Technically, the name Bang on a Can refers not to a specific set of musicians but to a yearly festival of new music curated by avant-garde composer/performers Julia Wolfe, David Lang, and Michael Gordon. (Albums by the group are most often credited to the Bang on a Can All-Stars, a relatively stable group of six to eight performers and arrangers who comprise the core of the creative group.) The trio formed Bang on a Can in 1987; over the next ten years, the concept grew from a one-day festival to an impressive array of live and recorded works. The first three Bang on a Can releases were CD anthologies of live recordings taken from the group's 1992, 1993, and 1994 festivals released on the CRI label as Bang on a Can Live, Vol. 1, 2, and 3. Their studio debut came with 1995's Industry, featuring a track each by Wolfe, Lang, and Gordon and two lengthy chamber music pieces by their spiritual mentor Louis Andriessen. Both Industry and its more eclectic follow-up, 1996's Cheating, Lying, Stealing, were released by Sony Classical. Bang on a Can jumped to Universal's new music imprint Point for their next release, a brilliantly conceived and flawlessly executed re-imagining of Brian Eno's Ambient 1: Music for Airports that often turned Eno's sketches for tape recorders into beautiful works for live musicians.
In 2001 Lang, Wolfe, and Gordon collaborated on the opera Lost Objects, an extended narrative work with libretto by Deborah Artman featuring vocal soloists, a mixed chorus, a full orchestra and, intriguingly, guest appearances by turntable guru DJ Spooky. Other collaborative ventures included A Carbon Copy Building with comic book artist Ben Katchor (1999) (which won an Obie Award for Best New American Work) and The New Yorkers, with a number of graphic and video artists. The group has recorded several early pieces by the great minimalist composer Steve Reich and paid tribute to another landmark of modern classical music by reinterpreting Terry Riley's In C for a bevy of electric, electronic, and acoustic instruments. That recording was the first release on Cantaloupe Records, a label owned by Bang on a Can to release albums by affiliated composers and performers. The second Bang on a Can release on the label was 2001's eclectic Renegade Heaven, featuring pieces by Glenn Branca and Phil Kline, as well as Gordon's "I Buried Paul," a tongue in cheek salute to the playing of backwards tapes and other unintentional avant-gardisms in relation to the Paul Is Dead hoax of 1969.
In 2002 Bang on a Can founded the Summer Festival at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. The Festival brings young performers and composers together with established musicians for a series of workshops and concerts.