David Lang’s music reinvents the familiar. His compositions often begin with something already enmeshed in the listener’s mind: Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Little Match Girl”; the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin.” What arises out of these, however, is something altogether different. That tension between what the listener anticipates and the unpredictable music that unfolds lends Lang’s work a disquieting energy, even when that work is at its most meditative.
Lang’s love fail, opening tonight at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, revisits the story of Tristan and Isolde. It boasts a stellar array of collaborators: the piece features the noted vocal ensemble Anonymous 4 and incorporates texts by — among others — noted writer and translator Lydia Davis.
love fail isn’t the only work of Lang’s to feature a literary pedigree. His earlier opera the difficulty of crossing a field adapted an Ambrose Bierce short story. Lang has also collaborated with the writer and comics creator Ben Katchor on works such as The Carbon Copy Building, the end result of which found performers placed before sets evoking Katchor’s stylized linework. That atmosphere of collaboration with a wide range of artists is vital to Lang’s work.
As immersive as Lang’s music can be, a sense of place also makes itself felt. Sometimes this comes from the staging, which could include projected videos or looming, stylized illustrations. At other times, there could be a specific space in mind for a particular composition: Lang’s restrained, deeply moving Départs was commissioned for the morgue of a French hospital. That sense of place is mirrored in Lang’s knowledge of musical history, something that his own work (in which one can hear traces of centuries-old sacred traditions abutting minimalist passages) touches upon. As a co-founder of Bang on a Can and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, for 2008’s the little match girl passion, Lang’s influence on music has myriad aspects. In advance of love fail’s debut in Brooklyn, we emailed with the composer about his work.
Flavorwire: Some of your music adapts the work of others — “Heroin” and the opera the difficulty of crossing a field also come to mind. When do you generally know that another work — whether textual or musical — will be more than simply inspirational?
Lang: All composers do pretty much the same thing — we think of the sounds we want to hear and then we figure out ways to organize them. Because of this universality I always feel like I can use composition to get inside the minds of other composers. I love a lot of different music, from a lot of different places and times, and I get very interested in using my own work to learn about what all those other composers are up to.
Where did you first encounter Lydia Davis’ fiction?
A friend recommended a book of hers; that must have been 20 years ago.
What prompted you to think of her work as a good match for love fail?
I have been trying to write my own adaptations of texts lately — I would never call myself a writer, but I can figure out the words I like to set and the general way I like things to be organized. The first thing I picked up for this project was a story by the medieval writer Marie de France, about Tristan and Isolde, and I noticed something odd — Tristan is named, but Isolde is only called “she.” When I started trying to rewrite the story so I could set it to music, I wondered if I could push this “unnaming” to everything in the text — no names, no places, no technology, no apparent era, etc. — I just stripped away all the details. What I was left with reminded me a little of Lydia’s work, so I invited it in.
Your composition death speaks was written for Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, Owen Pallett and Shara Worden; love fail was written for Anonymous 4. What draws you to these particular artists?
death speaks takes its texts from all the places in the songs of Franz Schubert when Death speaks directly to the listener. This is 1820, so there is an almost gothic fascination with the afterlife, and Death is a real, conversational presence in a lot of Schubert’s songs. One of the most famous of these is a song called “Death and the Maiden,” in which the Maiden sings a verse about how she doesn’t want to die, and then Death answers her very calmly. I ended up going through all of his songs and making a text out of all the things Death says to the living, and then I set that text to music. It occurred to me that the whole idea of tuneful, emotional, direct songs performed for small crowds in intimate spaces had moved from classical music, where it was in Schubert’s time, to pop music in ours. So I worked with some great pop musicians. (Plus Nico, who is appropriate everywhere…)
In recent years, you’ve written for both Anonymous 4 and Trio Mediaeval. Do you find yourself writing more for vocal ensembles now than in the past?
I love writing for vocal groups, not because I love vocal music so much but because I love text. And I think that once you write one piece for a vocal group all the other vocal groups in the world know you are out there.
In 2008, you were commissioned to write music for the Hospital Raymond Poincare’s morgue. Do you anticipate writing any more music for specific spaces?
That project was so beautiful. Some doctors in a hospital outside of Paris theorized that they could ease the suffering of people whose loved ones had just passed away by moving the bodies of the departed from their stark hospital rooms into a calm, soothing, chapel-like environment. They commissioned the Italian artist Ettore Spalletti to make the room and they commissioned the UK composer Scanner and me to make our own sound worlds, as environments for grieving. It wasn’t so much the uniqueness of the space that interested me but my empathy with the listener. I loved the problem posed by this piece and I really enjoyed thinking about a solution.
What do you find compelling about the concept of failed love? Are there other stories of failed love that might lead to future compositions from you?
I am not really so interested in failed love, by itself. What I am most interested in is how we surround ourselves with things that distract us from seeing ourselves clearly. We wallow in the gaudy, hyperbolic, unbelievable story of the doomed love of Tristan and Isolde because it distracts us from seeing our own much more ordinary suffering — that our own loves are doomed, that we are our own tragic heroes. The confrontation between the gigantic, hyper-real suffering of mythic characters and the much more humble, plainspoken suffering of real people is the core of the piece.
In 2011, you wrote an editorial for The New York Times calling for an embrace of riskiness in classical music. In the year and a half since it ran, have you noticed any changes as a result of it?
I am not sure that anyone has embraced any extra risk since then. But I did notice a lot more diehard classical music lovers calling me an idiot.
Image credits: Beth Morrison