Composer David Lang, in his second year of a three-year term as artist-in-residence at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, says his series of public concerts is based on an idea that intrigues him: small-scale patterns forming the basis for large-scale musical works.
“Last season we explored different aspects of patterns in a variety of musical genres,” he says. “This year we dive deeper into the world of patterns with examples from revolutionary songs, national anthems, low fi electronics, and traditional folk tunes.”
The first event in this season’s Edward T. Cone Concert Series takes place on Friday and Saturday, October 20 and 21, at 8 p.m. in the Institute’s Wolfensohn Hall. Pianist Stephen Drury performs Frederic Rzewski’s “The People United Will Never Be Defeated.” The piece consists of 36 variations on a Chilean revolutionary song; they incorporate every keyboard style from Bach-style counterpoint to minimalism, stopping by, en route, at jazz piano. Many observers consider the virtuosic piece one of the greatest piano works of the last 50 years.
Composer Rzewski (pronounced ‘Zhefskee’) received a master’s in music from Princeton in 1960. He teaches for short periods at institutions in the United States and Europe. Pianist Ursula Oppens commissioned the piece, played its world premiere in 1976, and recorded it in 1979. Drury made a highly praised recording of “The People United…” in the 1990s.
Other concerts in the series take place in November, January, and March. The Crossing Choir presents a politically thoughtful program for choir and instruments on November 10 and 11. Pianist Vicky Chow is surrounded by 40 tiny electronic speakers on January 12 and 13. On March 9 and 10 Ensemble Signal presents a string orchestra program drawing heavily from Bang on a Can personnel. Lang is a co-founder of Bang on a Can.
Although Lang omitted his pieces from his first season of concerts in 2016-’17, he has included his own “national anthems” in the second concert of the current season. Lang uses lower case titles for his compositions, saying, “When I switched to lower case the pieces seemed humbler, and it took the pressure off.”
“The idea behind ‘national anthems’ was that I wanted to imagine something that everyone in the world can agree on,” he said “something that everyone considers worth doing and sharing. A shared anthem that everyone could agree on seemed like the solution. I wondered what would happen if went to every country’s text and chose the most poetic or colorful image from each anthem, and I went down the United Nations list from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.”
Lang was expecting to unearth a common uplifting image in the national anthems of the world. “It was strange,” he says. “I was thinking of finding the most hopeful shared image, and that we would all agree with each other. But the most visual, powerful, visceral images were all bloody, belligerent, and scary. Putting texts together meant piling up a lot of bloody images.”
“Freedom in every country seemed to be precious and fragile. There was a common fear of having it taken away. That’s why there was anger and hostility. The texts covered up fears of neighbors, fears of slavery, and fear of being subdued. I finally ended up with the phrase ‘fear, blood, and hope.’ It’s a dramatic phrase that puts in the simplest terms the end points, the spectrum that people share and suffer from. That was the unity in the texts.”
“The music is all mine,” Lang says about the piano composition that emerged. “It begins in unison, the way a national anthem would begin, and people sing together. It starts simple and with no harmony. Then it gets more complicated.” The piece opens with a cheerful, upbeat tune.
Lang willingly talks about how he composes. “As you can tell from ‘national anthems,’” he says, “I do a lot of thinking beforehand. I drink a lot of coffee, and consider how an idea might change across time, and how performers might make it possible for that idea to come alive with rhythm and harmony. I start out just thinking about structure, about something exciting that might go from start to finish. I don’t pay much attention to rhythm and harmony until the very end. Some pieces need rhythmic changes, others don’t. It depends on the material I’m working with.”
Thinking is Lang’s primary compositional technique. He applies it to his experience with various instruments when he writes a piece. “I learned how to compose a long time ago at a desk, using pencil and paper,” Lang says. “I imagine the piece to myself, then I write it down.”
Lang avoids musical instruments when he composes. Instead he leans on ancient software and an outdated computer. “I have an old computer,” he says. “The software that I use dates from 1992. The company that made it doesn’t exist anymore. I’m not technological.”
Lang’s approach is personal and biographical, rather than electronic. He draws on his accumulated experience with musical presentation. “I know all the instruments pretty well by now. If I didn’t, I would be in trouble,” Lang says. “I’ve played all the brass instruments. I played bassoon for a year in high school and cello for a year in high school, electric guitar in a band many years, classical guitar until graduate school, percussion in my college orchestra, and sang in choirs. I’m a baritone with a range of three notes. When they need me I am there.”
“I used to think that I learned a lot from being in a marching band in high school and college,” Lang says. “There’s no point in playing quietly in a marching band. In a marching band, an instrument is either loud or it’s really not playing. As a trombone player you’re never brought in at the subtlest moment in a piece of music. As I got older, I started changing. ‘National anthems’ has a lot of quiet places.”
Now 60, Lang was born to a doctor father and a librarian mother in Los Angeles. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Stanford University after finally settling on a major. “I started as a pre-med chemistry major, switched to music my junior year, and graduated with a minor in medieval studies,” he says. He earned a doctorate from Yale in 1989, when he was 32, and has been a member of Yale’s composition faculty since 2008.
In 1987 Lang founded Bang on a Can with Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon. The ensemble aims at “making music new” and stars in the final IAS program this season. On Friday and Saturday, October 27 and 28, it presents a world premiere of “Road Trip,” a multimedia presentation with music and visuals devised by Gordon, Lang, and Wolfe. Using screens that project above the audience, the piece focuses on journeys of all sorts, including spiritual and temporal travel.
Lang’s compositions are performed frequently throughout the world. In 2016 roughly 55 different compositions of his appeared in concerts.
Lang is also an enthusiastic curator of concerts. He took particular delight at curating during 2013-’14 when he held Carnegie Hall’s Debs Composer’s Chair.
At the moment he has already engaged with his impresario role for the coming third year of his IAS appointment and has planned four events for 2018-’19. Their range is considerable. Contemporary and medieval music from Estonia, including Arvo Part, is on the list. There is music from the experimental jazz world — “polyrhythmic, intense music with beats that doesn’t sound like jazz,” he calls it. Also included are pieces for voice and piano that he labels “radical story telling in the music of Franz Schubert.”
The plan culminates with music by John Cage. “Cage is one of our great musical philosophers,” Lang says. “He pays attention to what’s under the hood and solves problems.” In addition to music, the Cage program includes a memoir spoken by an actor.
Lang is not sure what effect his IAS residency will have on him, but he is very conscious of enjoying it. “The best thing is being in the company of all these incredibly smart people,” he says. “It’s also inspirational knowing how important music is to these people. They take music seriously and think about it. I write thoughtful program notes, and people come up to me in the lunchroom and ask questions. I’m having provocative conversations. I will know the full effect later.”
The Pattern Makers: Season 2, Wolfensohn Hall, Institute for Advanced Study. David Lang lecture. Wednesday, October 11, 5:30 p.m. Free. www.ias.edu/air.
Edward T. Cone Concert Series, Wolfensohn Hall, Institute for Advanced Study. Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. Stephen Drury, October 20 and 21; The Crossing Choir, November 10 and 11; Vicky Chow, January 12 and 13; Ensemble Signal, March 9 and 10. Free. Ticket required. www.ias.edu/air.
Bang on a Can ‘Road Trip’ world premiere, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Peter Jay Sharp Building, 30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn, New York. Friday and Saturday, October 27 and 28, 7:30 p.m. $20 to $55. www.bangonacan.org.