This October, Bachtrack is speaking to composers and choreographers around the world about their music, their artistic approach and everything contemporary. Pulitzer prize-winning composer David Lang kindly answered our call and gave us his own unique insight.

You have composed for a wide range of mediums over your career - not only for the concert hall but for dance and film. How does your approach differ in dealing with these different mediums?

David Lang © Peter Serling
David Lang
© Peter Serling
Because I have lived most of my life as a freelance composer I have had a lot of work in very different parts of the music world, and in many ever-changing roles. I never really dwell on what is different about my job composing for these different media – I am much more interested in how what I learn from one medium can be provocative when applied to another. I have learned so much from writing music for the theater, for example, that all live performance now looks like theater to me.  

How does your artistic approach change when interacting and collaborating with other artists and performers? As an artist, how do you go about the creation of a collaborative work, as opposed to when you alone are responsible for the composition of a piece?

Collaboration is essentially an act of humility – it is an acknowledgment that someone has a skill or talent that you don't have, and that your work may be enhanced if someone else adds their work to it. A lot of collaboration is leaving enough room in what you do so that that another person can join you there.

Your music has been interpreted by choreographers in the past, even if the music was not originally intended to be danced to (for example, in Works & Process for Morphoses a few years ago). What are your thoughts when this happens? Is this a factor you consider when you compose music now?

I love it when my music is danced, or used for other purposes. First of all, I want everything I write to have a long and happy life. Sometimes a choreographer or a film-maker hears some detail in something I have done that can push my piece in a direction I never thought of, which is exciting for me. And all those other uses give my pieces more reasons to live.  Plus, sometimes in dance the music is played in a giant space, on giant speakers and turned up really loud. I always like that.

What aspect of composition do you find most challenging? Has this changed throughout your career? How much does it depend on whether you are composing for the concert hall, dance, or film?

Film music has always been very hard for me. Choreographers or theater people often want something vague and non-specific from a piece of music – a mood or a feeling, or using the music to shadow some other action. Filmmakers, on the other hand, often need the music to accomplish specific tasks. Change this mood to that mood in 7.5 seconds! Catch the emotion of the character precisely when his frown turns to a smile! Since these are jobs you can succeed or fail in, they can be much more stressful. That doesn't mean they are less fun – I just wrote the score to the new film by Paolo Sorrentino and I had a blast – but having to write music to solve a specific cinematic problem means that I might fail. And I don't want to fail.  

What would you say is the most important advice you can give to today’s emerging composers?

You know, I have a written an awful lot of music in my life. More and more, I think the secret to writing music is writing music. The more music a composer can write and the more a composer can hear what he or she has written, and the more honest the composer can be about whether or not he or she is happy with the results, the better.  


To read an interview with choreographer Pontus Lidberg, who has collaborated with David Lang, click here.