Lang finds dark side of music

David Lang
David Lang Photo by Akbar Ahmed.

In the world of music, composer and Yale School of Music professor David Lang MUS ’83 is known for a modern, minimalist style that has received acclaim even in the most tradition-steeped of circles — like the Pulitzer Prize Board, which awarded him the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 2008. This Thursday, two of Lang’s pieces will be featured at the School of Music’s first New Music New Haven concert of the season. The concert series highlights the work of faculty and young composers at the School of Music. Lang said his pieces such as “Cheating, Lying, Stealing” — which will be performed on Thursday — are attempts to “look at something dark” in music.

Q What inspired you to bring out the dark underside in music? How and where did you begin?

A After years of psychoanalysis, I decided to pay attention to things I wasn’t proud of about myself, things I’d always tried to avoid, things I’d thought were dysfunctional. So, [with this work], I cheated — for example, the opening of piece [is something] I stole from a pop tune. I’m trying to figure out what the correlation is in a piece of music between examining yourself carefully and discovering things you don’t like. [For instance,] I’m very irresponsible. The idea of dependability is important in this piece.

Q How do you show this in music?

A You have to actually make something almost dependable. And, since a lot of [my] music is a cross between minimalism and rock and roll, I did that with a piece based on endless repetition. [It’s] almost exactly the same [throughout], but it changes enough that you never feel comfortable.

Q The piece involves cello, bass clarinet and piano, along with three percussionists. Is there a reason that you find this configuration of instruments particularly suited to bring out the dark side of music?

A Well, the commission was for those [instruments] plus the flute and violin. So I decided that the first part of my cheating could be asking whether the flutist and the violinist could play pieces of junk metal [instead of] instruments. Structurally, from the very beginning, there’s the idea of cheating.

Q How do you reconcile your formal, traditional training with your goal of creating a more unconvential style of music?

A I actually have no idea. Part of being a student is learning a bunch but then forgetting a lot. A lot of your training is learning how to do all sorts of stuff, so what a lot of your personal experience [ends up being about is] getting rid of the stuff you don’t need.

Q Does that minimalist idea of cutting out the unnecessary affect the way that you personally teach?

A I think every student has something he or she wants to do, that they [seem to be] pointing at. My philosophy is to bring that out. Another part of it is recognizing that we always put obstacles in our way for some psychotic reason — we build a big wall that shuts us off from getting what we want. Part of what you do as a teacher is saying to your student, “You know you built a big wall for yourself there, right?”

Q When interacting with students and your colleagues, have you seen them interested in looking at the dark side of music?

A There’s a lot of things in pop about that kind of thing — look at [rock musician] Lou Reed. Sometimes I need to go to other kinds of influences to find that [perspective]. But there is a way of looking at classical music that we don’t [generally embrace]. Today, people are confident about what they know, what works and what they’ve inherited. People are also really curious about things you’re not supposed to do, things that are forbidden.

Q What’s the dirtiest part of this look at the dirty side of music?

A I worked backwards. I wrote the rhythms for the junk metal first. That’s completely backwards from the way we’re taught, which is to make notes and then make the rhythms sound beautiful. Figuring out the percussion first and then doing the notes was a conscious choice I made, and it was very exciting.

Q Who are your influences and cultural touchstones for this kind of piece?

A Scary movies: deep, dark, miserable thoughts. But it’s very tongue-in-cheek also. It’s not like “Psycho” or something. What it really is is sort of an essay; not to make it sound dry and boring, but it’s kind of an essay.

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