David Lang’s this was written by hand – Meditations on Memory

On his new album from Cantaloupe Music, this was written by hand, David Lang treats the piano alternately as a eulogizer and as a medium to commune with the departed. Pianist Andrew Zolinsky’s technique is well suited to tastefully render these finely wrought improvisatory pieces, to sound out the meditative character of Lang’s postminimalism. The range of piano articulation presented here stretches from use of the instrument as pitched percussion all the way to liquid, dulcet burbles. Piano music in the contemporary classical world often embraces jazz tropes, or world music idioms, or past stylistic genres. Lang’s piano voice sometimes recalls the phase music of Reich but is for the most part quite original in its complete metrical flexibility (or complete lack of meter in some cases, it seems), and in the way it exhaustively explores all the possibilities of a spare musical form. The tracks here are all character pieces in my opinion. There are no grand statements; on the contrary, the prevailing voice is one of personal introspection, without a hint of sentimentality.

David Lang

“this was written by hand” opens with a rising white-note motif, bubbling up and echoed upon itself to create a lush texture. Simple modal recitatives sound in the piano’s upper register. Eventually a voice in the tenor range takes tentative steps toward more chromatic territory, fleshing out austere impressions of tone. The piece was the composer’s attempt to revisit the act of writing without the convenience of a computer. It certainly flaunts its agogic freedom. The succession of notes seems to fold back upon itself before having a chance to establish any kind of conventional melody, so bashful are the various voices. The overall impression is of a blinded creature, resigned to slowly feeling about in the dark to find its way. The composition, whose subject is the artistic process itself, has a cunning metatextuality in spite of its chaste tonal garb. The piano is an old soul; it predates automobiles, let alone computers. It is thus fitting that the piano should eulogize that lost time, before the banality of comfort and connectivity in the digital age.

The CD’s other eight tracks comprise memory pieces, each dedicated to a friend who has passed on. “Cage,” dedicated to the late composer, is a rolling exploration of the keyboard, in which each note is struck at least a dozen times, overlapping with other notes in the series. It is stark and primitive in aspect. A bass melody has its constituent notes displaced in various registers. The effect is one of a disjunct industrial process, and yet the regularity of the rhythm and measured pace are suitable for meditation on the series of charged intervals that are thus formed.

“spartan arcs,” in memory of Yvar Mikhashoff, is a study of downward-cascading arpeggios, relentless in their stamina. Think of the C major prelude from Book I of Bach’s WTC, turned upside down and given the energy of a roadrunner. This species of postminimalism impresses me as a practitioner of yoga; the regularity of the basic form easily induces a meditative state of mind, while the incremental changes in pitch at the outer edges of this form show us that process is happening side-by-side with stasis.

“wed” is the subject of a competition currently taking place. It’s gentle triads, untroubled by the occasional dissonance, speak of transcendence and the permanence of beauty. Once more, temporal freedom creates a contemplative, guileless expressivity. Here, Lang’s improvisational side is guided gently by a celestial calling. wed’s unpolished, hesitant musical line achieves an aching intimacy, presenting us with a subject who has blocked the tumult of the world out of her awareness, in order to focus on the essence of the eternal present.

The album’s final track “beach” has all the spare spatial dimension of a Webern piece with none of the cold abstraction. A spinning melody in the middle of the keyboard forms the nucleus of an atom around which electrons in the farthest orbits of the upper and lower registers are illuminated. Such widely separated registers deaden the harshness of dissonances, and Zolinsky’s panache for articulation is on full display. The three voices we hear are so different in time, timbre, and register, we realize they exist almost in complete isolation from one another.

Often about two-thirds of the way through a film, we see the main characters undergoing a crisis of conscience, and the cinematography is matched by music that is hyper-personal, poignant, perhaps pining for the past. David Lang’s music invites us to experience this emotional state without having to be subordinated to a visual program. You could look at the track lengths to get an idea of the scope of each piece, but it would be a pointless exercise, as Lang’s compositional style creates a present-focused time-element that can’t quite be measured in minutes and seconds. The rubato pace that pervades virtually all of these pieces is no doubt due in large part to Andrew Zolinsky’s being in this agogic “zone.” David Lang has invited us into some very personal space here, and we shouldn’t be surprised if his musical impressions find kindred memories in our own lives.

Rob Wendt is a pianist / composer / music educator living in Astoria, NY. You can follow him on twitter: @RobWendt