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This week we meet with experimental musicians Mark Stewart and Julia Wolfe at the Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival at MASS MoCA, an amazing contemporary art museum in North Adams, Massachusetts. They give us the challenge to FIND YOUR BAND.

1. Go through your day and notice all the sounds around you
2. Choose a group of those sounds to be your band
3. Join the band!
4. Record or document what happens and upload to your social media platform of choice with #theartassignment
5. Fame and glory (your work might be in a future episode)

Find out more about The Art Assignment and how to submit your response:

Sarah: Today we're in North Adams, Massachusetts, in a former textile mill that is now the home to MASS MOCA, a museum where you can see some of the most innovative new art being made today. They're currently playing host to an experimental music festival that is organized by the group Bang on a Can.


Formed in 1987, this group has staged marathon concerts, commissioned and recorded new works, and held all sorts of amazing performances and events. They also put on the Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival, a utopian coming-together of young composers and performers along with pioneers of experimental music.


We're sitting down with Julia Wolfe, one of the organizations co-founders, and Mark Stewart, one of the Bang on a Can all-stars.


Julia Wolfe is a composer whose music has been performed all around the world, drawing from folk, classical, and rock music, and bringing an approach that is utterly modern. 


She has written a major body of work for strings, including The Vermeer Room that was inspired by the Vermeer painting A Girl Asleep, and she also worked with the architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro to create Traveling Music in Bordeaux, France, which filled the city streets with musicians walking and riding in pedicabs.


Mark Stewart is a multi-instrumentalist as well as a singer and composer. He has performed with all sorts of amazing musicians, touring regularly with Paul Simon, and is a member of Steve Reich and Musicians, as well as the duo Polygraph Lounge. He also teaches and runs his own workshop for designing and playing new instruments.


Julia and Mark have collaborated to come up with an assignment for you that embraces the ideals set forth by Bang on a Can of creating and appreciating adventurous new music. So let's go see what they have in store for us.


Mark: Hi, that's Julia Wolfe.


Julia: That's Mark Stewart.


Mark: And


Julia: this


Mark: is 


Julia: your


Mark: Art


Julia: Assignment.


Mark: When I'm on an airplane, and you've heard me say this, and I have an instrument with me, um, oftentimes I'll sit down and, you know, we're getting ready to go, and you say hello to your neighbor, and often my neighbor will say, 'I noticed you had a musical instrument, are you, are you a musician?' Yes I am. 'Is that what you do for a living?' That's, that's what I do for a living. 'What kind of music do you play?' I say, well I play three kinds of music. And they say, 'Oh, what three kinds?' And I say, well, I play, I play a little bit of popular music, quite a bit of semi-popular music, and an enormous amount of unpopular music. And they go, and they usually just say, 'Well, what's unpopular music?' And I say all the music that-- that you haven't heard. 


And oftentimes, the experimental is simply something that is, that IS brand new, that is something that really hasn't been tried before. It is truly a first-time experiment. But other times experimental music is often about, it's-- it's like a really good chef. It's about combining ingredients in a new way and something new happens.


I would say, uh, being a member of Bang on a Can for as many years as I have, that we endeavour to, um... find both those, the things that are just popping right out of the egg for the first time, but also so much of the serious work being done in examining combinations and revisiting, um, beautiful sonorities from centuries ago, but with-- but through a modern lens. 


Julia: Listening is something everyone does, so it's just a matter of, well, how do you take that listening in and turn something out, respond to what you're hearing. Um, it's the most fundamental thing in creating music, is just listening and absorbing, and then, um, as a creator letting yourself respond.


Mark: Your assignment is to go through your day and notice all the sounds around you as you go through your day. Choose one of those sounds or a group of those sounds, a room of those sounds, and that's gonna be your band.


Julia: And once you've found your band, choose your instrument and join in. Be a part of the band.


Mark: Document it in some way, send it in, or not.


John: So, first off I'd just like to say that I-- I love these people.


Sarah: Yeah, I mean, I think we should seriously consider having The Art Assignment be only experimental musicians.


John: [Laughs] Yeah, is that-- are they a good bunch?


Sarah: I think so, I think so.


John: These are the first two I've met and I was very impressed.


Sarah: I mean, they're not embarrassed to do anything. [John laughs] Like they live completely in front of everyone and are just completely unafraid. It's absolutely refreshing.


John: So, Mark proposed a title for this assignment--


Sarah: He did!


John: --it's really long.


Sarah: It's very good. So the title he proposed is "John Cage meets Pete Seeger: The world is a symphony; want to join in?" Great title,--


John: Too long for YouTube.


Sarah: Yeah, too long. So, I still think we should kind of unpack that title and talk about those influences though.


Composer John Cage said repeatedly that everything we do is music. We see this play out in his most famous work, 4'33",  where a performer is instructed to produce no intentional sounds for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, and in his Variations, intended for any number of players and any sound-producing means.


But the credo is also evidenced in Cage's life, which was trained on listening closely to the world around him. He gave away his piano, rarely went to concerts, and didn't listen to records. He preferred the sounds of the traffic on Sixth Avenue. 


"You call it noise," Cage said, "I call it music." 


And if Cage teaches us to listen, it's Pete Seeger who inspires us to sing along. Seeger was a master folk singer who wrote the standards "If I Had a Hammer" and "Turn, Turn, Turn," and popularized the civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome." 


Seeger's name may have been on the marquee, but, in the folk music tradition, the band wasn't complete without you, the audience. He'd ask you to sing along, and at the end, he'd clap for you, too. 


Mark: The two together? The, yeah, the world is a symphony, and it's a hootenanny waiting to happen. It's a-- it's a sing-along waiting to happen.


Julia: So you can go through and be annoyed by a lot of things, especially in New York City, the car alarms, the subways, the horns honking, I've got major horn honking on my corner, um, and if you turn it around you can have a lot of fun.


Mark: If we were botanists, we would be talking about what's a weed? You know, a rose in a cornfield is a weed. So, uh, what's your-- what are your weeds? You know dandelions man, everyone's eatin' 'em now, you know, when I was a kid they were not welcome, we wanna go looking for-- for sonic dandelions.


[switch box humming in the background]


Mark: I love switch boxes. They hum. They hum a B flat, it's a little sharp, which for us, is just right. Always makes me want to sing a little.


[Mark hums a tune with the switch box]


Mark: Tubes are great. You can just sing into a tube and it'll do magical things to your voice. Try going "whoooop!" and you get a "do-do-do-do-deep!"


[Mark plays with the tube]


Mark: So we got the hum, we got the tube...


[Mark continues with the tube]



[Julia joins him]



[Twanging nail file]



Mark: I love nail files. I love nail files. You will too.


[Springy nail file noise]



[Mark makes music with his voice, the nail file, and the rain]



Julia: And this nice washing machine has a particularly good rhythm, I'm gonna show you.


[Washing machine drums]


[Julia hums along]


Julia: Can we add the dryer?


[Dryer also drums]


[Mark rustles trash bag]


[Julia drums on the washing machine]


[Mark drums on the dryer and with the trashcan]


[Mark sings along]


Mark: Solo!


[Dryer solo]


Mark: Hup!


[Mark stops dryer]


[Julia stops washing machine]


Julia: It's clean.


Mark: You know, be a little mirthful!


Julia: [Pops cheek]


Mark: Yeah! Crazy about the cork pop. Water drop's tough. [Mimics water drop] Ah!


Julia: [Laughs] That's great. 


Mark: And don't neglect the elephant. [Makes elephant noise]