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David Lang is one of the most innovative and prized American composers of recent decades. His works are frequently heard around the world and are described as ‘passionate, prolific and complicated’, though they are very accessible to the ear. His music defies the boundaries of musical genre, though it is rooted in classical traditions. More specifically, he is inspired by minimalism, modernism and rock.
A native of Los Angeles, California, David Lang was born in 1957 during the American baby-boomer era. He studied at Stanford University (AB 1978), the University of Iowa (MM 1980) and Yale University (DMA 1989). During his studies, which lasted more than a decade, Lang received lessons from a variety of teachers, includingLou Harrison, Martin Bresnick, Leland Smith, Jacob Druckman, Roger Reynolds and Morton Subtonick. He received additional instruction fromHans Werner Henze at Tanglewood. He currently serves on the faculty of the Yale School of Music.
Lang was drawn to his teacher, Martin Bresnick’s concert series, entitled Sheep’s Clothing, while attending Yale. This series aimed to present works in a new, eclectic and unconventional manner. Before graduating, he created a music festival together with Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe that was also dedicated to innovative performance practices. This festival, Bang on a Can, was founded in New York in 1987 and is still active today.
Lang’s works cross many borders, not only within classical music genres, but across music as a whole. He writes that many of his works are only related to one another through their ‘fierce intelligence and clarity of vision that inform their structures’. He has composed opera, orchestra, chamber and solo works. Some of his works are inspired by pop artists or are to be performed by rock musicians. Examples of these genre-defying works includedeath speaks (2012), which is performed by rock musicians and based on aSchubert song cycle. The work has been performed byBryce Dessner from The National and Shara Worden from My Biggest Diamond. The Jimi Hendrix song is referenced inAre You Experienced?(1987). In this work, the text begins, ‘I know you were looking forward to hearing this piece, but something terrible has just happened. While we were busy setting up, someone crept up silently behind you and dealt a quick blow to the side of your head’. Lang then proceeds to create a throbbing music to represent a head wound and the spotty stream of consciousness that follows.
Lang has composed several operas including Modern Painters (1995) for the Santa Fe Opera,anatomy theatre (2016) which was premiered on 16 June 2016 by the Los Angeles Opera. Within the category of musical theatre, Lang has also composedLove Objects (2001) for the Dresden Festival, premiered by the Concerto Koln, RIAS-Kammerchor and the Bang on a Can Lost Objects Ensemble. The work features not only singers, a choir and baroque orchestra, but also amplification and a DJ. The prestigious string quartet, Kronos Quartet, has performedthe difficulty of crossing a field (2002) together with the American Conservatory Theatre.
Lang’s unique compositional style is greatly determined by complex mathematics and formal musical structures. While some of his works are very static, such as Orpheus Over and Under(1981), Slow Movement (1993) and Face So Pale (1992), others such asSpud and Are You Experienced? are much more developmental. The minimalistic elements ofOrpheus Over and Under for piano duo include rapidly repeating notes and tremolos. He contrasts this minimalism with strict rhythmic control of the entrance of pitches, which are determined by golden section proportions. The minimalistic work for 4-hands pianoGravity (2005) is featured on the 2014 recordingZoforbit by the ZOFO Duet on the Sono Luminus label. Another example of a highly mathematical work is theIllumination Rounds for violin and piano (1981), which is comprised of 55-note number sequences that are phrased according to numerical patterns formed using the Fibonacci series.
Lang also has a sense of humour and a feel for dramatic gestures, as represented by some of the interesting titles of his works, includingEating Living Monkeys (1985, rev. 1987) which is based on the European stories about the Chinese eating the brains out of living monkeys. This misunderstanding between East and West can sometimes be funny, and sometimes brutal. Lang uses different instrumental families to act out the action of eating the living monkey brains. Through this work, Lang hoped to unite horror with humour. Other works showing Lang’s lighter side includeSpud (986) and My Evil Twin (1992).
One of Lang’s many works that makes a statement about the world is the national anthems(2014), which “scours the anthems of all the countries in the world, hoping to find common ground that might allow us to understand each other”. This powerful work is featured on a recording by the Los Angeles Master Chorale together with the 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winningThe Little Match Girl Passion (2007), which emphasizes the importance of noticing the suffering of others. The recording was released in the summer of 2016 on the label Cantaloupe Music.
Dance companies worldwide are inspired by Lang’s fantastic compositional skills and versatility. His music is used for both ballet and modern dance and has been choreographed by the Paris Opera Ballet, the New York City Ballet, The Netherlands Dance Theatre, Susan Marshall, Edouard Lock, La La La Human Steps and Benjamin Millepied.
Not surprisingly, Lang is also comfortable writing film music. He composed the complete score to Paolo Sorrentino’sYOUTH and for the film (Untitled) by Jonathan Parker (2009). In addition, he composed music for the award-winning documentaryThe Woodmans. Lang arranged the music, which was performed by the Kronos Quartet, for the well-known filmRequiem for a Dream. His music is also featured in Paolo Sorrentino’sLa Grande Bellezza, which won an Oscar.
Many major orchestras have enthusiastically commissioned, premiered and/or performed Lang’s challenging works. Most notably, his works have been performed across the world by ensembles such as theBBC Symphony Orchestra, the International Contemporary Ensemble, eighth blackbird, Santa Fe Opera, theNew York Philharmonic, the Netherlands Chamber Choir, the Boston Symphony, the Munich Chamber Orchestra and theKronos Quartet.
Many of Lang’s compositions have already been record and can be found on major labels. The Cincinnati Orchestra released a recording of the work they commissioned,mountain (2014), in 2014 together with works by Nico Muhly and Aaron Copeland on the Fanfare Cincinnati label.
His works have been heard at Lincoln Center in New York, Southbank Centre, Carnegie Hall, Kennedy Center, Tanglewood, the BBC Proms, the Sydney 2000 Olympics Arts Festival and many other festivals throughout North America, Europe and Australia.
Based on the demand of composer David Lang in a number of genres, it is no wonder that this brilliant composer has a plethora of awards to show for his work. He has received a Pulitzer Prize and was named Musical Americas Composer of the Year and was presented Carnegie Hall’s Debs Composer’s Chair, the Rome Prize, the BMW Music-Theater Prize (Munich), a Bessie Award, Village Voice OBIE Award for Best New American Work and received nominations for an Academy Award and Golden Globe.
Recordings of Lang’s work have also been highly praised by critics at The New Yorker, the rock and music site Pitchfork and the magazine Gramophone. A recording of The Little Match Girl has even received a Grammy Award.
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