more acoustic music again. Sometimes we forget that concert halls were the original Fender Twin Reverbs and Meyer Amplification Systems of their day.
BH: What kind of music do you listen to when you’re not playing or composing? Do you have a favorite genre for listening?
TR: I can’t generalize about that because my tastes run so wide. I actually spend my free time on YouTube researching or learning new software, finding documentation for new musical projects with whom I’d like to be familiar.
I’ll often visit the classics for inspiration - Aphex Twin, Zeppelin, Michael Jackson, King Crimson, Laurie Anderson, or more current projects and artists with whom I feel a kinship like The Books, Newspeak, Sxip Shirey, Owen Pallett. Lots of electronic music, studio-produced stuff is in there, but then again, I love Allison Krause with a passion, and Natalie MacMaster too.
BH: What can we expect to see from you during the three weeks of the Bang on a Can festival?
TR: Oh, tons! I’d have to check the schedule. To start, I’ll be performing a recital of my own on the 14th of July at 4:30. Lots of acoustic and digital love there. And John Adams’ Shaker Loops and his violin piano piece, Road Movies as well during the major John Adams tribute and the Marathon. I’ll be posting on my website and on Twitter daily as @digifiddler, do follow me! Facebook, too!
The 10th Annual Bang on a Can Festival at MASS MoCA
July 13 – 30
North Adams, MA
Tribute to John Adams, Saturday, July 23
Festival composer recital: Monday, July 25
Bang on a Can Marathon, Saturday, July 30