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David Lang: from iconoclast to eminence

By Brett Campbell
July 25, 2017
Featured, Music

When David Lang was a Stanford University undergraduate, he once staged a famous avant garde work by American composer Lamont Young that required the performer to “feed” the onstage piano with a bale of hay. The result: Lang was formally banned from performing onstage at Stanford’s Dinkelspiel Auditorium again.

That experience typified Lang’s college years, and, in a way, his career. Now 60, the New York based composer has spent a lifetime challenging the rules and institutions of contemporary classical music, finding success on his own terms. A member of the faculty at both Yale University and Oberlin College, Lang reached the pinnacle of establishment cred when he received the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in music for his vocal quartet composition Little Match Girl Passion, which has been performed in Portland in the last two  years by Portland State University Chamber Choir and The Ensemble in its choral and original versions, respectively. One of America’s most performed and prolific composers, he’s also collected an Oscar, Musical America’s Composer of the Year award, Rome Prize, and other major grants, fellowships and honors.

Composer David Lang. Photo: Peter Serling.

Since its founding in 1987, Lang’s one-time insurgent organization, Bang on a Can, has grown from an annual music festival for non-establishment composers to a permanent and valuable institution of American music. His music is regularly performed at festivals and in concerts, dance performances, even films (YouthThe Woodmans). World renowned Eugene flutist Molly Barth this year recorded a new album of Lang’s music.

This Thursday and Friday, Chamber Music Northwest performs two concerts featuring three Lang compositions, followed by his appearance in a panel discussion Friday afternoon. And opening July 28 for four performances, Portland Opera stages two Lang creations: his 2002 chamber opera The Difficulty of Crossing a Field and an original operatic setting of Little Match Girl, both designed by Portland’s own theatrical visionary, Jerry Mouawad of Imago Theater. The iconoclast has prevailed.

Lang cheerfully admits that his youthful rebellious attitude contributed to the friction he experienced with the music department during his Stanford years. “I’d been writing music since I was nine years old, and I thought I knew everything,” he confesses. “I thought I should be able to do anything I wanted and shockingly discovered that I couldn’t.”

Drawn to music since a childhood encounter with one of Leonard Bernstein’s renowned TV broadcasts, Lang also preferred the music department’s afternoon class schedule to the 8 am labs required of chemistry majors. After switching his major to music, he played in the orchestra, marching band, and wind ensemble, wrote “a huge amount of music,” (including one that required the audience to pop bubble wrap) and formed a performance group dedicated to the conceptual works of New York’s famed Fluxus artists’ group, which staged “happenings” like the one that got Lang banned from Dinkelspiel Auditorium.

“I got interested in everything that was alternative,” Lang recalls. “So when I was at Stanford, I looked at my rebellion from the music department as being a sign that I should throw myself in with everything that was rebellious. If it was somehow alternative to anything to what I was supposed to know, then I was interested in it.”

In Portland Opera’s production of Lang’s “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field,” opening Friday: Ernest C. Jackson Jr., Laila Murphy, Martin Bakari, Lisa Williamson, Nicole Mitchell, Damien Geter. Photo: Cory Weaver

Lang’s sense of artistic adventure formed during his first year at Stanford when he studied with the celebrated Portland-born maverick composer Lou Harrison, who was teaching composition as a visiting professor that year. “He was connected with this glorious tradition of American experimental music,” Lang explains, “and he inspired me to realize that being a composer allowed you the opportunity to think about everything in the world.”

Harrison also provided a role model that Lang has continued to emulate. “He changed my idea of how a grown up composer was supposed to live. To that point I had imagined that a composer should be dark and moody and troubled and introspective. He thought a composer should live a good life. And he did.” In 2013, Lang composed a work featuring the junkyard percussion Harrison and John Cage pioneered in 1930s San Francisco.

After obtaining his master’s degree at Iowa, Lang commenced doctoral studies in 1980 at Yale, where his mentor, composer Jacob Druckman, taught him a valuable lesson after seeing Lang behaving in a “snotty” way during an audition.

“I don’t want to talk about music,” Druckman said in their first meeting. “I want to tell you what an asshole you are.”

Lang learned from Druckman that, however aggressive his current sounds might be, music was a social business and that if he wanted others to play his music, he needed to behave in a more community-minded way.

Today, when Lang works with musicians and students (as he did at Portland state in 2010 and this summer), he’s affable, frequently joking (often at his own expense) while gently encouraging them to reach higher. And he collaborates with other artists (including theater works, dance scores, several film scores) as often as possible.

“Composition is the opportunity to have conversations with people I admire in other fields,” he says. “The fun part of being a composer is that it’s a pathway to experiences I wouldn’t have otherwise.”

Those lessons in collaboration paid off when Lang moved to New York City in the early 1980s. He and fellow composers Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe often lamented the marginalization of composers in contemporary culture. Dissatisfied with conservative orchestral and academic institutions, and drawing on DIY predecessors like Harrison and his partner John Cage in the 1930s San Francisco, Steve Reich and Philip Glass (who eschewed the academy in favor of their own performing ensembles in 1960s New York), they created a festival that would perform the music of composers they admired, often in alternative venues such as art galleries.

Eugene flutist Molly Barth performed Lang’s “Thorn,” which she recorded this year and is also on the program this week at Chamber Music Northwest, at a Third Angle concert in 2011.

That first Bang on a Can festival, held in a New York art gallery, has since evolved into one of the most important creative communities in American music, providing a performing and later recording outlet for not only the founders’ music but also that of other young American composers. BOAC “helped create this amazing hybrid chamber-rock scene that is currently making the new music scene so important,” says John Schaefer, who hosts WNYC’s New Sounds radio show. “Young musicians in both the classical and indie rock worlds have grown up in a post-BOAC world where working together isn’t considered weird or artsy — it’s just a natural way to reach out to a wider group of listeners.”

Over that same quarter century, Lang composed a vast number of works for chamber ensembles, voices, orchestra, theater works, and more.  Often drawing on the mesmerizing, repetitive structures of early minimalism that first enthralled him as a teenager, he’s also renowned for incorporating more dissonant sounds and influences from rock and other pop music.

But for Lang, his music’s sound is secondary to the conceptual goals that inspired it, like a “whisper opera,” and a single piece that consists of a single falling chord for 40 minutes. His resolute refusal to be pinned down to a single style makes his catalog one of the most diverse in modern music. In his major 2001 work Child, which Third Angle New Music performed in 2010 in Portland, for example, lyrical string melodies and susurrations created by performers swirling metal rods inside tuned brake drums are periodically punctuated — WHAM! — by mallets slammed into drums at full force.

Though recognizably minimalist at its source, the hushed, gentle Medieval choral harmonies Lang’s Pulitzer winning Match Girl seem worlds away from his brash earlier works, yet modernist disquiet lurks beneath its spare surface simplicity, and plenty of iconoclasm snarls through other recent efforts.

“His music offers a way in for listeners who might be interested in classical music, whatever that means these days, but don’t know where to start,” Schaefer says. “If you’re a rock fan, whether you’re into Jimi Hendrix or Brian Eno, Lang’s music has something you can hang on to. He can [also] write subtle, quietly emotional scores whose power creeps up on you. He writes a lot of earthy, fun, witty music, and he’s not afraid to let you know right off the bat, even from reading the title, that this is not your parents’ classical music.”

Although he once claimed not to be a “visual person,” Lang, who composed a piece called Modern Painters, has also been influenced by visual artists, including his wife, Suzanne Bocanegra. (They have three children.) “The visual artists I hang out with have a very good grasp of making experiences which are one whole thing, where art is a byproduct of external thought. That idea has had a big effect on me — that music is a byproduct of a bunch of powerful thinking, not just a bunch of notes that sound really cool. The more time I spend with people in the art world, the more that idea gets solidified.”

Ethan Sperry conducted the PSU Chamber Choir in Lang’s ‘Match Girl’ at Portland’s Waterfront Park.

What’s important to Lang is not what pieces sound like but how they’re made — their architecture, the way they unfold over time. Yet he has a gift for lyricism that he often consciously punctures with dissonant or otherwise startling sounds, much as he’s often responded to widely appealing career successes (including an early breakthrough piece, Illumination Rounds, performed at Carnegie Hall) with thornier, more experimental sounds that confound listener expectations and potential commissioners’ desires. It’s cost him lucrative gigs but “my job is to give people something that they don’t know they want,” he told students at a Portland State University talk. “My only responsibility is to find the path that makes sense for me. Composing is knowing yourself.”

Lang conveys that attitude to students at workshops, his college classes, and at BOAC’s summer institute, which has produced some of today’s most exciting young composers, like Judd Greenstein (who subsequently founded the ambitious New Amsterdam record label) and David Longstreth of Dirty Projectors. Students apply the lessons taught there — how to write grant proposals, set up a record label, produce a concert, start a nonprofit organization, write a contract — to learn how to thrive “as a composer in the world.”

The Ensemble performed Lang’s ‘Match Girl’ in Eugene, Portland, and Vancouver WA last year.

“Bang on Can was hugely influential to my generation of composers,” remembers acclaimed young American composer Missy Mazzolli, who studied with Lang at both the summer institute and at Yale and used what she learned there to produce concerts and produce her band’s first record. “David was the first comp teacher to talk to me about what the audience is experiencing.” He also challenged her to stick with promising ideas (most young composers are afraid to linger too long), and sometimes to try doing the opposite of her natural or traditional inclinations. She’s now one of America’s most promising young composers.

Working with students brings Lang his greatest joy. During his Portland visit, he’s also working with teenagers in FearNoMusic’s Young Composers Project. When he teaches, he avoids the previous generation’s restrictive philosophy that once got him banned from his own undergraduate concert hall. “I want to introduce them to the joys and wonders of being open,” he says. “I feel like I’m building the world I want to live in, and young composers and musicians are a big part of that.”

Lang uses the Yiddish word “kvell” to describe the satisfaction he derives from mentoring students. “It’s a deep sense of pride that something happened in the world that wouldn’t have happened without you,” he explains. “You can’t kvell over anything you do yourself. When I hear about Judd and Missy and any of those people I’ve touched who go on to do something, I kvell. That’s why being a teacher really hit a nerve with me.”

Recently, a young composer at one of his workshops introduced himself as one of Missy Mazzolli’s students. “That filled me with so much joy,” he says. “She was Missy’s student and Missy was my student and I was [composer Hans Werner] Henze’s student and Stravinsky was his teacher, and Rimsky-Korsakov was Stravinsky’s teacher and on down the line. Now Missy’s passing that on. And I thought, ‘Maybe this is all gonna work out.’”

Portland Opera performs David Lang’s The Difficulty of Crossing a Field and The Little Match Girl Passion July 28 and 30 and August 3 and 5 at Portland5’s Newmark Theatre Tickets onlineChamber Music Northwest musicians perform Lang’s music Thursday night at Reed College and Friday afternoon at Portland State University. A version of this story originally appeared in Stanford magazine.

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