David Lang, Composer

On artistic solidarity and the globalization of music

Like many readers of this blog, I am on the mailing list for Bang on a Can. A recent email described an interesting piano competition hosted by composer David Lang. Pianists were invited to download a score of a new composition, ‘wed’, practice it, and post a youTube video of their performance; the winner would receive an honorarium and a chance to perform the piece at Le Poisson Rouge. When I checked out the guidelines, though, something stuck out like a sore thumb – the exclusion of residents of countries sanctioned by the US government (Cuba, Iran, etc).

David Lang explains his Piano Competition 2011

Like many artists, I not only take an interest in politics, but am vociferous in defense of my liberal views and humanistic values. I immediately posted a comment under the youTube video explaining the competition, inviting musicians of conscience to boycott the competition in solidarity with those fellow artists who suffer under a geographic accident of birth. I have always held the ideals of John Lennon close to my heart – “Imagine there’s no countries – it isn’t hard to do.” Those who buy into our political establishment’s fear-mongering campaign against countries like Iran would do well to read the Martin Luther King Jr. speech of April 4, 1967, in which he refers to the US government as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” – a description unfortunately as apt today as ever.

I was surprised to receive an email from Red Poppy Music, explaining that while I was right, their lawyers had advised them to comply with Homeland Security guidelines (I pine for the day when such Orwellian names are no longer part of our discourse). My original post was deleted because of its provocative tone (guilty as charged!) but Mike McCurdy invited me to re-post in more diplomatic fashion, which I did, pointing out that the U.S. government was hardly in a position to issue moral judgments of other countries. I added that musicians and artists have a noble tradition of bucking rules that run against the grain of our collective conscience, and that it was unfortunate that David Lang’s competition, though generous in spirit, was marred by this bureaucratic instance of cruelty.

I learned today that I wasn’t the only one to protest the David Lang competition guidelines. An Iranian musician had also contacted him to voice his disappointment. I also learned, to my amazement, that Red Poppy Music had altered the guidelines so that “If work papers, or any other entrance papers cannot be obtained by the Winner by 12PM (noon) EST April 1, 2012, Winner shall forfeit the travel component of the prize, but Winner may perform Winner’s performance of wed by a live internet stream on the day and time of the Competition Concert. If live internet streaming is not available for Winner, Winner’s original Entry video will be projected live during Competition Concert.”

We in the “West” sometimes forget how lucky we are to benefit from our own geographic accident of birth. Our rich musical heritage is now eagerly embraced by other cultures such as those in East Asia, whose conservatories now turn out astounding numbers of brilliant classical musicians. Moreover, artists in the West have, in recent decades, embraced folk music traditions from the farthest corners of the globe. This is the type of globalization that I’m interested in. I learned recently that legendary guitarist Ry Cooder was prosecuted and fined $25,000 for his invaluable work in Cuba on the Buena Vista Social Club. Imagine how much poorer we would be if Cooder had observed State Department rules. Because of his work, record retailers a decade ago began devoting entire sections of their stores to Cuban music and other types of newly-discovered world music.

I am humbled that my criticism was not only respected by David Lang and Red Poppy Music, but that it was an agent for reflection, however small, that we must, as individual artists and as a creative collective, do what we can to break down the walls erected by our insane national leaders. I encourage all of you to listen to David Lang’s ‘wed’, the poetic, contemplative tone of which encouraged this listener to think of the possibilities of a well-examined life.

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