David Lang is one of the most thoughtful composers working today. His music is consistently probing, emotionally urgent, strange, and beautiful. It is also getting simpler as the years roll on—a sign that the mind behind it is undergoing a kind of ritualistic purification. I’ve been obsessed with David’s music since I bought a recording by mail order of his piece cheating lying stealing when I was in high school, and I have written a piano piece called David Lang Needs a Hug.
Listen to an audio excerpt from this interview:
Nico Muhly So you’re going to San Francisco?
David Lang Yes, I’m doing one of these Iron Man things where I’m leaving at five in the morning, going to rehearsals of music that I wrote for a new production of Sophocles’s Elektra, and then taking the red-eye back.
NM Oh, Jesus.
DL Otherwise I just don’t have time to do anything. I’m trying to live your life, you know.
NM There you go! I had something awful happen to me yesterday. I met with my publishers, and they showed me something I’ve never seen: a list of everything I’ve written. It’s really scary.
DL Because it’s so long?
NM Yeah! Have you ever seen these things?
DL I like them, actually. You’re littering the world—
NM —with your shit. (laughter) Do you have physical copies of your list? I don’t.
DL I don’t either. I don’t even have hard copies of my music; they’re on my computer.
NM I remember when I first saw that giant wall at Philip [Glass’s] house, his shelves full of work, and went, Maybe some day! My idea was maybe someday I’d have a wall that big.
DL I bet you’ll figure out something better to fill it with than music.
NM So what is the piece with So Percussion called?
DL It’s called man made.
NM And what happens in it?
DL It’s a kind of concerto for four solo percussionists, four orchestral percussionists, and a large orchestra commissioned by a bunch of great international orchestras. It premiers with the BBC Symphony next May. I wanted a role for the percussionists in the orchestra along with So Percussion, so that it’s not like a concerto for people coming in from out of town. Actually, I was thinking about Phil’s Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra. Do you know what a brilliant idea it is to bring somebody from the outside and not insult the local guy? It honors the person who’s already there. I had this idea of making roles for So Percussion and for the orchestral percussionists. So Percussion is going to build their own instruments out of natural objects and those sounds are going to be translated into the percussion instruments that the orchestral percussionists normally play.
NM I like it.
DL And those get translated to something that the orchestra can hear. The opening of the piece, which is the only part I’ve written, is so beautiful. So Percussion walks out among these piles of twigs. They snap the twigs and drop them. It’s amplified. I’ve written all these rhythms for them. The snapping gets picked up by woodblocks in the back, and then the woodblocks get heard by the orchestra. But the orchestra can’t hear the natural sounds. It’s basically a sort of ecology of how we like nature, we misinterpret nature, we blow nature up . . .
NM What happens to the twigs at the end? Of course they get used for kindling to make a suckling pig, right?
DL That would be, uh . . . (laughter)
NM When’s the last time in New York that you heard the sound of a stick breaking? So, the piece: Is it in movements?
DL It’s one big movement. Half an hour of twigs.
NM Are they going to have to source the twigs themselves?
NM Remember Tan Dun? He had the Met percussionists rootling around Central Park finding those rocks for The First Emperor.
DL That’s really funny. So Percussion might have to bring the twigs with them. So what are you busy with these days?
NM I just finished the last thing I have to write for this calendar year. I built in this month off, which I haven’t ever had in my life. I was thinking about it earlier, and then I saw this publishing document yesterday and was like, That’s it! I’m not going to write anything ever again.
DL What’s the piece?
NM It’s a fun piano piece for Simone Dinnerstein, You Can’t Get There from Here. She’s playing it in a month. I really want to have a moment to not write.
DL I always think that if I stop writing I’ll forget how.
NM Remember “The Tortoise and the Hare”? I hated that because I was like, Isn’t there a version in which the rabbit behaves graciously, gets to the end, and then buys everyone dinner?
DL I like that. (laughter)
NM I’m always trying to change that story. I’m seeing The Tempest tonight. Tom Adès writes so little music—I’m so jealous of his resolve. Someone like him immediately fills you with the sense of, I should have written one piece every six years as opposed to six pieces every five minutes.
DL It’s definitely a decision. I studied with Hans Werner Henze who once told me that he had proposed me for a commission someplace, but he was told, “Oh, that composer writes music so slowly. We’re not going to get the piece in time.”
NM Oh shit!
DL So I missed this great opportunity because somebody thought I wrote music slowly. I thought, I’m never going to write slowly again, and I’m going to let everybody know. I can always sleep less.
NM The only thing I’m scared about for you is what’s going to happen to the technology situation, you know?
DL They did just upgrade my antique program, so I’m safe for another little while.
NM At some point, some cataclysmic . . . Do you have a setup that you can freeze in amber, just in case?
DL I don’t know, actually. That’s a really good question.
NM Can you write on the road with your program?
DL Yeah. I have kids at home, so it’s actually really great to be in a hotel. I mean, I love my kids, but I write a lot of music in hotels.
NM Do you have a little minikeyboard?
DL No, I just take my laptop.
NM So love fail. What does it do? How does it go?
DL In 2007, I wrote this piece called the little match girl passion, which you know. It’s quasi-medieval and pseudoreligious, vaguely pleasant to listen to, and a cappella. It turns out there are lots of groups in the world that specialize in all those categories. I’ve heard from many of them since, asking “Can you write a pseudoreligious, quasi-medieval a cappella piece for us?” I got a call from Anonymous 4.
NM I grew up on those crazy recordings.
DL Their recordings are great. I remember the record where they first did American folk music.
NM Yeah, I was weirded out by that a little.
DL It was like Bob Dylan playing electric guitar—a shocking moment! But I really love it. So they asked me what I would do, and I suggested that I could make a piece for them about their world—the medieval world—as it collides with something more modern. I went and looked at every single version from the 11th and 12th centuries of Tristan and Isolde.
NM Of which there are so many, right? A lot of them written in what was then French, in England.
DL That’s exactly right. You get these oddly international poets like Marie de France, who’s actually writing in England.
NM So crazy, I read her in college, I am obsessed with Marie de France. The Loup-garou, the werewolf one, is my favorite thing that’s ever been written.
DL What I loved about Marie de France’s Tristan story was that, first of all, Isolde’s name is never mentioned in it. The whole story calls her “she.”
NM It’s a little bit more Pelleas in its style.
DL The reason why Tristan scholars love the Marie de France story, is that Tristan is trying to get a message to her, so he carves his name on a stick and leaves it for her to find. De France has Isolde come along, see this stick, and know exactly what he means just from that single word. Isolde decodes his name, and in doing so, understands an unbelievably complicated series of instructions of what he wants her to do.
NM Does all of that come from a divination tradition? Where you scatter the entrails of some rooster or the bones of an animal and the way they fall means—
DL I actually thought of it more like Victorian calling-card folding, or the language of flowers.
NM Bark biting art! Have you seen those from the First Nations peoples? People fold up a piece of bark, bite it, unfold it, and make flowers out of it. It’s crazy! I saw a show in Winnipeg.
DL Are you serious? I’ve never seen that.
NM I’m going to look it up right now. You’re going to absolutely die.
DL Hilarious. So, anyway, there was something really weird in that this unnamed woman learned all this information from seeing this one word. I thought that I could go through all of the different versions of the Tristan stories and take what was odd and unique in each version, avoiding telling the story part—
NM Which we all culturally know.
DL Especially classical music people because we all know Wagner.
NM We at least know that chord!
DL Yes, we all know it ends badly. There’s this other really great version by Thomas of Britain—it’s the only one with this particular story of the end of Tristan’s life. He’s called for Isolde to come and heal him. She’s on the ocean and her boat gets caught in a storm. She thinks it’s going to sink, and she can’t believe it because she’s always been convinced that they’re going to die together. So she thinks, The only way this can work out is if the boat goes down and I drown and get eaten by a fish. Then years from now, Tristan is sailing on the same part of the ocean, and he gets eaten by the same fish. She becomes ready to drown, if God wills it. It’s really creepy and I put it in my piece.
NM It’s so your piece!
DL So I intercut those fragments of the various versions of the story and I took out all the names, so it’s just “he” and “she.” And then I intercut all these legends with modern stories. There’s this really great writer, Lydia Davis. Do you know her?
DL She did really great translations of Madame Bovary and of Proust’s Swann’s Way. Most of her stories are small, aphoristic. They’re this beautiful combination of very funny and very powerful. One of her stories I use in love fail is a list of all the things that two people who are having problems in their relationship can’t talk about: How much money he makes. How much money she makes. What newspaper he reads. Where he went to school. Where she went to school. It’s really to the point. And the issue in my piece is that we like all these medieval things because they allow us to project suffering elsewhere. But our lives can be pretty miserable too, so let’s pay attention to that.
NM Right. So it’s four voices a cappella?
DL There’s a little bass drum and a glockenspiel that come in once or twice.
NM Little details.
DL It’s much simpler percussion than the little match girl passion. The singers don’t move around, but they’re on a beautiful set that Jim Findlay designed, lit by Jennifer Tipton. The sound design is by Jody Elff. Inside every song the resonance changes.
NM But no electronic manipulation?
DL No, just resonance.
NM Are they miked?
DL Yeah, with these beautiful mics underneath the music stand so that you don’t see them. The whole idea was to make it the greatest concert with extra things added to it ever. Not like a theater piece with music in it. It feels like a concert, but with everything heightened. There’s a little video that comes in occasionally, and the singers are wearing costumes that look like things normal people would wear, designed by my wife Suzanne Bocanegra. And I directed it.
NM I’m interested in that—the perfect concert. Hasn’t that become the holy grail of our time? There are these staged, semistaged concerts, or concerts that are a little staged… There are so many ways to do it wrong.
DL Now that you can go to YouTube and see anybody playing anything at any moment, why go see live work? You might go see live work to see little added theater elements, or because the people in it are stars, or because you’re hoping secretly that they’ll fail and you’ll get to watch it. We’ve all seen these concerts where—
NM It’s too much.
DL Here’s a little video, or I’m just going to change the lights, or whatever.
NM Either on purpose or not I’ve found myself in situations where it’s like, Why is there so much information on this stage? (laughter) For me, once you’ve crossed over into amplification you may as well just go full everything. It’s a hard boundary.
DL How much of that have you ever asked for in your pieces?
NM None, at least in the score. If I’m going to do it, I want to be in control, as you’re doing in this case. The danger, especially in nonclassical scenarios, is that you’ll have, say, a really ambitious lighting person in the house who’ll just want to light the shit out of everything. This wonderful violist Nadia Sirota and I did a show together in 2006 where at the end of the piece, Keep in Touch, there’s a big climax and then a cutoff with one quiet note remaining. The lighting guy got really into it and at the climactic moment triggered a strobe light.
DL Oh my God!
NM And there were four minutes of the piece left to go! (laughter) I’m still on the fence on how to use video well. An opera is one thing. Growing up my reference was Steve Reich; in his work these things are nothing if not integrated.
DL I really like Three Tales and The Cave. Much of their power comes from the idea of a video interview or a TV interview. Something in them wants to get power from being a documentary, and so they have a documentary format.
NM It’s also that vision from the ’80s and ’90s of a room full of televisions all tuned to a different thing. That’s what Reich’s The Cave looks like, and yet the last 12 minutes of it make me weep like child! I still get a chill when he says, “Entertaining angels unawares.” That whole gorgeous complicated technology piece and we end at the cave of Machpelah again. It’s like in Three Tales where he ends with one of the lines, “Here we are, under the tree again.” He and Beryl Korot figured out how to get organic at the end of all that. So how long is love fail?
DL It’s 60 minutes. It’s, you know, a pleasant evening in the theatah.
NM Jeez, that is a serious effort. Is it paired with anything?
DL No. That’s the whole thing.
NM Where is it happening?
DL At the Harvey at BAM. We had a week in New Haven already; we premiered it in June at the Arts and Ideas Festival, so we were able to get everything up and running.
NM Did you find that you’re at cross purposes being the creator and the director?
DL That wasn’t the problem. As the composer, I like creating problems that other people have to solve. I give them options and then I can sit in the audience and be excited that someone took me seriously enough to actually do something.
NM And thought of something that you couldn’t have thought of.
DL That’s right. Having to be that person who has to do something that I can’t do—that was very complicated.
NM When everyone is too connected—it starts to feel like a closed system. Which can be great. Did you see Einstein on the Beach? That system was closed the fuck down. It was so good! Were you in rapture? I was screaming!
DL It was fantastic. You didn’t see it before, right?
NM I saw it in 1993. My 12-year-old ass took a bus to NYC.
DL That’s amazing. That was at BAM also, right?
NM Yes. I can’t imagine that that thing is as old as it is. It’s essentially a ground zero for both Glass and Wilson, but especially the Wilson stuff. And those dances! You want to throw up for how beautiful they are. I also didn’t remember the music feeling that ecstatic and joyful.
DL Those were my favorite parts. I love the whole piece; I knew it very well from the record and even from when the Glass Ensemble used to tour the first act before Einstein was even done. I heard it then. But the Lucinda Child’s dances were the revelation both times I saw it—that sense that something is beautiful and can go on forever.
NM Literally ever. Also to see process at bird’s-eye. You can actually see the weather system of that piece working. There are very few pieces of music that do that in a nonmanipulative way. In Wagner you can see that weather system but it’s so painterly you’re not as interested. It’s like, Well, I could just watch a movie or go to a museum. But with Einstein, with this dance, you’re watching it happen and you’re also feeling like you’re making it yourself.
DL Because it gives you the room to react to it. That’s the effect of the commitment to time. Your observing is a part of the process of the piece.
NM I also know the piece really well, so it’s funny that going back it’s still a revelation when he adds and subtracts the beats. Then you realize what’s going on onstage is another additive process of which we have no recollection. The visuals!
DL I took my kids this time. I prepped them and I told them to count this and count that.
NM Did they like it?
DL Yeah, they really liked it. Plus I snuck food in.
NM Are you crazy? I had a picnic! I wasn’t going to leave. I was going to bring a catheter. (laughter)
DL I was going to bring a Bunsen burner or something.
NM Can you imagine that? They should just get rid of the seats and let everyone eat stir-fries.
DL Or at least drink a nice glass of wine.
NM I wonder if I would even remotely be able to keep it together at the end of Einstein if I had a glass of red wine in there. I’d be a burbling mess. (laughter) Anyway, you’re writing long music. Sixty minutes is a serious commitment. You could fly to Florida in that time. How long is match girl? Thirty-five?
DL Yeah. The biggest thing for me lately is not sharing the concert with something else. A piece could be 20 minutes, but if it’s on its own, it’s asking to be the beginning and the end of the experience. I’m sure you’ve had this experience as well—you work really hard to create a world that has its own logic and its own sound, and then someone else comes along and everybody has to recalibrate.
NM Right. And, sometimes, you’re the someone else.
DL And sometimes you’re doing that to music that you like, and sometimes you know you’re on a concert with something that you really love and you feel regretful—
NM —that your piece is fucking it up! One time I had to write this piece to go before Messiaen’s Turangalîla. Nothing should ever have to go before it.
DL It’s also 75 minutes.
NM They told me my piece had to be 18 to 25 minutes. I said, “Are you crazy?” They were like, “It’s a Prom concert; you’ll do it.” Then I made a list of what Messiaen doesn’t do, and did that. But it’s interesting what you were saying—that it’s the beginning and the end of the experience—because then you’re kind of making opera. You don’t have a word for it, do you?
DL I’ve actually started calling them operas. I love opera so much that I want to see it places other than opera houses.
NM I have a slightly different thrust on the word opera because, for me, it’s the scariest thing. Also, there’s a problematic line between opera and oratorio. It doesn’t have to do with quality. It’s more like if you find yourself in oratorio space but you have been promised an opera. That’s bad, especially as it relates to how much narrative to imbue into the singing. But you’re dealing with nonoperatic singers telling a story but from a slight distance, right?
DL It is very distant, but I think I have the power to blur those definitions because I’m not actually putting it in an opera house.
NM Right, the only time it matters is there.
DL Was it weird for you at the English National Opera when you realized that there were these obligations that came with the genre?
NM I realized that before I started doing anything. It was good that I didn’t realize it midway. I also realized that the types of voices and human beings that were going to be rolling around the stage were opera singers. It helped me keep my eye on the prize, as it were. Two Boys [staged at the ENO in 2011] stays in opera land pretty solidly.
DL The opera space gives you the direct connection to the repertoire, and that is something that you get power from.
NM It bulks up the object a little bit more.
DL So, I haven’t seen Two Boys—
NM —in a year.
DL In a year, I’ll get to see it. But you go into the Met and see children onstage and you think Turn of the Screw. There’s a way in which your piece is going to get the power of those associations.
NM It’s cataloged in a certain way.
DL But cataloging is too gentle a word; your work actually gets charged by these other things.
NM Benjamin Britten is a good model of how to stride into the water completely. He could do everything: opera, chamber music . . . But you sense that in his operas everything happily coexists. And he took a lot from other things he liked, like church music. Peter Grimes is a safe space for him: a lot of song, a lot of church music, a lot of orchestra music.
DL The orchestra music is the best stuff.
NM It’s the best thing in the world. He actually could have stacked the deck but he wasn’t totally out to sea. Are you thinking about ever doing something in a big opera house?
DL I wrote an opera for Santa Fe a million years ago, in 1995. Everything I’ve done since remembers what I learned about what that world really means. I loved working with the singers, and with the story, and with the idea of animating something, and I wanted to take that love and apply it to all the other places where music happens. I think of my piece with So Percussion, the so-called laws of nature (2002), as operatic. I thought about how the players move and the drama of how they act, even though no one in their right mind would call that piece an opera. But I learned about it from opera.
NM You learn a lot about how to fill up time in the sense of how to occupy it. A lot of people’s first encounter with opera is, say, La Bohème at the Met. The curtain comes up and everyone’s there: The horses in the back, and the donkey, and 4,000 supers with wigs. You want to kill yourself for how beautiful they are. A lot of people want that spectacle, that sort of Mediterranean excess, and there’s something fabulous about it. You and I come from a tradition where what we actually want is two baroque singers in really great dresses and a bass drum.
DL In fact that opera sounds really good.
NM It’s funny that opera has these roles for people; you have to think about central casting in a way that we don’t in instrumental music. You can make the violin play whatever you want. Players are flexible enough to do whatever you want, whereas opera singers aren’t in that same way. It’s dressage.
DL Opera singers—all they have is their gift, their personality, what’s inside them. They must spend their lives thinking, In this little tiny part of my vocal register, I sound warmer than other singers.
NM In my experience, a lot of them connect to the characters like actual people. They really want to know what it would have been like to be an Egyptian princess in such and such a dynasty. That goes against the way I was taught to read books—as a collection of letters that together make sound—and not “gossip about nonexistent people,” which is what Gayatri Spivak deliciously called that way about thinking about books. You go through school reading literature as really complicated matrix of intersecting whatevers and you never talk about the plot! I mean, why would you ever talk about what happened?
DL But isn’t it funny that that’s why we read books?
NM So funny! When you talk to opera singers sometimes it feels to me like you’re talking to very old-fashioned readers who talk about a book not in terms of the quality of sentences but literally about what happened. The reason I don’t understand Italian opera is basically that they’re like Jersey Shore, like straight-people Italian drama that always ends the same way! Or the other way, which is basically the same. (laughter)
If anyone were to ask me what the little match girl passion is about, I would say, “It’s this series of episodes, and the intervals get wider and wider and wider, and there’s this bass drum, and then sleigh bells.” Whereas love fail seems more plot driven. I’d say, “It’s a fragmented version of the Tristan and Isolde story taken from various sources with the interjections of the modern tales.” Maybe you are getting closer to capital P plot.
DL Maybe I am.
NM Back to love fail. Are you recording it immediately or are you going to wait forever?
DL We’re going to record it sometime soon, yes. Not sure when.
NM Are you in charge of your own recordings?
DL I’m not sure that I am completely happy with that, but yes, that’s the case. My do-it-yourself attitude is exhausting me, but then again, I like it because I get to make sure that my hand is in everything.
NM Do you feel that since you’ve conceived of it visually and directorially, you might want to make a DVD of it?
DL No. I love live performance. We all love to be in the presence of the thing happening right in front of us. But still, why go? More and more I’ve been experimenting with different ways to make the live performance essential. Next year I’m writing an opera called the whisper opera, which only ten people can see at a time. And it will say in the score that it can’t be recorded, or broadcast, or amplified. It can only be done live, and you have to be next to the singer to hear it, or you’re not going to be able to hear it.
DL And there only can be a few people doing it because—
NM —it’s totally unamplified.
DL That’s it. We all know the experience of a piece we’ve seen live and then we hear the studio recording and we think, Why did I like it so much? Or you hear your favorite violinist play something that’s fierce and scratchy live, and then they go into the studio and clean up all the notes. What you originally liked, though, was the risk, that it almost fell apart.
NM I realized how much I loved Reich more when I almost saw his music fall apart. His piano parts are hard as fuck, but those recordings are squeaky clean!
DL Have you played them?
NM Yes, a million years ago at school. I thought I was going to have a heart attack. Have you played those things?
DL No, I haven’t.
NM You do the pattern and then you have to hit some totally nuts chord way over there, and then go back down and do the whole thing again for 20 minutes. Those recordings are so great; it doesn’t occur to you that that’s how they’re put together.
You never feel the passion of virtuosity, even though that’s clearly what’s going on. Also when great musicians mess up playing pieces like Music for 18 Musicians, you realize that there’s not really a score, just these modules, and everyone is hoping for the best.
DL That’s what’s so exciting—here’s this thing that’s so precise and has this process that’s so well explained, and yet people mess up.
NM Thinking about your more recent works: they’re becoming such that they have to be practiced in their entirety to get their emotional scope. With your stuff from the ’80s and ’90s, it’s maybe less true, whereas with the little match girl you don’t know that the piece works until you hear it in order, at speed, with the space between the movements. It’s like Messiaen in that way, where it’s kind of jib-jabby without these structures—
DL Yeah, the sections really matter. They are self-consciously building something emotional. That’s what the music is trying to accomplish and that’s what needs to get practiced.
NM It’s a process of emotional accretion.
DL The flip side is that some of these things are really hard to count, and they’re hard to think about. So you can’t actually practice them more than once or twice or your brain will fry.
NM I’ll be in London when your show is at BAM. Wait, why don’t we do love fail at the Barbican?
DL I’d love to do it in London.
NM Does it have to be done with all the bells and whistles?
DL It could be done as a concert version.
NM It’d be fun. First of all, someone’s got to put your ass on a train to Aldeburgh to see Benjamin Britten’s house and the church in Orford where his “Church Parables” were first staged—you are going to plotz. I wasn’t prepared for how exactly right it is. Also, next to the church is a fish smokehouse. You can buy smoked eel.
DL Which I’m sure you did.
NM Are you crazy? I bought like four smoked eels. I was that lady on the train with four smoked eels and a baguette giving them out as Christmas presents.