The annual Bang on a Can Marathon in New York was started in 1987 in order to break down barriers between musical communities, bringing together innovative music-makers across different styles in a single mammoth event. It’s a major date on the new music calendar, and one which Australian composer Lyle Chan has tuned in to every year from the other side of the world since it was first streamed online. “I just love that idea of a huge concentration of new music,” Chan tells me ahead of his own marathon new music event, Extended Play, which will take over City Recital Hall for 12 straight hours at the end of August. “A lot of people in the new music community know that I’ve been talking about a marathon style event for many, many years.”

Extended Play will see musicians and ensembles from across Australia’s new music scene – including Ensemble Offspring, Elision Ensemble, Topology – as well as the Bang on a Can All-Stars themselves, converge on City Recital Hall to perform between 12 noon and 12 midnight in a festival that’s part marathon, part tasting plate, part industry trade show and part John Cage Musicircus.

Bang on a CAn All-Stars, Extended PlayThe Bang on a Can All-Stars. Photo © Peter Serling

Although the Bang on a Can Marathon was his inspiration, Chan says Extended Play will be “profoundly different”. In practical terms, it’s only the scale that’s similar.

Rather than having a single stage as a focal point, Extended Play will see every nook and cranny of City Recital Hall filled with music in a program that has multiple performances taking place simultaneously, many in the foyers and spaces of City Recital Hall that wouldn’t usually be seen as ‘performance spaces’. “When people go to a quite normal concert – like an Australian Chamber Orchestra concert or a Brandenburg concert – these are the spaces where at interval they’re just milling around and buying a drink and chatting to their friends and waiting for a chance to go back into the auditorium,” Chan says. “We’ve kind of reversed it, so these are the exact spaces which are the centre of attention. Which is a challenge – they’re weird shapes! The advantage of that is that the chairs can be in funny places and the audience can come and go as they wish.”

“The music is continuous in the sense that at any one time there’s at least two if not three performances going on,” Chan says. “You just have to figure out where they are in City Recital Hall.”

This sandbox style event echoes John Cage’s Musicircus – an anarchic musical event involving multiple performers and competing sonic experiences – but Chan assures me that the Recital Hall’s sound baffling will allow audience members to come and go from the main auditorium without the sound leaking out into the function room next door, another performance space.

“What you as an audience member then choose to engage with is up to you,” Chan says. “It’s sort of like the writers’ festivals where there are all kinds of things going on at the same time.”

Extended PlayEnsemble Offspring. Photo © Keith Saunders

So what inspired this smorgasbord approach to the concert experience? “Sydney is one of the great cities in the world where you can hear a lot of new music,” Chan says. “On any night of the week you have to choose what you go to. “I think we’re just going to acknowledge that front on – why not put them all into one space?”

But rather than having to travel across town, if a particular musical experience doesn’t take your fancy, Chan explains, “you can just walk – or take the elevator – from one level to another.”

The festival is a complex feat of programming, with 20 local and international artists taking part. “I wanted to make sure that people rubbed shoulders with things that they weren’t familiar with,” Chan says. “Broadly speaking we have ensembles who play atonal new music and those who play tonal new music, those who play new music influenced more by jazz and world music, electronica, new music that comes more from a pop perspective – we wanted that kind of balance.”

Extended Play is also an opportunity for the ensembles to do a bit of cross-pollination in a scene that has a large but fragmented audience. “Somebody who follows the Plait Ensemble doesn’t necessarily follow Ensemble Offspring,” Chan says. “Somebody who follows Acacia Quartet and myself doesn’t necessarily follow Topology. So why don’t we pool together and share each other’s audiences?”

The headline act, performing on the main stage in the evening, is the Bang on a Can All-Stars, whom Chan worked with in 2012 when they came out for the John Cage Centenary Celebration at the Sydney Opera House. “This was a great opportunity to bring them back to a festival they kind of inspired,” Chan says.

The All-Stars will perform music by Bang on a Can founders Julia Wolfe, David Lang and Michael Gordon, as well as works by Steve Martland and Philip Glass. There’s also an Australian composer in the mix, with JG Thirlwell’s Anabiosis on the program.

Ephemera TrioEphemera Trio. Photo: supplied

The acts performing across the festival represent a wide cross-section of Sydney’s new music scene – including the Ephemera Trio, Acacia Quartet (who perform with recorder player Alicia Crossley and guitarist Matt Withers) and the Sydney Conservatorium of Music’s ConCreative – but the event has also attracted interstate performers. “I’m actually really heartened by the fact that quite a few non-Sydney performers and ensembles want to play in this,” Chan says. “It’s actually a chance for Sydney new music audiences to experience something like Griffyn.”

Griffyn Ensemble, based in Canberra, will join a line-up of interstate performers that includes Melbourne’s Rubiks Collective, Brisbane’s Topology with guitarist Karin Schaupp, and London-based Australian composer Connor D’Netto’s duo We Are Breathing with American cellist Ben Baker, making their Australian debut tour.

Other artists at Extended Play include violinist Anna McMichael, pianists Gabriella Smart, Lisa Moore and Mark Isaacs, the Plait and Eishan Ensembles, Raven (cellist Peter Hollo) and drummer, composer, sound designer and instrument designer Alon Ilsar.

Lisa Moore, Extended PlayLisa Moore. Photo © Peter Hislop

Against all of this, however, there will be one constant that runs through the festival: a performance of Erik Satie’s Vexations, a piece consisting of about half a page of music, with instructions that it be repeated 840 times, which will take place in the ground floor foyer (where trade stands will also allow audience members to buy CDs and meet with artists). The unusual 1893 work was brought to light again when experimental composer John Cage organised a relay performance of the entire piece in New York in 1963. “I love the historical background to Satie and Vexations,” Chan says. “It’s always assumed it’s a piano piece, but sure it’s on two staves looking like a piano piece – but he doesn’t say piano. And Satie’s instrumentation can be quite bizarre sometimes.”

Chan is taking advantage of the ambiguity, opening up the performance to any instruments – and to audience participation. “You can bring your own instruments, or you can play on the keyboards that we’ve provided,” he says. “The whole point is to reach 840 repetitions.”

With art music DJ duo Stereogamous taking over the venue at 10:30pm, there won’t quite be time for a ‘conventional’ linear performance of Vexations – after all, Cage and his team took 18 hours and 40 minutes – instead, the 840 repetitions will include simultaneous iterations. “I like it because it links to the John Cage idea of a Musicircus,” Chan says. “Because in John Cage things can happen simultaneously and not be coordinated and it’s meant to make sense because it’s not coordinated.”

Navigating the dizzying array of music on offer might seem intimidating, but Chan has a few suggestions, including kicking off the day right at 12pm with “an explosion of new music”.

“The first piece on the program will be Elision Ensemble doing a David Cassidy piece that’s mind-blowing, in that it’s completely uncategorisable,” Chan says.

Extended PlayElision Ensemble. Photo © Nico Keenan

While he’s reluctant to play favourites with the ensembles by nominating highlights, Chan does single out what he describes as the “objective” highlights – the world premieres: “music that you wouldn’t have heard anywhere else, ever,” he says.

Several of these premieres will occur in a set by composer and violist Brett Dean and composer and pianist Zubin Kanga. “And can I tip my hat to Brett for doing this, because he actually has a world premiere that very day at the Sydney Opera House,” Chan says. “The Cello Concerto is being played that afternoon [by Alban Gerhardt and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra], so right after it finishes and he shakes hands and thanks people, he’s got to run over to Angel Place to prepare to actually play.”

Kanga and Dean will perform new works by Lisa Illean and Elliott Gyger as well as a new piece by Kanga for viola, piano and electronics, and the Australian premiere of Dean’s Rooms of Elsinore, a substantial work for viola and piano using material from Dean’s highly acclaimed opera Hamlet.

The Nexas Quartet will also be performing a world premiere, a new work by Mark Olivero, though they haven’t been given any stage time on the program. “Because they’re a saxophone quartet, we’re going to have them rove a little bit, so they’re going to pop up and throw music at you,” Chan says.

Extended Play, City Recital HallEishan Ensemble. Photo: supplied

Ultimately, however, Chan invites people to just go with the flow. “There’s so much going on and there’s no way to make a wrong turn in Extended Play,” he says.

He also encourages audience members to get involved and participate wherever possible, for instance by playing a few rounds of Vexations, for which the sheet music will be available online ahead of the event. “Come play it on piano, that would be the easiest,” Chan says. “But if not, then sing a few phrases, bring a kazoo, anything!”

Audience members will also have the opportunity to sign up for Theremin lessons, thanks to composer Elizabeth Jigalin and the Music Box Project. “It’s such a unique, bizarre instrument,” Chan says. “I’ve never had a Theremin lesson, I want one!”

“No matter where you are there’s something interesting going on,” Chan says. “If something right in front of you is engaging you, stay there, if not, just go, somewhere else!”


Extended Play is at City Recital Hall August 25

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Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine