Composer David Lang, artist-in-residence at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), shuns labels. He has no use for a battery of musical categories. Lang recognizes no musical boundaries. He prefers exploring and experimenting. “Composers should feel free to do what appeals to them,” he says. “They should begin every project by thinking, ‘Today, I can do anything I want to do.’” His compositions have ranged from solo pieces for a single professional musician to a piece where 1,000 singers, including amateurs, mingled with an audience of 2,000 in New York’s Lincoln Center plaza. Lang’s poignant 2007 composition “the little match girl passion” won a Pulitzer Prize.
Lang uses lower case titles for his compositions—“the little match girl passion” or “anatomy theater” or “string of pearls.” He says, “When I was young, I studied the music of the masters, and felt that I was expected to write masterpieces. When I switched to lower case, the pieces seemed humbler, and it took the pressure off.”
Lang has curated four performances for the Institute’s 2016-’17 Edward T. Cone Concert Series. The third event of the season is the Boston-based Gamelan Galak Tika ensemble, Friday and Saturday, February 10 and 11, at 8 p.m., in IAS’s Wolfensohn Auditorium. Admission is free, but tickets are required. The final program in the series is on March 3 and 4 and features So Percussion, Princeton’s ensemble-in-residence. The ensemble performed Lang’s “so called laws of nature” in Princeton in September.
Gamelan Galak Tika, a predominantly percussion ensemble with about 30 members, devotes itself to commissioning and performing new works by Balinese and American composers. Based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and founded and directed by MIT professor and clarinetist Evan Ziporyn, the group plays on three different sets of instruments, ranging from the traditional to the electronic. The term “gamelan” means to hammer. “Galak Tika” means “intense togetherness.” The ensemble learns music aurally without depending on notation. The scales it uses are only roughly approximated in western music.
Lang stresses the difference between Balinese gamelan music and Western music. “In the west we write down things on paper, and performers read what is written. Balinese Gamelan music is just as intricate as Western music, but it is not written down,” he says. “It’s completely composed and the music is very complicated. A Balinese gamelan master teaches players by rote, showing them how to build on tiny patterns. Even though a gamelan concert is based on patterns, each gamelan concert is different.”
The theme for Lang’s 2016-’17 concerts is “The Pattern Makers.” Each concert focuses on pieces where pattern making drives the creation of large musical forms. “What links them all together is that they each begin with a small thought that is repeated, ordered, arranged, and transformed, eventually growing to fill a whole life,” he says. The first program, featuring the Choir of Trinity Wall Street, braided together two pieces of religious choral music written before 1500 by Guillaume de Machaut and Guillaume Dufay, and tucked in Lang’s own composition based on the Book of Genesis. The second program featured pianist David Jalbert in Johann Sebastian Bach’s systematically organized “Goldberg Variations.”
Lang contrasts Bach’s patternmaking and gamelan patternmaking. Bach based his musical patternmaking on his belief that the world has an order that proves the existence of God, Lang says. In their structure, the compositions tend to reflect the logic of God’s universe.
Gamelan music, to the contrary, does not involve a worldview, Lang says. “In gamelan music the master invents patterns and teaches performers their individual roles. The only way performers can learn the piece is by rehearsing together. Gamelan music is infinitely rehearsed. Composition and rehearsal are linked in a way in which they are not linked in Western music. Every player has a job. Everyone’s job fits into the job of others. There is a functioning community.”
For the Gamelan performance, Lang has programmed none of his own music. “I’m trying to keep out of it,” he says. “In the concerts I want to expose the Institute to new music. It’s exciting that people come back repeatedly. I feel that I’m having a long conversation with a large community.”
Lang relishes his IAS appointment. “I enjoy meeting everybody,” he says, “going to lunches, teas, dinners at homes, talking to people. I like learning how music is important to their worlds. Music is something that all the different IAS components share.”
“One of the reasons I want to keep my music limited is because I want to concentrate on a larger issue. I want to focus on the way musical thinking works and compare it with the way thinking proceeds in astrophysics, mathematics, and art history.”
“I enjoy sitting in my apartment at the Institute and thinking about what goes on here. It will make me a better composer. I’m having fun.”
Despite the joy he finds at the IAS, the chaos of the present world intrudes on Lang. “I’m constantly figuring out what to do about today’s chaotic times,” he says. “For our immediate need, art is not strong enough. People have to participate as citizens. Everyone should do whatever they think will contribute to building a better world in this environment and in all environments. These are times when a proper response to injustice is to do something about injustice, not to write a piece about how bad injustice is.”
When he considers the state of the world, Lang says, “I’m a citizen. That is my label; I’m not a musician; I’m a citizen.”
However, as a composer, he rejects the tag. “I hate labels,” he says. “I’m a musician, a composer. I write what I’m interested in. I like the idea of not telling people what to expect in advance. If people know what they’re going to get in advance, how can I surprise them?”
“I started writing music when I was nine,” Lang says. He has played all the brass instruments. “I had friends who played instruments. In high school we would curate concerts and perform. I thought it was part of my job to help build an audience for the kind of music that I love.”
Born in Los Angeles in 1957 to a doctor father and a librarian mother, Lang says that his family was not musical. “There were no musicians in my family and almost no classical music records.” He earned an undergraduate degree at Stanford University in 1978 after tasting a variety of academic disciplines. “I started as a pre-med chemistry major, switched to music my junior year, and graduated with a minor in medieval studies,” he says.
Captivated by the approach of composer Martin Jenni, who taught at Stanford for one semester, Lang spent two years with him at the University of Iowa. “He knew a lot of stuff that I’d never heard of before,” Lang says.
After a brief stint in arts management in Boston, he began work on a doctorate at Yale, receiving the degree in 1989 when he was 32. Since 2008 he has been a member of Yale’s composition faculty.
In 1987 Lang founded Bang on a Can with Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon; the ensemble aims at “making music new.”
Lang is married to innovative artist Suzanne Bocanegra. She has designed costumes for her husband’s music. Lang has written music for her shows. The couple collaborated on “darker,” a performance for string orchestra with a light show.
Lang and Bocanegra, parents of two boys and one girl ranging in age from 18 to 22, live in Manhattan. The children, Lang says, are “not musical, but very artistic.”
A prolific composer, Lang has his compositions performed frequently. In 2016 roughly 55 different Lang compositions appeared in concerts worldwide. On average the number of Lang pieces performed throughout the world reached almost three a week. About 100 pieces were programmed in the United States and Canada. More than 50 were programmed abroad and were heard in 21 different countries ranging from Malaysia and Australia to Norway and Russia. The Netherlands, with 12 performances, was the leading country outside North America. The number of “little match girl passion” performances throughout the globe reached into the 20s.
Newness, freshness, and innovation are Lang’s primary guidelines as a composer. He turns aside from music where the goals are — his adjectives — “static, conservative, and unchanging.” “All innovation shares a questioning of what was inherited from the past,” he says. “Music does not get its freshness from rules. Rules are irrelevant. The result is what matters.”
Yet there is also a place for the classics in Lang’s musical horizons. “Beethoven can be played so that it sounds new, fresh, and innovative,” he says. “It’s not the music’s fault if it doesn’t sound new, fresh, and innovative.”
Gamelan Galak Tika, Edward T. Cone Concert Series, Wolfensohn Hall, Institute for Advanced Study. Friday and Saturday, February 10 and 11, 8 p.m. Free. Reservations required at www.ias.edu/air.