Lang MUS ’83 GRD ’89 wins composing award

The work of David Lang MUS ’83 GRD ’89 has been described as post-minimalist.
The work of David Lang MUS ’83 GRD ’89 has been described as post-minimalist. Photo by Peter Serling .

On Nov. 6, School of Music professor David Lang MUS ’83 GRD ’89 received the title of “Composer of the Year” from the highly respected classical music publication Musical America.

The award is a testament to the breadth and depth of Lang’s work and his leadership in the classical music world, School of Music Dean Robert Blocker said. In past years, Musical America has awarded the title to composers like Elliott Carter, John Adams and Stephen Sondheim, and recipients of the publication’s other awards this year include Gustavo Dudamel, the superstar Venezuelan music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

“We’re known for selecting the artists with strong musical standards as opposed to who happens to be the most popular of the year,” said Sedgwick Clark, the editor at Musical America who selected Lang for the title.

Lang’s achievements in the classical music world have been recognized before, Clark said. In 2008, Lang won the Pulitzer Prize for a chamber piece titled “the little match girl passion.” Blocker said Lang will soon be the composer-in-residence at Carnegie Hall and, as Clark explained, will then be responsible for soliciting commissioned pieces from other composers.

Receiving the Musical America award is a “tremendous vote of confidence,” Lang said, explaining that the prize establishes that he has been more widely recognized as a composer.

“I feel like I’ve spent my whole life writing weird music, and this means I’m getting established enough so that normal people can listen to me,” Lang said.

Clark said he heard a live performance of “the little match girl passion” earlier this year and was “bowled over.”

“The expressivity and emotion of the piece captivated me, and it was more heartfelt than anything I’d heard from him before,” he said.

Lang’s style has been described as “post-minimalist,” a style that blends the minimalist tropes of repetition and iterations of sparse patterns with composers’ personal influences, which have included styles ranging from rock to folk to Renaissance music. But Lang did not identify with a strict label. As a young composer, Lang said he felt he needed to “find one way of making music that I would claim as my own and never change,” or “to commoditize [himself].” Instead, his body of work has included anything from “quiet, meditative, simple pieces” and “complex, aggressive, obnoxious pieces.”

His impulse to resist categorization is reflected in his decision to help found a community organization in New York City for innovative music called Bang on a Can in 1987 with composers Michael Gordon MUS ’82 and Julia Wolfe MUS ’86. At the time, Lang said many young composers did not fit cleanly into specific genres of music and instead experimented with all types of musical styles.

“We wanted to make a home for these kinds of music that were homeless,” Lang said.

From sponsoring an annual 12-hour free marathon concert in New York City to helping young musicians find resources and opportunities, Bang on a Can attempted to build a community for such artists. In addition to developing his own music, Lang said he wanted to “build the world [he] wanted to live in,” in which composers cooperate and support each other rather than compete. To create this world, Bang on a Can supports not only innovative music but also the conditions required for its performance, which may differ from the grand concert halls associated with classical music.

“Every piece of music needs its own environment and has a right way to play it — a right audience to play for and the right musicians to play for it,” Lang said.

Lang added that he thinks the organization has helped change the way young musicians treat each other as evidenced by New York music scene’s becoming more supportive than when Lang began his composing career in the 1980s. Young musicians have also started to perform in clubs and bars to expand the range of performance spaces considered suitable for classical music.

Students and colleagues said Lang is a passionate teacher in addition to a talented composer. Lang has taught composition at Yale both part-time and full-time for at least 10 years. Composition professor Martin Bresnick said the Musical America award will spread Yale’s reputation for hosting a strong composition program to a “wider community than is normally able to see us,” and that Lang’s “unusually large and intelligent personality” has contributed to the school’s well-rounded composition faculty.

Two of Lang’s students praised him as a great teacher, explaining that private lessons are primarily philosophical conversations about the ideas driving the student’s work.

This ideas-based approach reflects Lang’s own compositional thought process. Lang described his music as an “intellectual response to some kind of problem.”

“The point [of composing] is to build a conversation between me and everyone else,” Lang said. “It’s an emotional bridge between people. That’s a mission to me — how to make sure music retains and explores its emotional and communicative core.”

Lang said that in composing “the little match girl passion,” he interspersed the language of the dying girl in Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Match Girl” story with text from the tales of people responding to Jesus’ suffering in the gospels of St. Matthew Passion. He explained that he hoped to answer questions of how listeners would react to suffering in religious and non-religious contexts.

Recently, Lang said he has grappled with the role of live performance in the digital world. He offers one answer in his ongoing work on “whisper opera” — a vocal piece so quiet that only 10 people can listen to a live performance at one time. The audience must sit right next to the singers, and the performance cannot be recorded and amplified without destroying the nature of the work itself, he said.

“It’s reclaiming from the recording world the power of the experience of performance,” Lang said.

And he said he is aware of how ridiculous his idea may sound.

“[Lang] likes to be preposterous to make a point — he pushes things to the edge to stand out,” Bresnick said. “He’s very witty in a dry, humorous way.”

To Lang, music is completely unaffected by the intelligence of a listener. He explained that music in an emotional movie scene elicits tears from audience members regardless of their individual intelligences. Instead, music is “primal and elemental” and provokes an emotional response beyond human control.

“That’s what makes it incredibly mystical and powerful, with a long connection to religion, spirituality,” Lang said. “It’s this fundamental thing that moves between people, but you can’t exactly put your finger on what it is and what it does.”

Lang began composing at the age of nine.

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