Bachtrack is asking the same six questions to many composers this month as part of its focus on contemporary music. Here’s what David Lang had to say.

David Lang © Peter Serling
David Lang
© Peter Serling

1. What influences are important to you and your music? Do you choose them, or do they choose you?

To me the best thing about being a composer is that you get to spend long hours with yourself alone, thinking about music. I get a cup of coffee, go up into my studio, and sit there, thinking about all the music I have heard, what I liked and didn’t like, what was courageous and what was cowardly, what was something that we take for granted that maybe is worth a second or a third look. My pieces the little match girl passion or death speaks or love fail all began by thinking about other music whose lessons we think we have learned, but which may have other lessons hidden within them.

2. What (if anything) do you want listeners to take away from your music?

I want to give listeners the chance to pay attention to their own emotional lives. A lot of what I do doesn’t compel listeners to feel a certain way, but I try to get listeners to a space in which they have permission to feel whatever seems appropriate to them at the moment.

3. Is there a composition of yours which you are most satisfied with? What makes it successful?

I guess my favorite piece (this very second!) is a giant slow monotonous behemoth I wrote called the passing measures – for solo bass clarinet, women’s chorus and amplified orchestra. It’s a kind of emotional glacier – moving slowly and inexorably towards darkness. I am sure if I had to answer this question tomorrow it would be a different piece entirely.

4. How important is new technology to you as a composer?

I am not a tech person.

5. What music do you enjoy listening to?

Bob Dylan, World Gone Wrong. Best record ever.

6. How is composing changing, and where do you want new music to go in the future?

It may sound strange to say it but I think it is a great time to be a composer. I have no ability to predict the future, and if I could think of something interesting that music could do in the future I would be doing it right now. People seem to be scared for the future of music right now, but I actually think that the predicted crashing of the major musical institutions all around us can be an optimistic set of events. It sounds like a paradox, but when I was young the message I got from my teachers and from older colleagues was that we were going to be making music in a world that had institutions such as symphony orchestras and university music departments, that they had always been there, and that they would always be there. Being a student in that world felt sometimes that it was about imagining how you could mold yourself in the image of the composer that those worlds already knew they liked. Those don’t look like such a good molds these days. I like the idea that all composers are becoming unmolded, or are at least free to mold themselves, along with their own contexts, their audiences, their own ideas of the future.

Passionate, prolific, and complicated, composer David Lang embodies the restless spirit of invention. Lang is at the same time deeply versed in the classical tradition and committed to music that resists categorization, constantly creating new forms.

In the words of The New Yorker, “With his winning of the Pulitzer Prize for the little match girl passion (one of the most original and moving scores of recent years), Lang, once a postminimalist enfant terrible, has solidified his standing as an American master.”

Musical America’s 2013 Composer of the Year and recipient of Carnegie Hall’s Debs Composer’s Chair for 2013–2014, Lang is one of America’s most performed composers. Many of his works resemble each other only in the fierce intelligence and clarity of vision that inform their structures. His catalogue is extensive, and his opera, orchestra, chamber and solo works are by turns ominous, ethereal, urgent, hypnotic, unsettling and very emotionally direct. Much of his work seeks to expand the definition of virtuosity in music – even the deceptively simple pieces can be fiendishly difficult to play and require incredible concentration by musicians and audiences alike.

the little match girl passion, commissioned by Carnegie Hall for Paul Hillier’s vocal ensemble Theater of Voices, was awarded the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for music. Of the piece, Pulitzer-juror and Washington Post columnist Tim Page said, “I don’t think I’ve ever been so moved by a new, and largely unheralded, composition as I was by David Lang’s little match girl passion, which is unlike any music I know.”

His recent works include love fail for the early music vocal ensemble Anonymous 4, with libretto and staging by Lang, at the Kennedy Center, UCLA and the Next Wave Festival at BAM; reason to believe, for Trio Mediaeval and the Norwegian Radio Orchestra; death speaks, for Shara Worden, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, and Owen Pallett, at Carnegie Hall; concerto (world to come) for cellist Maya Beiser and the Norrlands Operans Symhoniorkester; writing on water for the London Sinfonietta, with libretto and visuals by English filmmaker Peter Greenaway; and the difficulty of crossing a field, a fully staged opera with the Kronos Quartet.

“There is no name yet for this kind of music”, wrote Los Angeles Times music critic Mark Swed of Lang’s work, but audiences around the globe are hearing more and more of it, in performances by such organizations as Santa Fe Opera, the New York Philharmonic, the Netherlands Chamber Choir, the Boston Symphony, the Munich Chamber Orchestra, and the Kronos Quartet; at Tanglewood, the BBC Proms, The Munich Biennale, the Settembre Musica Festival, the Sidney 2000 Olympic Arts Festival and the Almeida, Holland, Berlin, and Strasbourg Festivals; in theater productions in New York, San Francisco and London; alongside the choreography of Twyla Tharp, La La La Human Steps, The Netherlands Dance Theater and the Paris Opera Ballet; and at Lincoln Center, the Southbank Centre, Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, the Barbican Centre, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Lang is the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, Musical America’s Composer of the Year, Carnegie Hall’s Debs Composer’s Chair, the Rome Prize, the BMW Music-Theater Prize (Munich), and grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1999, he received a Bessie Award for his music in choreographer Susan Marshall’s The Most Dangerous Room in the House, performed live by the Bang on a Can All-Stars at the Next Wave Festival of the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The Carbon Copy Building won the 2000 Village Voice OBIE Award for Best New American Work. The recording of the passing measures on Cantaloupe Records was named one of the best CDs of 2001 by The New Yorker. His CD pierced on Naxos was praised both on the rock music site Pitchfork and in the classical magazine Gramophone, and was called his “most exciting new work in years” by the San Francisco Chronicle. The recording of the little match girl passion released on Harmonia Mundi received the 2010 Grammy Award for Best Small Ensemble Performance.

Lang is co-founder and co-artistic director of New York’s legendary music collective Bang on a Can. His work has been recorded on the Sony Classical, Harmonia Mundi, Teldec, BMG, Point, Chandos, Argo/Decca, and Cantaloupe labels, among others.

His music is published by Red Poppy Music (ASCAP) and is distributed worldwide by G. Schirmer, Inc.

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