Making Music: David Lang

David Lang at Carnegie Hall

2012 is an important year for Bang on a Can and it looks like it will be paved with a series of exciting events. It started with the release of  Big Beautiful Dark and Scary, a great double CD that was initially downloadable for free through January, in exchange of a BOAC memory. Field Recordings, a collective piece commissioned by Bang on a Can with support from the Barbican Centre, will soon receive its UK premiere in London before coming to the Lincoln center.

David Lang - Bang on a Can All-Stars: Field Recordings

A notable event in this chain of mouth watering events was the evening dedicated to David Lang’s music at Carnegie Hall (Zankel Hall) on January 27. Two large pieces were performed: the little match girl passion (2007)—the piece for which Lang was awarded his Pulitzer Price in Composition—and death speaks, a companion piece written in 2011 and that was receiving its New York premiere that night.

Jeremy Geffen and David Lang – Photo by Julien Jourdes

Both performances were prefaced by an informal conversation between Jeremy Geffen (Director of Artistic Planning) and David Lang giving an interesting insight in Lang’s creative process and his collaboration with Paul Hillier and Theatre of Voices. Much has already been said about the little match girl passion since its premiere 4+ years ago at Carnegie. Lang introduced it again with his clever wit and provided enough information to the audience to create interest (although it might not have been necessary) and anticipation. Theatre of Voices delivered a pristine performance, revealing every minute aspect of a piece that can be deceivingly simple: the percussion parts are indeed performed by the singers themselves, most of the time while they are singing. We learned that night, from Lang himself, that the rests in between movements are actually written in the score (and hence counted), and it truly reinforces the sense of inevitability of the narrative, to paraphrase his own words. I personally thought that I knew the piece well, but I was surprised again by the underlying honesty in the craft and the clear narrative arc. Hillier’s subtle conducting contributed to make this performance one of the highlights of this season.

Paul Hillier and Theatre of Voices – Photo by Julien Jourdes

Death speaks apparently emerged as an answer to the question: how to follow the little match girl passion? What happens after she dies and we’re left here? In the romantic tradition, Death is often a character and composers have let it express itself quite a lot in the repertoire. Textually, just like Lang reworked the libretto of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion for the little match girl passion, he systematically went through all of Schubert’s songs to find instances of death—somehow—speaking (literally or figuratively) to create the libretto of death speaks. Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond) sang most of the vocal lines, although she was joined by Owen Palett a couple of times. The texture was pretty consistent with chiaroscuro arpeggios on the piano and guitar, and lyrical lines on the violin; Worden also punctuated some passages with bass drum booms.

Owen Pallett and Shara Worden – Photo by Julien Jourdes

Musically and emotionally speaking, and despite some gripping moments, death speaks is not as impactful as the little match girl passion, and that is totally fine. I think that the real strength of this performance lies more in its statement about the state of classical music in 2012. By inviting cross-genre, indie superstars such as Muhly, Pallett, Worden and Dessner to perform the NY premiere at Carnegie Hall, David Lang (armed with his Pulitzer) is contributing to legitimize an entire movement of young composers and performers that simply disregard genre boundaries (the proverbial blurring). Another Pulitzer prize winner that incidentally made a similar endorsement is Steve Reich, who recently used material from two Radiohead songs for a piece of his. Now, who do you think will be next? John Adams turning Sufjan Steven’s Majesty Snowbird into a full symphony? Any suggestions?

Thomas Deneuville, the founder and editor of I Care if You Listen, is a French-born composer living in NY. Find him on Twitter: @tonalfreak