David Lang: The Los Angeles Native Creates Music of Pristine Beauty through the Pared-Down Purity of His Scores

By Molleson, Kate | Gramophone, September 15, 2016 | Go to article overview

David Lang: The Los Angeles Native Creates Music of Pristine Beauty through the Pared-Down Purity of His Scores


Molleson, Kate, Gramophone


There's no mistaking a David Lang score. At 59 he has achieved what few composers do in their lifetime, or ever: a definitive sound that is popular, versatile, simple and instandy recognisable. He has written opera, dance, orchestral, chamber, solo, electronic, film and vocal works, been awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the Rome Prize, and been nominated for Academy and Golden Globe Awards. He teaches at Yale and co-founded one of the world's most commercially successful contemporary music outfits with its own festival and record label attached. In terms of his profile and reach within contemporary American music, in terms of classical/pop-culture crossover, Lang is surely next in line only to Philip Glass.

In the 1980s he helped to set up Bang on a Can, a collective that changed the way generations of New York composers have worked together ever since. He--they--were innovators, shaker-uppers, kick-starters of a musical Zeitgeist. If aspects of the classic Bang on a Can house style now feel dated, that doesn't undermine the boldness of the original project or the impact of its legacy.

In recent years Lang has been steadily honing his own music into increasingly fine-sculpted meditation pieces. He's the stylistic heir to Glass, Reich, Part and Andriessen, but also to Perotin and Hildegard: the term 'neo-plainchant' might be the closest description of his hyper-pure vocal writing. He enjoys a paradox, he told me: he's a Jew who makes religious music for Christian stories; a West Coaster whose music epitomises a certain New York sound; an aesthete who writes for Hollywood. 'Religion uses paradoxes all the time,' he pointed out. 'Think of "eternal flame" or "world to come". You can use words to propose paradoxes then project depth into the senselessness. That's what I try to do in my vocal music. I take a word that has no emotional content--a word that has a pre-agreed rational meaning--and deploy that word as the doorway to a powerful experience.'

Lang grew up in Los Angeles, the son of a Lithuanian doctor and a German librarian. 'I'm terrified of actors,' he joked, even though he's approaching a Hollywood A-list himself since writing music for Requiem for a Dream and more recently for Paolo Sorrentino films. Lang's film music is uncompromisingly not a backdrop--even though the sound tends to be stripped back and pristine, it usually serves as the emotional wrench of any scene. This year he was nominated for a Golden Globe for simple song #3, the fulcrum of Sorrentino's Youth, starring Michael Caine. He was beaten on the night by Sam Smith's theme tune for the latest Bond film. 'I come from LA,' he shrugged, 'so I have a love-hate relationship with that whole world.'

It wasn't movie music but a Shostakovich symphony that caught Lang's ear aged nine and inspired him to start composing. By 13 he was taking intensive lessons with composition teachers at the University of California. To humour his parents he enrolled to study chemistry at Stanford but soon switched to music: 'The chemistry classes were at 8am to weed out people like me,' he later explained. 'Music was at 1pm--so it was no contest.'

In person Lang is droll, softly spoken and inquisitive, a compact man with thick-rimmed round glasses and intense blue eyes. He lives with his wife, the artist Suzanne Bocanegra, on the top floor of a Greenwich Village apartment block with a brightly graffitied street door and no light on the way up several flights of creaky wooden stairs. 'An old-fashioned Soho artist's loft,' he calls it. 'We feel like we are historic re-enactors!'

In the mid-1980s, then a student at Yale, Lang met fellow composers Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon and sensed a common leaning towards pop-infused, sunny-harmonied, propulsively clangy post-minimalism. After graduating, Wolfe and Gordon got married and all three moved to New York. There, they encountered something of a cultural stand-off: stuffy uptown places like Lincoln Center versus dirty avant-garde jazz bars of the West Village. …

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