While David Lang’s MUS ’83 compositional style may be decidedly contemporary, his composing efforts have won recognition from an award steeped in tradition.
Lang was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music on Monday for his composition titled “The Little Match Girl Passion.” The piece, which was first performed at Carnegie Hall on Oct. 27, 2007, was inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale and follows the pattern of a piece by Johann Sebastian Bach. Composition professors familiar with Lang’s work praised his innovative ability to create unorthodox forms of music.
Lang is best-known for his involvement with “Bang on a Can,” a contemporary music organization committed to unconventional and innovative visual and performing art. He co-founded the group in 1987 along with Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon. Lang also arranged the Requiem for a Dream Suite from Darren Aronofsky’s 2000 film for the Kronos Quartet.
“Little Match Girl” is about a poor girl whose father beats her and who freezes to death unsuccessfully attempting to sell matches on New Year’s Eve. Lang’s opus sets Andersen’s story in the format of J.S. Bach’s “Saint Matthew Passion” and employs only four voices, along with percussion instruments played by the singers.
After being informed that he had won the Prize on Monday, Lang told National Public Radio that he appreciates receiving the award, though he will not let it go to his head.
“I’m incredibly happy that someone noticed me and thinks that I am worth supporting, but that in no way means that the job of supporting composers is done,” he said.
Martin Bresnick, professor of composition and coordinator of the Composition Department at the School of Music, started teaching David Lang at Stanford University in 1972. Lang, 16 at the time, was Bresnick’s first student.
“He had everything it took to be a composer,” Bresnick said.
According to Bresnick, Lang’s parents met with him one day and asked if their son had any future in music. They were worried about his chances in the highly competitive field, and they also wanted him to be a doctor. The professor, to their disappointment, assured them that with his talent and ambition, their son would do very well in music.
“David says by now his dad finally agrees with me,” joked Bresnick, who said Lang’s reception of the Pulitzer was “extremely gratifying.”
Bresnick has watched the adolescent he knew at Stanford develop into the accomplished composer he knows today.
“From the very beginning, David had a very unique approach to composition,” Bresnick explained. “He always had a point, or view.”
He described his music as taking a distinct and lucid aesthetic.
“It’s really quite clear what he’s aiming at and what he’s going to be doing,” Bresnick said.
Ingram Marshall, a composition professor at the School of Music, said Lang’s willingness to take risks may not always be successful, but can produce exciting results.
“He takes one idea and sort of carries it out to an extreme,” he said.
Marshall said he is thrilled that Lang has won the prestigious award.
Bresnick emphasized that while Lang serves as a model for his students, he does not expect them all to be Pulitzer Prize winners
“David set the bar pretty high,” Bresnick half-jokingly tells his students.