The 2013 Honorees

By Tim Page

One of the founders of the roaring, rock-influenced Bang on a Can school, he made a startling volte-face
with his deeply felt setting of one of Hans Christian Andersen’s most affecting fairy tales and won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize.

Listening to David Lang’s early compositions was a bracing experience (those blindingly brilliant, muscular orchestral fantasias amped up with elements of rock and minimalism!). When he teamed up with fellow composers Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe to establish the organization Bang On A Can, he proved equally savvy in curating and performing all kinds of contemporary work.

But, wondered some critics, wasn’t it all a bit LOUD?

Musical America’s Composer of the Year laughed. “Well, you know, my wife calls me the ‘formerly ironic David Lang,’” he said. “I was young—almost a student, really—when I got started, and I had a whole lot to get out of my system. I had so many ideas, and I was fortunate in that I was able to hear them immediately, after which a good number would be dismissed just as immediately. I’m proud of a lot of my early work, but people should change as they get older, and I did.”

Change indeed! Nothing could have prepared critics for their first experience of Lang’s the little match girl passion, set not for roaring rock band or overstuffed orchestra but rather, in its original version, for a rarified quartet of two sopranos, tenor, and bass-baritone, all of whom play small percussion instruments. It won its composer the 2008 Pulitzer Prize.

The little match girl passion (like the American poet e. e. cummings, Lang lower-cases his titles) is a pristine and immaculately distilled setting of one of Hans Christian Andersen’s most affecting fairy tales. It is deeply felt without ever delving into sentimentality, absolutely simple yet leaving nothing out, bracingly new while harkening back to the earliest foundations of Western music. There is not one note in the piece that doesn’t sound both personal and universal, both hard won and absolutely inevitable—an almost impossible combination.

“It sounds strange now, but I was really worried that people would hate little match girl passion—I even thought I might get picketed!” Lang said. “I was afraid that somebody would think that I was being anti-Christian, taking Jesus out of the Passion—and indeed, a headline on Fox News actually suggested that was my intent. But for me, this was always a call to bring the community together, a call for human compassion. I took the subject very seriously, and I worked very hard on it.”

He needn’t have worried. The little match girl passion has proven enormously successful, already performed several hundred times around the world and danced by the Swedish Ballet. This summer it will be staged at Glimmerglass. It has been expanded into a work for full chorus and shows signs of becoming a repertory work. Lang names a performance by Grant Gershon and the Los Angeles Master Chorale as a favorite: “It got a standing ovation in a sold-out Disney Hall in L.A., in front of my dad. That was nice!”

In fact, Lang, now 56, grew up in Los Angeles. “For me, Berlioz is one of the greatest of modern composers—there at modernism’s birth,” Lang said, “and my father’s recording of Harold in Italy had a profound effect on me from childhood.” Still, he entered Stanford as a chemistry major, intending to become a doctor. But he changed his studies to music and took his doctorate at Yale in 1989; since 2008, he has served as a member of the composition faculty. (Lang’s own teachers included Lou Harrison,Jacob Druckman, Hans Werner Henze, and Martin Bresnick.)

He moved to New York in 1981 and quickly established himself in the enormously rich musical community that was working out of lower Manhattan. “The composers were asking themselves all sorts of questions, right down to the biggest creative question of all—what is music? I became very excited about the work of Steve Reich and the pieces he wrote, trying to analyze their patterns, making graphs, exploring similar concepts, and so on. And then I realized that forms and patterns and concepts were all
fine—that ideas were a good thing to have—but the ultimate obligation of a composer is to make something musical, as Steve always did. If it comes down to the question of strictly fulfilling a form or making your music better, you have to go with the music.”

Lang’s music retains a strong conceptual base. In 2003, he created a major work for piano entitled this was written by hand. “It’s a reminder of what it used to be like to create music—the sheer physicality of it all, writing down notes, erasing them, copying them on to vellum, making mistakes that you’d  sometimes just let stay there because you didn’t want to do the whole page all over again. I’d been using a computer to compose since 1992 and I thought it would be interesting to go back and try to write in the same way I was taught—by hand. And I think that is one reason that hand is so spare, because I really didn’t have the patience to copy out 10,000 notes!”

Since the little match girl passion, Lang has written the music for two quirky and arresting films, Untitled (a satire of the avant-garde in all of its guises) and The Woodmans, a study of the work of a brilliant young photographer, Francesca Woodman, her subsequent suicide, and its effect on her artist parents and her friends. He made his New York City Ballet debut with plainspoken in 2010, which was choreographed by Benjamin Millepied (he has also worked with Édouard Lock, Susan Marshall, and Twyla Tharp). Last year, Stanford University presented the premiere of death speaks, a work specifically designed to share a program with the little match girl passion.

In early 2013, the new-music group International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) will conclude its third year as ensemble in residence at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago with the world premiere of a new theater work, whisper opera, which will be performed with the musicians, singers, and audience all contained within an intimate, onstage set. (Lang says that this was inspired by his visits to small opera houses in rural Italy.) Finally, he will be composer in residence at Carnegie Hall in the 2013-14 season.

Since his Pulitzer, Lang has recently created works for Anonymous 4, the Norwegian Radio Orchestra, the cellist Maya Beiser, and eighth blackbird, among many others. A single work, pierced, has been performed by the New World Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, and the Munich Chamber Orchestra. One honor, Lang said, had a special appeal—the French Ministry of Culture named him a Chevalier dans l’ordre des arts et des lettres. “I am most excited about this because I have a passionate love of smelly cheese!”

“Things are really crowded now, and I mean that in the best possible sense of the term,” Lang said. “I’m always busy. Back in the day, I used to be able to choose between the good offers and the less good offers. But now all the offers are good—and I want to take on as many as I can.”

Tim Page is a professor in both the Thornton School of Music and the Annenberg School for communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. He won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1997 for his writings for the Washington Post.




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