Go Deeper

Women In Music And Bang On A Can

Posted September 11th, 2010

Here at the festivals, we like to forge connections. On the occasion of the Bang on a Can Marathon, we thought it would be cool to get some other folks involved with our coverage. So we hooked up with Girls Rock Philly, a week-long rock music camp for girls in the Philadelphia area. Then they hooked us up with Erica Rubin, a young writer and musician who, we thought, might be interested in interviewing a female musician with a burgeoning career—Girls Rock Philly is about empowerment through music, after all. Erica recently spoke with Jessica Schmitz, a flutist who’s closely involved with Bang on a Can, both about that project and how to build a career in music.

ER: You’re a member of the Asphalt Orchestra. What exactly is Bang on a Can? Is it a group of musicians itself? Or is it just the show that these different orchestras such as the Asphalt Orchestra, play at?

JS: It’s an umbrella organization. It was founded in 1987 by Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolfe, who are still the artistic directors. They’re all composers, so back in the 80s when they were in school and had just finished at Yale they were trying to think of something to do to bring different types of music to a wider range of people. They founded the All-Stars, which is a six-person resident ensemble that’s been around for years. Recently, they came up with the idea for the Asphalt Orchestra. So the Bang on a Can All-Stars is the main group and Asphalt is another project of Bang on a Can.

ER: And they’re both playing on Sunday, along with a lot of other groups, right?

JS: Yes, there’s a long, long lineup. From 2 pm until midnight.

ER: That’s crazy. I don’t think I’ll be able to make it for the entire show.

JS: Yeah, there’s always a lot of coffee. In New York there have been 24- or 26-hour marathons before too. It’s a long extravaganza.

ER: Did you always want to be a musician?

JS: Yeah, I always wanted to. My mom played the flute when I was a kid, and so when I was really little I used to get her old flute out and play with it. Then I started playing it pretty much as soon as I was big enough to hold it. I just knew then, I guess. Well, that sounds crazy for a nine year old.

After the jump: Jessica talks about meeting Yoko Ono, and how to make it in this crazy music world.

ER: How did you get involved with Bang on a Can?

JS: A little over five years ago, when I was in college, one of my teachers taught at their summer institute at Mass MoCA. I first went there in 2005 and met them there. I went back the next year and have worked with them in different capacities on and off since.

ER: Asphalt Orchestra once played a show at 30th Street Station here in Philly. Have you ever played at any other cool venues like that, that aren’t actually a real venue?

JS: Our first performance was at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, which was, although on the campus of Lincoln Center, not in any particular auditorium or anything. We were just outside, playing on the street. We’ve also played in the subway.

ER: Oh wow, you’d think it’d be too noisy there, but I guess you guys are really loud too, so you can overpower all the subway noise.

JS: Yeah, it can be pretty extreme when you get all the percussion and everything going. We’ve also played at some different outdoor festivals; Harbor Fest was one of them, out in Virginia, and then we were at Barbican in London back in July. But the train station was definitely the most . . . “Oh wow. We’re gonna do a show in the train station.”

ER: Yeah, because everyone there is so busy, going off in different directions, not stopping . . . but I’m sure you guys made some people stop.

JS: Exactly. That’s why it was so much fun. Although [the show] was inside itself, it felt like the outside shows we do where a big part of the theme is the accidental audience, where people are just getting off a train or walking to work or doing whatever it is that people do on the streets of New York and Philadelphia. It’s funny because people’s reactions will range from really pleasantly surprised, dancing along with us, to really angry that we’re in their way. It’s really amusing to watch commuters trying to maneuver around us.

ER: Who and what inspires you? What musicians do you think you’ve learned from?

JS: I have a very wide range [of inspiration]. I come from a classical tradition where, until I went to the Bang on a Can summer institute, I really wanted to do orchestra and classical music. Since coming [to Bang on a Can], there have been a lot of rock influences, the Beatles. Yoko Ono actually wrote a piece this summer, and came to our rehearsal. She’s so nice, really down to earth, and I was like “Oh my god, I’ve idolized you since I was like five!” Other than that, a lot of world music. I play in a Gamelan ensemble, which is a general name for an Indonesian percussion-based ensemble, using traditional instruments from Bali. I recently started that. Rhythmically, it’s incredibly complicated: you learn everything by ear, there’s no written notation, which is really kicking my ass, in a good way. But that’s a big inspiration.

ER: Last question. What advice would you give to an aspiring musician?

JS: Just to think outside the box in terms of artistic and logistic possibilities. Obviously, be very talented and dedicated and all that goes without saying, but to be able to really make a living, be open to different avenues of performance and administratively get involved in projects. If you have an idea for a band, that’s great, do it and play really well, but also get involved in the grant writing, website development, social media and all of that because it’s really amazing how quickly opportunities can come about if you’re really active with the whole structure of an organization. And just network, network, network. If people are lucky enough just get an audition and orchestra job that’s great, and then the whole infrastructure is in place. But 99% of the time it’s both more exciting and more challenging to build your own group. But you’ve got to be really dedicated and drink a lot of coffee.

ER: Especially when you play those long marathons.

JS: Oh yeah. Especially then.

Bang on a Can Marathon: Philadelphia takes place at World Cafe Live, 3025 Walnut Street, University City. Sunday, September 12, 2:00 pm to midnight (but you can come and go as you please). $25. For details and tickets, click here.

–Erica Rubin