In 1987, David Lang was a 30-year-old composer and doctoral student who, with his Yale buddies Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe, founded Bang on a Can, a scruffy organization dedicated to the proposition that all musics are created equal. These days, Lang is an eminence: Pulitzer Prize winner, member of the Yale faculty, and composer in residence at Carnegie Hall for 2013-14. Justin Davidson talked with him midway through “collected stories,” a six-concert festival he curated at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall, and days before the release of his recording love/fail.
Lang’s music is pared down, restrained, and slow moving; his life is not. His wife, the artist Suzanne Bocanegra, is using the tiny theater they have built into their fifth-floor Soho walk-up to prepare a multimedia piece; his teenage daughter arrives with friends in tow, all of them out of breath from the climb — they want to use the theater too; soon, the violinist Augustin Hadelich shows up to rehearse the next night’s concert, a world premiere of Lang’s newest work. The atmosphere is hectic and industrious.
You sure have a lot going on! As composer in residence, you had carte blanche to create a festival in Zankel Hall, and in six concerts you’ve programmed music by John Cage, Nico Muhly, Harry Partch, Franz Liszt and a lot of other composers — and exactly one piece by David Lang. Why so modest?
My music gets played in town a lot, but I’m related to a lot of other people who write music and ever since we started Bang on a Can, I’ve been trying to get people to believe that we’re all part of this big network. It would have been easy to do three concerts of my music and one piece each by three giant composers of our time who make me look like I’m important. But there are other questions I’m interested in.
What’s it like if you listen to all music the same way? How do you convince people that, once they’ve used their ears for some music someplace, they know enough to use their ears for all music anyplace? We think that what we learn about listening to classical music, say, isn’t useful for listening to pop music. We’re taught to think that rules keep those worlds apart.
And don’t they? Life in a touring hip-hop group’s pretty different from your life as a classically trained composer, isn’t it?
I’m a deep classical music nerd, and I was taught to become erudite and get deep into the music. Classical music is taught in a very scholarly way: We know the provenance of all these pieces and the august lineages of all those performers and composers. But we don’t listen to pop music that way at all. So the question for me in this festival is: can I take that immediate response I have, that excitement and energy that I get from world music or pop and apply it back to classical music?
It sounds like you really want to become a more superficial listener.
Sometimes you can be such a deep listener that you don’t enjoy music any more.
Has that happened to you?
No, but it’s happened to people around me.
So does enjoying music to its fullest mean letting go of that deep knowledge? Or is it more about finding what all these wildly different genres and traditions have in common?
Look, we’ve all specialized in these different niches, but the thing that motivates us to become musicians is pretty much the same everywhere. In the classical world, we get caught up in a conductor’s hand gestures and etiquette and coughing in concerts, all these fussy things that don’t have anything to do with the original motivation of people who created the music in the first place.
The perfectly curated context can work against the music.
Yes! When I was working on my piece Death Speaks, which is based on Schubert lieder, I was struck by the fact that in the 19th century, songs were made for an audience of 10 people in a room. Now Ian Bostridge sings them in Carnegie Hall for an audience of 3,000.
Each of the concerts in this festival seems like a multipart composition, an artwork of programming. How do you construct an evening of other people’s music? Let’s talk specifically about the one you titled “love/loss.”
Well, I have two friends, Nico Muhly and Julia Wolfe, who both wrote pieces based on the Appalachian folk song “Cruel Sister.” In their different ways, they’re both true to the story of one sister who drowns the other and the musicians who build a harp out of the dead girl’s bones. Nico cuts the song up into little bits and tells the whole thing from beginning to end. Julie writes this string piece that uses sound in a very cinematic way to tell the tale without words.
And you start with something completely different: the singer-songwriter Kimya Dawson and the rapper Aesop Rock.
I loved the songs that Kimya did in the movie Juno, and I thought they were so honest and simple and I couldn’t quite figure out what I responded to. In his review in the Times, James Oestreich wrote that the festival was “perversely lovable.” I thought that was funny, and accurate. I wanted it to look at first like the two halves don’t belong together — and then you listen to it, and you realize: “Ah.”
Earlier you referred to the motivation to write music, which some people have described to me as a kind of primal urge, a compulsion. What’s yours?
Maybe because I was originally supposed to go to medical school, I hate the notion that writing music is about sitting around and being kissed by the muse. It’s not. We composers work hard and take our jobs seriously. We’re working musicians out in the world, professionals who are supposed to accomplish something specific, even if that task is emotional or spiritual. Composers are problem solvers.
You make them sound less like artists than engineers. And yet in your festival you included Liszt’s Années de pélérinage, which is all about mystical wanderings.
Yes, but Liszt wrote that for a particular environment. He made his career as a traveling virtuoso, and that obligated him to write music that he could play and others couldn’t. His job is to do things with his hands that have never been done before. Années is a byroduct of the life he invented for himself as a traveling musician.
So you’re saying Liszt was a mystical pragmatist, who tailored his most spiritual music to his audience’s expectations? Do you do the same?
I came out of the modernist era, when people were making statements like “I write what needs to be written, not what people want to hear,” and “Music is powerless to express anything.” I don’t believe that. For me, the compositional act is not sitting in my studio thinking about being a genius; it’s about communicating something to musicians that they can communicate to audiences.
Is the process of putting together a concert of other people’s music at all similar to the process of writing a piece of your own?
It is, in a way. My pieces, like the concerts, are all very concept-driven. I’m always asking myself questions like “what would it be like if…?” They’re always about some gradual change, or a structural plan.
What was the concept behind love/fail?
The concept was that I got a job — a commission from Anonymous 4. They liked Little Match Girl Passion and so they wanted another pseudo-religious, quasi-medieval a cappella piece, just like the one I had already done. And I said, “I love all your records and I’m very flattered but that’s not what I want to do.” But I started thinking how weird it is that their lives are about music that’s hundreds of years old but at the same time they’re totally modern people. What could I do with that? At their suggestion, I looked again at the leis of Marie de France, and one of the stories was about Tristan and Isolde. There are so many different versions of that story, and I wondered what I could extract from it that would be modern. I took all the magic and the swords and dragons, and stripped it down to a love story that goes bad.
I interviewed Steve Reich recently, and he tells a similar stories about refusing commissions for projects he wasn’t interested in, and then thinking, “Wait, what if I did it this way instead?” Is that a part of the creative process, to say “No, but…?”
It’s a weird thing: Composers write on commission, and it makes you wonder if your life as a creative person should be about fulfilling other people’s demands. I have a list of things I really want to accomplish in my life, and when I get asked to write a piece, I scroll through that list in my mind and see if there’s anything on it I can adapt.
How often can you talk people into commissioning what you want to do?
Almost every time. If I’m excited about something I can generally get other people excited about it too.
What does get you excited? A sonority? A chord, a tune, an instrumentation? What comes first?
I have to have a structure. Maybe it’s because I didn’t begin by sitting at the piano at the age of two and making music magically come out, but in any case writing notes is the last thing I do. And it’s not the most interesting part. The skeleton is what makes the animal stands up. What the animal is wearing, I don’t really care.
You don’t care what your music actually sounds like?
I care about how it changes over time. People who don’t like my music say there’s not enough to listen to; those who do like it hear something evolving over a long distance. For The Passing Measures, I asked myself, “How long can I take to get from this chord to that chord?” The answer is 45 minutes. I invented a pattern so that the music stays on the same chord forever, but no two measures are the same. I spent eight months deriving the algorithm that makes it work, and in the end one note at a time changes in a crablike way and the music never goes anywhere and never repeats itself.
An algorithm? Did you plug it into a computer and have a processor spit it out?
No, I did it by hand, and it was really time consuming. You know, I once told my friend Michael Gordon that he and I make music in completely different ways. He will try out a chord at the keyboard over and over and change it a bit at a time until he gets it right, and then go on to the next one. Whereas I’ll spend all this time developing the whole structure, and fill in the chords afterwards. And he said, “No, actually we’re doing it exactly the same way: by trial and error.”
So it’s not all just diagramming. Glad to hear it. You apply your taste, your creative subjectivity, too.
Sure. There’s a certain kind of music that I really like: not ornamented, not fancy, not particularly melodic, not built on great emotional highs and lows.
That’s a lot of negatives. Would you describe your music as ascetic?
When I listen to Beethoven, the emotional trajectory is incredibly erratic. That’s not an emotional life I want. I like to remain in more or less one state. I’m also not comfortable with super-sophisticated orchestrations. I look at Ravel’s La Valse, where he says, “I need four cellos playing this passage, and here I need eight cellos.” No way in my life am I ever going to write music that’s sophisticated enough to make those distinctions. For me, there’s a flute or there’s no flute. It’s either on or it’s off. I like my music to be as humble of means as possible.
That’s interesting, because one of your former Yale students is Andrew Norman, whose music is virtually the opposite of yours: intense, fast-paced, full of razzle-dazzle orchestration. How do you narrow your focus and simplify your palette as a composer, and at the same time help student composers who are aiming for something very different?
By remembering that teaching is about them, not about me. I try to help students be honest with themselves about what they’re trying to accomplish and which decisions will make it more or less likely you’re going to get what they want. I think of it as a psychoanalytic experience. There’s no right or wrong. Well, there is, actually: some composers come to study with me because they want their music to sound like mine. That’s the one approach I think is wrong.
Most composers listen to other music selfishly: They pick out the one detail in a Schubert sonata or a Steve Reich piece that they feel they can recycle and discard everything else as irrelevant. But at the same time composers today are listening so much more widely than they used to.
Yeah, my students come to me and say, “Here’s my orchestral piece, and here’s my rock band, and here’s the hip-hop I do in my spare time.” And they’re encouraged to draw on everything in the world, and it’s all spectacular and amazing. But you also have to learn how to shut the world out. Selfish listening is a habit you have to acquire. I tell them: “Try all these things that you’re interested in, then get rid of all the stuff that’s just good and keep the one little thing that’s great — the one crumb you’re really curious about. Then go back and rewrite the music.”
Do you do a lot of rewriting yourself?
I’m a relentless tinkerer. After the first performance it’s common for me to fine tune and cut and get rid of stuff. It’s necessary: I’m making something I don’t know how to do, so I have to figure it out by making mistakes and then fixing them.
Does anybody give you advice along the way, and do you take it?
I listen to Suzanne. And I listen to what Michael [Gordon] and Julie [Wolf] have to say. When I’m writing, I hold the phone up to the speakers and play them the MIDI tracks over the phone. Composers don’t have editors, and I think we should.
I’ve often thought the same thing. Writers are constantly responding to other people’s reactions, but composers are supposed to go it alone. Or they were, anyway. When you look at your students, and other young composers, do you ever feel envious that they can get out of school and plug right into a mutual support system of the kind that you had to create from scratch when you founded Bang on a Can?
Not envious, no. I like the idea that we had to fight for it, that there were people who didn’t like us because we thought people should be nice to each other. I see young composers going to each other’s concerts and helping each other, and I love it. I think I’m part of the reason why that happened. I got a lot of strength out of the fact that it was hard, but every generation finds a new challenge and its own mission. The mission of Steve [Reich]‘s generation was to strip music down from its modernist excesses. Ours was how to bust out of the boxes we had been raised in. The challenge for this generation is that, because those stylistic boxes are gone, it’s harder to make decisions as a composer. When you can do anything, how do you define where you are in the world?