ClassicsOnline Home » LANG, D.: Pierced / Heroin / Cheating, Lying, Stealing / How to Pray / Wed (Real Quiet)
“One of the things I like about this disc is that all the pieces try to take classical music someplace it doesn’t usually go,” declares David Lang, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer who co-founded the experimental classical music festival Bang on a Can. “There is no name yet for this kind of music,” wrote Mark Swed of The Los Angeles Times, but audiences everywhere hear and love it; from New York to Tokyo, BBC Proms to Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival, Strasbourg Festival to Sydney 2000 Olympic Arts Festival. Pierced is an unconventional concerto, jazzy and ominous; Heroin resets Lou Reed’s ‘dangerous’ Velvet Underground song; Cheating, Lying, Stealing is a calling card for the Bang on a Can All-Stars; the trance-inducing Wed commemorates the memory of visual artist Kate Ericson.
By Jayson Greene
By William Yeoman
The West Australian
By David Denton
“One of the things I like about this disc is that all the pieces try to take classical music somewhere it doesn’t usually go”. David Lang’s description could well be countered with the question, ‘but does he know where somewhere is?” Born in the United States in 1957, Jacob Druckman and Hans Werner Henze were among his compositional mentors towards the end of his student days. From the outset his compositions have been provocative and thought stimulating, and included works in many genres from opera to solo instruments, The Little Match Girl Passion, written for the ensemble Theatre of Voices, was awarded the 2008 Pulitzer Prize, and is among a number of scores that have taken high-profile honours. He was a co-founder of the festival, Bang on a Can, and from last year joined the composition faculty of the Yale School of Music. The present disc offers a very diverse group of pieces, Pierced, a hard hitting score for piano, percussion, cello and string orchestra, places the work as an aggressive minimalist creation. It drills home its message with an tenacity that you will either like or hate, but I immediately replayed the track fascinated by its brutality. I became rather unhinged from the disc in the obsessive repetition of Heroin for vocalist and cello, the message no doubt vital, but it turned me off long before it ended and I didn’t turn on again until the final track. There I found the delicate Wed for solo piano written in memory of a young woman who died of cancer. In between Lang crosses many musical boundaries, introducing jazz and heavy rock on the way. I respect his absorption in a new world of sound, and I hope the inquisitive will hear the disc. The performers are obviously dedicated and the engineers have added high impact sound.
David Lang (b. 1957)
Pierced • Lou Reed’s Heroin • Cheating, Lying, Stealing • How to Pray • Wed
“There is no name yet for this kind of music,” writes Los Angeles Times music critic Mark Swed about the American composer David Lang, but audiences around the globe are hearing more and more of his work: in performances by such organizations as the Santa Fe Opera, the New York Philharmonic, the San Francisco Symphony, and The Cleveland Orchestra; at Tanglewood, the BBC Proms, The Munich Biennale, the Settembre Musica Festival, and the Sydney 2000 Olympic Arts Festival; in the choreography of Twyla Tharp, La La La Human Steps, The Nederlands Dans Theater and the Royal Ballet; and at Lincoln Center, the South Bank Centre, Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, the Barbican Centre, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Recent projects include The Little Match Girl Passion, commissioned by Carnegie Hall for Paul Hillier’s vocal ensemble Theater of Voices and for which Lang was awarded the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in Music; Writing On Water for the London Sinfonietta, with visuals by English film-maker Peter Greenaway; The Difficulty of Crossing a Field, a fully staged opera for the Kronos Quartet; Loud Love Songs, a concerto for the percussionist Evelyn Glennie, and the oratorio Shelter, with co-composers Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe, at the Next Wave Festival of the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
In addition to the Pulitzer, Lang’s numerous honors and awards include the Rome Prize, the BMW Music-Theater Prize, 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. Lang is co-founder and co-artistic director of New York’s legendary music festival, Bang on a Can. His work is recorded on the Sony Classical, Teldec, BMG, Point, Chandos, Argo/Decca, Caprice, CRI and Cantaloupe labels.
David Lang interviewed by Andrew Russo
Russo: This record seems to represent several different strains from your body of work. I’d like to ask you one question about each work on this record.
First, lets talk about Pierced. What is the purpose of your instrumentation in this piece—setting a trio consisting of one stringed instrument, one percussion instrument and one ‘strung percussion’ instrument against a body of strings?
Lang: Although I am a classical musician and my music comes out of the classical tradition, one of the things I like about this disc is that all the pieces try to take classical music someplace it doesn’t usually go. The concerto Pierced is a good example. It isn’t phrased the way a traditional concerto is, with an argument between the heroic solo and the questioning orchestra. It is really presented as two separate worlds that coexist. Neither world, the soloists’ or the orchestra’s, really ever takes notice of the other, but their simultaneity colors the way one hears the role of each. The opening jazz-like virtuoso unison of the soloists (marked ‘Zappa-like phrasing’) has nothing to do with the ominous strings beneath it but the two together make a stranger kind of whole.
Russo: Please describe the motivation, which led you to arrange Lou Reed’s Heroin for cello and voice?
Lang: Heroin was commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival in 2002. At the time, I was trying to think of moments in my life when I learned a lesson that turned out later to be important to me. I remembered that I had been a very nerdy classical music person who in high school got very interested in rock and roll. I thought I knew the kind of emotional narrative of each world—classical music was for big noble thoughts and ideas, rock and roll was for dancing and girls. Then I heard the Velvet Underground. Actually, the first Velvet Underground song I heard was the dark and very disturbing Venus in Furs, with its droning viola and sadomasochist lyrics. I remember thinking this music was dangerous, and I had never thought of any other music in that way before. This association of music and danger is something I have tried to capture many times in the years since. For this song I wanted to see if I could recall that feeling of danger by setting Lou Reed’s lyrics with my new music. Heroin was the first song off that record that I transformed this way.
Russo: Cheating, Lying, Stealing was an early calling card for the Bang On A Can All-Stars. What is the meaning of this title, and what about this work makes it quintessential Lang?
Lang: Cheating, Lying, Stealing was commissioned by a consortium of three new music groups—Present Music, the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, and Collage—with help from Meet The Composer. I got these commissions and it seemed that each of these groups had a slightly different instrumentation, so I got the idea to ask if there could be a core group—cello, bass clarinet, piano and percussion—and two other parts for non-percussionists to play antiphonal junk metals. I thought that this would equal out the ensembles, and, coincidentally, would also make it a good instrumentation for the Bang On A Can All-Stars, who championed it and recorded it and toured it all around the world. What I wanted to do in it musically was to try to subvert somehow the notion that composers are superior beings, and that we listen to the works of the great masters for hints of their nobility and greatness. What would happen if I tried to make a music that didn’t showcase how great I am, but how undependable I am, what a cheater I am, what a liar. So I set out to make a piece that would be based entirely on repeats that were themselves unreliable, with patterns that lead no place and tunes taken and twisted from other sources.
Russo: How To Pray inspired a visual response from the video artist Bill Morrison. Please take us briefly through the evolution of this collaboration.
Lang: How To Pray came to Bill Morrison long after its première. It was originally commissioned by the English cellist Audrey Riley, as a kind of spin-off from the British post-minimal band Icebreaker. Audrey had this idea to put a little band together that would be at home somewhere between contemporary music and pop. Her band included some people who were intense new music players and some rockers who were from a world in which feeling music was more useful than reading music. I tried to make a piece that took advantage of both of these musical strategies. Much later, I did a project at the Next Wave Festival along with my friends Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe, called The New Yorkers, in which we all gave music we had written to visual artists for their artistic responses. We had collaborations with Doug Aitken, William Wegman, Ben Katchor, Laurie Olinder. For this show, I gave a copy of How To Pray to Bill Morrison and he made a beautiful and very moody film in response.
Russo: Wed comes from your cycle of Memory Pieces, and is one of your most trance-inducing piano works. Who is this piece written in memory of, and how is that reflected in the music?
Lang: Wed is from a series called Memory Pieces—these are pieces written in memory of friends who have died, not as heavy memorials or deep testimonials but as an attempt to freeze some moment in my memory of my relationship with each of them. Wed is written in memory of my friend, the conceptual artist Kate Ericson. Kate was a great artist who made most of her work in collaboration with her boyfriend Mel Ziegler. As she was dying of brain cancer, she and Mel were married in her hospital room. I tried to make a piece to make sense of that, so I designed a piece in which little changes in accidentals keep the music oscillating between major and minor, between restfulness and sudden dissonance. In this way I wanted to make something in which hope and despair were in some strange equilibrium with each other.