David Lang, a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and the co-curator of the exhibition I was a double, will engage in a discussion with David Alan Miller, the Grammy-winning music director of the Albany Symphony Orchestra. Lang is the 2014-15 Don and Judy McCormack Endowed Visiting Artist-Scholar at Skidmore College.
The event will take place within the exhibition space of the Tang Teaching Museum’s Wachenheim Gallery. Admission is free and open to the public.
About David Lang
David Lang (b. 1957) is a New York-based composer who is active in many genres and media. His piece the little match girl passion, commissioned by Carnegie Hall, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 and a Grammy Award in 2010. Lang is Musical America’s 2013 Composer of the Year and recipient of Carnegie Hall’s Debs Composer’s Chair for 2013-2014. An active collaborator, he has worked closely with a diverse group of artists including Peter Greenaway, Benjamin Millepied, Susan Marshall, Darren Aronofsky, Ann Hamilton, and Mark Dion. Lang is co-Artistic Director of New York’s Bang on a Can, which he founded in 1987 with composers Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe, and he is Professor of Music Composition at the Yale School of Music.
About David Alan Miller
David Alan Miller (b. 1961) has been the music director of the Albany Symphony Orchestra since 1992, and a guest conductor of America’s major orchestras, including in New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. He won a Grammy Award in January 2014 for his Naxos recording of John Corigliano’s “Conjurer,” with the Albany Symphony and Dame Evelyn Glennie. He and the orchestra have twice appeared at “Spring For Music,” an annual festival of America’s most creative orchestras at New York City’s Carnegie Hall. Other accolades include Columbia University’s 2003 Ditson Conductor’s Award, the 2001 ASCAP Morton Gould Award for Innovative Programming and, in 1999, ASCAP’s first-ever Leonard Bernstein Award for Outstanding Educational Programming.
Dunkerley Dialogues are generously funded by Michele Dunkerley ’80.
David Alan Miller: Thank you, Ian. Hi, everybody. I’m so happy to be here, because David Lang is really one of my oldest friends in the music world, from before we were friends. I just have to make one disclaimer, because I look really banged up. You may not see it, but to me, I feel very self-conscious. I had a terrible sort of food poisoning incident all weekend, and fell down on the bathroom floor and bashed my face. So now that you know that I don’t always look this terrible, I can go on with my evening. [laughter]
David Lang: I also want you to know I didn’t do it. [laughter]
Miller: You didn’t do it. And even my wife didn’t do it. It was entirely myself. But I’m much better, except for my face. Every other part of me’s good. So I was so happy to be asked to be here, because this is this incredible celebration around David Lang, and David Lang is like the first composer I ever knew. Not because I knew he was a composer, but because he was close friends with my cousins the Lifers. When we grew up in Los Angeles—I grew up in the San Fernando Valley, and David grew up on what we called The Hill, which was that area between Los Angeles and San Fernando Valley, where the slightly-more-better-off people lived, like my cousins David and Jeffrey Lifer. And you went to school with Jeffrey, right?
Lang: I did.
Miller: Yeah. And they went to high school together. And so I always heard about, from Aunt Elizabeth, “Oh, we have this incredible friend, David Lang. He’s a composer,” since I was a young conductor. And so eventually, we met. But it was a ways after that, right?
Lang: It was in New York that we met.
Miller: It was in New York.
Miller: And I felt like I knew him, because I knew him through my cousins. And we became very good friends, and we’ve followed each other and been fairly close ever since. And he’s the most fascinating person ever. So I may occupy the role of interviewer a little bit, and ask him some questions; but I hope you all— We’ll save some time at the end for questions and answers; but along the way, I think we both feel most comfortable if we’re not talking at people, but if we’re actually conversing with people. So feel free to jump in or ask questions, or raise your hand at any point along the way. Is that fair to say?
Lang: That sounds great.
Miller: So tell us first a little bit about this project, will you?
Lang: Okay. So it’s really interesting as a composer, because I think you’re raised to think, especially in classical music, that your world should be like this big. And I’ve always thought what’s interesting is that music shouldn’t be the end point; it should be sort of like the opening of a conversation that allows you to do lots of different things. So I always like to think that the weird gigs come to me. [laughter] So for example, just a while ago, I got a phone call from someone who said, “You know, a bunch of doctors in France have decided that the process of dying in their hospital is really depressing. And so they’ve decided that they’re going to build a beautiful morgue, so that everyone who dies there will die in a really beautiful place. And then we really want to have music in that space, so we thought you could write the music for this.” And I remember thinking, you know, this is the kind of work that I want to come to me forever. So I did music for this morgue in Paris, which was great.
This is not a morgue. [laughter] But it comes out of the same kind of spirit, which is thinking that music should be something that helps you get to other places. You know, music is sort of like an emotional connector with people, and it should help heighten experiences and help people get someplace deeper than where you can get without it. And what happened here was that I am very happy that I have been friends with Ian Berry here for many, many years. And this show is a result of a conversation that we had over several years, which is, how would our worlds meet? So Ian said, “If would curate a show together, how could that possibly work?”
So I know lots of visual artists, I’m friends with lots of visual artists, my wife is a visual artist, I love visual arts. I’m completely in the visual arts world, but I would never have the hutzpah to think that I could curate a show. It’s not something that I could do. I don’t think about things that way. So when we were talking about ways that we might work, I thought finally, what if we could curate a show of artists who make work the way composers make music? Because what’s interesting for music is we make a score, as a composer, and we give it to a performer. There’re really two steps in classical music to making music. You make a decision about what kind of rules you’re going to follow—a score—and you hand it to someone else. Sometimes if you’re the performer, you’re handing it to yourself. But it’s really in two separate things. You make the rules, and you realize the rules.
And I asked Ian this question: Are there artists who do that, too? Are there artists who make work this way? For whom the rule making and the rule following can be seen as being a separate kind of decision? And so what you see are artists here whose work fit that description. And that’s basically— And we did it.
Miller: And then you created this soundtrack to it, as well, right?
Lang: Well, then I thought, you have all these pieces which look like they come from different worlds, but somehow they’re linked. And I thought, you know, my job as the composer is, since I write music and that’s really all I know, I could figure out how to link them. So I asked Ian if we could ask everyone in the show, all the artists, to give a one-sentence statement about the rule making behind their work, about how they made this work, starting with the word I. Because I wanted it to be personal to them, I wanted it to be something about what they believed, what was meaningful to them. I got all of these statements assembled, and that became the libretto for this piece of music.
So I set these to music. And then with the help of the engineer and sound designer Jody Elff, we randomized them in the space. So if you sit here all day, you will not hear the same thing twice, because the combinations are always overlapping in an interesting an strange way. And each of these artists said something very personal about how they work. I set it to music, so that all of them would sound nice together; and it’s randomized, so that you hear three of them at the most, at the same time. And you hear them from these various different speakers. So we have twenty-three speakers, and the idea is that each speaker is placed right in front of the work of the artist who is speaking—who is singing, in my case.
So if you stand under this one, you can learn about this beautiful piece with the china in the pool. And the idea then is that as you walk through the space, you actually hear what the artists are saying to themselves, translated through the singers, about the work that you’re looking at.
Miller: Cool. We just had a few words with—not angry words, happy words—with Amy Biancolli, our beloved arts writer from the Times Union, who’s here this evening, before our talk. And Amy was asking David about the exhibit. He was mentioning this issue of rules and how composers work with rules. And Amy brought up what I think is a very interesting point, and something that maybe you can elaborate a little bit on. Which is, Amy said, “Well, I thought the whole history of music—of music generally, concert music, particularly in Modernism in the twentieth century and beyond—has been about freeing up rules or having fewer rules or getting rid of rules.” And I think that a lot of us have that idea about aspects of modern art; that all of a sudden, we aren’t bound by traditional harmony or by a traditional color palette or literal portraiture or whatever it may be, and that whee, isn’t it great to be free?
But in fact, David made the point that no, it’s not that there was necessarily a freeing up of rules. I think you said there was a personalizing of rules. And I’d like you to elaborate on that, but I want to just buttress it initially by saying that I spend most of my life working with living composers and playing their music, and what you said is absolutely true; that composers—at least the many, many composers that I’ve encountered—they love rules. They need rules and they want rules—which is kind of counterintuitive. Can you talk a little bit to that, for yourself and sort of generally?
Lang: Yeah. I think it’s really interesting, because the people who are my age, who went to music school, we came at the end of the High Modernism. So the people who were the followers of Anton Webern and Arnold Schönberg, and the idea that they had discovered something about the way notes would be combined, which was like a universal good. You know, we’ve discovered that this kind of system works, and everyone in the world should use that system. And that idea was so powerful. I mean, it’s really hard to believe this, but this idea of twelve-tone music and the rule making was so strong that composers who have nothing to do with that—like Stravinsky or Shostakovich—
Miller: Or Morton Gould.
Lang: Yeah. Or Aaron Copland, and these guys.
Miller: They felt they had to do it.
Lang: Felt like they had to write music this way, because these other composers had discovered a rule making system that would replace the harmony from the nineteenth century. So when that broke down, what happened was not that people gave up rules altogether, but people decided, you know, we like rules; rules are useful, rules are great. But I don’t need the rules that somebody else made up; I can make my own rules. I can figure out something for myself that makes my work make sense. And so what happened in music, I think, is now we have lots of people in the world who are making music which is rigorous, but each of their planning and each of the their systems works for them. It’s only something which is not supposed to tell everyone else what to do; it’s just something that helps them do what they want to do.
Miller: And that’s a really radical idea, because when you even think of someone as perceived as free or conceptual or out there as John Cage, I mean, he reveled in creating rules for every piece. I mean, he may not have called them rules, but they were strictures or structures…
Miller: …that he built the piece around. Yeah. Neat. So that’s rules. So I wanted you to go back a little bit to this, you said, weird projects or weird gigs. Because it’s true that David has been a master of unusual and fabulously unique projects. None more so than this amazing project that he and two of his young, closest friends, when we were all kids, started, called Bang on a Can, that he and Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon started, that has become kind of the preeminent new music ensemble, dare I say, almost in the world. And I remember, going back to that, I always believe weird gigs come to those who look for weird gigs. Right?
Miller: I mean, if you weren’t so open to weirdness, weirdness wouldn’t find you. And in a way, I sort of look at our careers as somewhat different, in that David has made this incredible world, or series of worlds, outside of what I guess you would call the residual academy—although he’s a Yale professor and he was the resident composer at Carnegie Hall, so the academy has kind of come to him. But that wasn’t his intent at all. Whereas I’ve had a somewhat more conventional career, more inside the traditional world of orchestras. Trying to push the boundaries of that, but in a somewhat more incremental fashion. So can you talk a little bit just maybe about Bang on a Can and this idea of, if they don’t come you, we’ll do our own thing?
Lang: Yeah. Well, I think when you write music, you want to do stuff. Right? You know, you want people to hear the music and you want to make sure that you can do everything that you can to build the world that you want to live in. So you think, as a composer— I mean, I think it’s different as a conductor, because it’s like you need a certain institutional structure, in order to find the people to collaborate and—
Miller: It’s more curatorial.
Lang: There’s a lot of that, but there’s also a certain amount of machinery that has to be there, in order for you to get it together. But for a composer, you can do anything you want. You know, I can wake up in the morning and say I’m going to write a piece a music. I did a film score, and I made a piece of music in the film score for a very famous actor to make with candy wrappers, because the director said, “You know, the actor has this trip where he eats candy the whole time.” So I said, “Well, I could make music for that, you know? He could actually do that.” So I don’t need the kind of apparatus, so I can sort of figure out how to go wherever is interesting.
But I think what happens is that when you write a piece of music, it really is kind of fundamentally a utopian act, because what you’re saying is that I can imagine something that should be in the world, that wasn’t in the world yesterday. And so tomorrow, it will be a better place, because I did this, you know? And everyone else feels the same way, so that everyone is in the process of improving the world. And if you think that way, then maybe your responsibility is not just to make some music which sounds good, but maybe your responsibility then is to figure out, well, what’s the best way to present this? And maybe it’s a way that hasn’t been presented before, that only works for this piece and never again.
And maybe there’s a new kind of audience for this piece, which isn’t the normal audience, and this is the only piece they’re going to see like this, and this is just perfect for them. So I have to figure out how to get to that audience. And maybe there’s a way to talk about it or to review it or to support it or to pay for it. Or you know, maybe every single thing you do has an optimal way to get it is message out. And if you really believe that what you’re doing is adding something which has meaning in the world, then it becomes part of your responsibility as a composer to do as many of those things as possible.
So in 1987, what happened, the Bang on a Can story, very quickly, is that two other young composers, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe— Julia also has a piece on your season, right? So her percussion feature—
Miller: January, doing her body percussion concerto…
Lang: That’s right.
Miller: …with the very handsome and shirtless Colin Currie, this great Scottish percussionist, who’s going to take his shirt off. It’s a piece all about urban music, and so he plays body percussion on his body, as well as on instruments. So I just want to put a pitch out there for all the people who appreciate handsome young Scottish men. [laughter]
Miller: Whether or not they remain part of the UK.
Lang: Yeah, that’s another story.
Miller: It’s a different story.
Lang: But anyway, so we were young composers right out of school, and we would meet every day and we would do what young composers all around the world do all the time, which is just complain bitterly about our fate. [laughter] And we would notice that there were all sorts of things that were built up in the world that were impediments to creating the world that we wanted to live in. And some of them were that famous composers are treated better than un-famous composers. And people go to concerts and the concerts are really short, and everybody compares all the pieces and tries to agree with each other about what happens after the concert. And that music is categorized by style, and not by other things.
You know, so you go to a concert where you see the new piece by John Zorn or whatever. And back in the eighties, you would go down to the Knitting Factory and see one great thing by John Zorn, and you would see five terrible things by people who wished they were John Zorn. And you would go see a premiere by Elliott Carter, and five terrible things by people who wished they were Elliott Carter. And so we thought, maybe there’s a way to organize these concerts differently, so that the innovative things in the world would rise to the surface, and that’s all that you would notice. So we just started making these lists, long, long lists of all the things that we wished were different. And eventually, we just thought, you know, we’ve got all these lists, maybe we should do a concert. So we did a twelve-hour concert in an art gallery in SoHo, called Exit Art, on which you conducted, right? You conducted a piece by Julia on the very first Bang on a Can Festival.
Miller: I did, that beautiful piece, right.
Lang: And your sister was one of our first board members.
Miller: She was, she was.
Miller: See, it’s very…
Lang: Yeah, so—
Lang: Yeah, our lives [inaudible].
Miller: And insular world, insular world.
Lang: Yeah. And so we didn’t think that we were going to build an institution; we thought, we’re going to do this really silly concert that’s going to be twelve hours long, and it’s going to be really amazing. And we laughingly called it the first annual Bang on a Can Festival, because we thought, this is so much work, we’re never going to do this again. But here we are, twenty-seven, twenty-eight years later. We still do a twelve-hour marathon that’s completely free, in Lower Manhattan, and last year, we had 10,000 people to it. We have a record label, we have an ensemble that’s touring the world. Right now they’re in Poland, today. We have a marching band, we have schools. We run a summer program at MASS MoCA every summer, which we unofficially call Banglewood. [laughter] You can’t repeat that to anyone or we’ll get sued, so please don’t do that. But so basically, we’ve tried very hard to think of everything that we could do to help people figure out how to build the world that they want to live in. And we’re still doing it.
Miller: And that’s beautifully idealistic. And for any young composers or students in the room, I think what I find the most impressive about— And knowing all the composers who David references, the ones who sit there lamenting the fate of young composers, which is, as we know—and David’s a professor of composition, and I spend a lot of time nurturing and helping young composers—they are a very unhappy, and understandably unhappy, lot, because they are so much neglected by so much of, not only the larger society, but of musical society. It’s very hard for a young composer to get a toehold. I always say that after Yale or after graduating from one of the great conservatory programs or graduate programs in composition, most young composers are vomited up on the shores of Manhattan. And they don’t know what to do or where to go. You know, they have to find some empty warehouse in Brooklyn, like— What’s that movie with the guy from another planet? It’s like they’re suddenly arriving in Manhattan with nothing. So the lesson for young composers that’s so powerful, in David’s story and in the Bang on a Can story, to me, is that you can’t afford to wait for the academy to come to you, or for the world to come to you, or for orchestras or conductors or soloists or performers to recognize your genius.
It’s sort of you have to build your own paradise. And if you have to build it little by little and block by block and bit by bit, that’s the way to do it. What’s been very exciting, I think, for both of us to see is that more recently—and particularly in the last, I don’t know, ten or fifteen years; and particularly in Manhattan, but all over the country, but we see it so much in New York City; not just in Manhattan, but in New York City generally—this idea of young composers creating their own perfect worlds, I think often inspired by Bang on a Can as the model, has really taken root. And there are literally hundreds of little composer collectives. And on any given night in New York, you can go to any of ten or twenty or a hundred different kinds of events that young composers have created themselves, or curated or featured or collaborated with their performing friends from graduate school. So in a way, even though, as you surely know, our great institutions are under not surprising duress—whether you’re looking at the Metropolitan Opera, which just fended off a labor action by the hair on its chinny-chin-chin, or the Atlantic Symphony, which just went on strike, or any numbers of museums or dance companies, or fill in the blank—you know, the major institutions are under enormous duress.
And that’s a great concern. At the same time, there’s so much excitement going on in the arts, particularly in the kind of music we do, which is to some people, considered rather outdated or obsolete. But there’s a lot of excitement and a lot of wonderful stuff happening a little bit sub rosa, and not happening in the institutions. And not unlike the Impressionists— You know, when they weren’t accepted into the academy, they went and had their own rival exhibit. So in a way, Bang on a Can and everything that’s been happening since takes its inspiration from those ideas. So I actually think it’s a very exciting time. And it’s up to those institutions like the Tang, hopefully like the Albany Symphony, hopefully, that are so nimble and so in touch with newer trends, in addition to the great tradition, that will hopefully survive and flourish and be able to be adaptable enough to continue to have an audience and be relevant and meaningful for a public. So having said all that stuff, can we open it to some questions or concerns of yours, or things you’d like to know about? Yes.
Man: As a composer, when you’re music’s completed, you’re giving it to a conductor, who gives it to performers. And then there’s an interpretation from [inaudible], where certain thoughts are emphasized, of course, and others are deemphasized. Does it ever get to the point where one could stand up and yell and say, no, that’s not mine? Or is it just kind of put your head back in your hands [inaudible] feel [inaudible], knowing that now somebody can spin their own [inaudible]?
Lang: Well, did everyone hear that question? So okay. It’s interesting, because you get to decide, as a composer, how you are socially. You know, how you are out in the world. And I always tell my students that actually, musicianship is really citizenship. In order to write music, you need other people. You need people to listen to it, you need people to perform it, you need people to help you with the infrastructure of how to get the music out. So how you are in the world is a decision that’s very important to you. So there are composers who only allow perfect, the absolutely specialized, realized final products that are already approved— that only allow those performances. So I mean, the obvious example are people who have their own ensembles. So people don’t usually sing Meredith Monk’s music, because her ensemble sings it herself. So if you want Meredith Monk’s music, you hire Meredith Monk; she comes and sings it.
But there are European composers — You know, there are famous stories of European composers pulling their music from orchestra concerts at the last minute because, ‘you don’t understand my music well enough. I have to take it.’ And I think it’s really important to figure out what your attitude is towards people. And I don’t think that there’s one right attitude or one wrong attitude. I like to think that the music exists in a way so that it’s open for lots of different kinds of interpretations, and that the music is strong enough so that a bad performance or a bad interpretation doesn’t kill it.
And I always think, if you think of the number of bad performances of the Beethoven string quartet you’ve ever heard, it’s really terrible to sit through it, but it didn’t hurt the music. You know, it didn’t hurt Beethoven. And actually, in a way—this sounds perverse, but—it’s a sign of respect for music, that you can tell from the number of bad performances that a piece of music gets, because it means that more people want to try it; more people then should try it. [laughter]
Miller: And from a performing perspective, I totally agree with that. It’s a very subversive position to take, but to me, it’s like a performance is just a performance; but a piece is forever. I mean, that’s essentially what David’s saying. And a great piece of music will survive any number of mediocre, bad, inexact performances. So I’m always a little mystified by Frank Zappa’s needing his works to be exactly a certain way. Or I know Louis Andriessen—who was a teacher of yours, I think, right?—that he pretty much gave up on orchestras, because he felt they could never realize what he wanted to realize, and just ceased writing for them for a great number of years, right?
Lang: Yeah, yeah. But I also think if everything is phrased in the right way, if people are really trying to play the music, what is it? I mean, it’s actually an act of love on their part. You know, it’s saying, we like this music; we’ve love to try it. We may be not good enough; we may be not as good as those other people, but we love it. We’d still like to do it. So there is a nice thing about it, too. And I’m not just saying that for my music, but I think that actually, any performance that is committed is an act of respect for the music. And there’s something that’s really beautiful about that. Or else we would just say, there’s room for one soloist and one orchestra and one performer in the world, and they’re the approved people, and nobody else can do it, you know?
Miller: Other questions? Yeah.
Man: Since we’re on this topic, I’m wondering if these concerns influence how you think about how hard your music is to play, [chuckles] and how that’s maybe changed over time?
Miller: [laughs] I’m sorry. I don’t know. I don’t know if I should— Do I get to tell about eating living monkeys, about Flaming Youth?
Lang: Oh, you can say that, sure.
Miller: I don’t know if it’s relevant. Say the question again. The difficulty of your music.
Man: Yeah, how have these thoughts that you’re sharing about the possibility of bad performance or whatever, how those affected your thoughts about the difficulty of the music you write?
Miller: Well, I don’t know if this did, but can I just tell a little bit of the story?
Lang: Okay, go ahead.
Miller: You know, not in a disrespectful way.
Lang: Oh, please.
Miller: When we were much younger and lived in New York, I was the conductor of the New York Youth Symphony, which is the big youth orchestra in New York City, and it plays three concerts every year at Carnegie Hall. And I had been there for a couple of years, and I knew I wanted — I was in my mid-twenties, and so were you.
Miller: Mid-twenties, yeah, mid-twenties. And I knew that I wanted the orchestra to play new music, and I wanted them to play new music by young composers, because it was a whole orchestra made up of young musicians, conducted traditionally by a young conductor. So I went to the then executive director, this wonderful guy Barry Goldberg, and I said, “I want to play a new piece of music, and I want to commission David Lang.” And he said, “Well, listen, that’s a good idea, but why don’t we do something even better? Why don’t we start a commissioning series, and on every single concert the New York Youth Symphony plays, we’ll play a world premiere of a new eight-minute work by a young composer? I know someone at Exxon who I think will underwrite it.” And he put together this whole package, and I thought that was great. And we started this series called First Music, which actually is now the longest running commissioning orchestral series in America, and they’ve commissioned like 220 works. And it’s a really—
Lang: It’s also—just to interrupt for one second—it’s also the most prestigious award a young composer can win, because it means that you get to write an orchestra pieces that’s played in Carnegie Hall. And to my students, it’s like saying, I got a Nobel Prize.
Miller: It’s really a beautiful thing. And we started, and I wanted David to be the first composer. And so I called him up. You were still at Yale, I think, right?
Miller: Still in graduate school. So he graciously agreed to write this. And he decided, because it was bold and he’s bold, to write a piece called Flaming Youth. And he had this great idea that in his piece, no section would— They would all play only sixteenth notes, right?
Miller: Which are fast notes—ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba. And they would never play a sixteenth note next to another sixteenth note. And every section would have to play sixteenth notes, and it would have this composite thing. It was like a Pointillistic painting; but no section would ever get to actually have a line, and the lines would be created by the harkening and juxtaposition of these lines. Which was a very lovely idea. But considering that there were a number of not very advanced twelve-year-olds in the orchestra, [laughter] it was maybe not the best idea. So he writes this piece, which was incredible, but incredibly impossible for this orchestra to play. We never played anything hard, let alone this hard. And I remember having little sectionals in my apartment on West End Ave, with like three twelve-year-olds at a time, trying to go, bup, bup-bup, bup, bup-bup. It was the most horribly, horribly impossible thing. But we did the best we could.
Miller: And you loved it; you were very appreciative.
Lang: It was great.
Miller: And we got okay presentation of it, and he ended up turning it into a bigger and more successful piece called eating living monkeys. But the most wonderful part of it, just for those of you who are composers, to understand the travails of a young composer, do you remember the story about the Queens concert? That you were sitting there and the little old lady turned—
Lang: I remember that, yeah.
Miller: You would always do the concert two weeks before in Queens, at Queens College. I’m sorry, this is— Because he’s sitting there, I just— I mean, you said this thing about the difficulty, and I thought, that’s the most difficult situation with a difficult piece of music I ever had. And he’s sitting there, we’re giving this performance of Flaming Youth that we were totally ill-prepared to give. And it’s all little Jewish ladies in their nineties, sitting in Queens, hoping to hear something pretty by Tchaikovsky or Beethoven. [laughter] And David’s sitting there. It’s the world premiere of this important piece by him. And tell the story.
Lang: So here’s how long the applause lasted at the end of that piece. Because it’s just old people. I love old people, but— And I hope someday to be one. And so here’s how long the applause lasted for this concert. [he claps once; laughter] So there wasn’t time for me to stand up and take a bow. [laughter] So the woman next to me, who really looked and sounded like my grandmother, she turned at me and she was all upset. And she said, “I don’t understand this music. You know, you are young. You can explain this to me. What was that?” [laughter]
Miller: Something like a computer could’ve—
Lang: Yeah, “A computer could’ve written that.”
Miller: A computer could’ve written this music.
Lang: Yeah. And I said, “Well, I can’t really say, because I’m the composer. [laughter] I wrote it.” And she looked really embarrassed and she said, “Wow. It’s very today.” [laughter]
Miller: So that was our first collaboration. So tell them your answer about hard music.
Lang: Okay. So here’s my answer about hard music. I love hard music. And the thing that I really like about hard music is— And again, there’s something really kind of perverse about it, but we live in an era where most of the music that we hear is recorded. So even for those of us who love classical music, you want to hear Beethoven, most of the Beethoven I hear in my life, I hear recorded, I hear at home, perfectly balanced, on my beautiful 5.1 surround system that sounds incredible. It’s perfect, you know? That’s the way most of us experience music. So because we are live-musician people—you know, we started in live music and we believe live music is important—what’s left for live music? You know, what actually is something that can only be done live, that can’t be done recorded?
So I started thinking, in a lot of my music, how do you make sure that the live experience remains the center of our field? And some of it is just with the excitement of the music and the excitement of the community and being there with other people. That’s something that can’t happen at home, when I’m listening by myself. But sometimes with a piece of music, you can design something so that it can only happen live. So I wrote this piece that Ian mentioned before, called The Whisper Opera, which is an answer to this problem. You know, I made a piece of music that’s so quiet that it can’t be recorded. And so the singers and the musicians walk by you whispering, and you only can hear them when they’re right in front of you. And it can only be done for forty people at a time, and it has to be done on a specialized set, and it says, you can’t record it or amplify it or broadcast it or video it.
You can’t do it in a concert version; you can only do it this way. And if you can’t be there, you missed it. [Miller laughs] But it was part of this answer about what you can only do live. How do you keep that the central kind of sacred experience of music, as the live experience of seeing musicians do something? Well, one of the things that’s really great about live music is that you see people making it. And one of the things that’s really great—and the reason why we like concerti, why we like Julia’s piece for body percussion, whatever—these pieces are hard. They require soloists, they require specialists, they require people who work really hard. And when you go to a concert to see hard music, you’re seeing something that you can’t see or can’t experience recorded, which is, you’re in the presence of something which might fail. You’re in the presence of something which may not work. In fact, we did a piece together a long time ago, in which I was a narrator. I wrote a piece that had a narrator.
Miller: Are you experienced? That’s a beautiful piece.
Lang: Called are you experienced?. And it had an amplified tuba part. And I did it for this incredible virtuoso tuba player that I had gone to college with, and I made an electric tuba part for him. And the piece, at the end of this piece, goes up so high that tuba players can’t play it. So on the recording, we worked really hard to make sure that his lip was rested. We did a little bit and then his lip rested a little longer, we did a little bit more. So on the recording, it sounds absolutely perfect. It’s really beautiful and really great. But the best performance I ever saw of this piece— In the end, it’s really quiet and really sad and really hard, and he’s straining to play that hard. And the best performance we ever did, he’s playing the piece, he gets to the end, and his lip starts cracking and he can’t control it. And he starts breaking notes. And it’s painful, because it’s really quiet and really beautiful and really sad. And he eventually realized he wasn’t going to finish it. And he put the tuba down and his eyes rolled up, because he wasn’t able to do it.
And that was the best performance of that piece I ever saw. And you can’t say as a composer, I’m giving you something that’s impossible, and I want you to mess up. And please, burst into tears in the performance. [laughter] But what you can do is you can give somebody a challenge that has to be overcome, knowing full well that the struggle to overcome it is theatrical. And that means that it gets a special power, which can’t be captured on recording. So that’s why I like hard music. [laughter] Okay.
Miller: Other questions? Yes.
Woman: Sorry. [laughter] This goes back a little bit, to when we were talking about issues of interpretation. And I was just wondering how that influenced your experience co-curating an exhibit with visual art. Because I know that you have to make a lot, when you’re curating an exhibition—we were talking about this in class with Ian—you have to make a lot of decisions about how you want to present the work; and a lot of times, you can’t take into account too much what the artist wants, and you have to make your own creative decisions. So where do you draw the line, when you were helping curate this? Where did you draw the line between what you thought was the best possible display and what maybe the artist wanted, that possibly differed from what you did?
Lang: Well, the biggest concern here, I think, is if you look around, there are like speakers in front of everybody’s work. So if you look at Kay Rosen’s beautiful thing, I’ve got three speakers blocking my view. So I was really worried that when she saw the piece, that she would be really angry about it. Because it is kind of a violation. You know, artists have an idea of what it is to respect them, and that seems very disrespectful to me. And yet it’s the conceit of the show that everything here has a speaker in front of it. So if you make something that goes up to the ceiling, there’s going to be a speaker, at least one. The collaboration was really interesting. And I think it really was because we’re friends that I could actually let Ian know how insecure I am about making any decisions about anything having to do with the art. You know, we made long lists of people who we thought could belong in a show. And I would act like I was deferring to Ian, because I don’t know anything.
And Ian would go, “Oh, should I put it here?” And I’d go, “I don’t care. I don’t know. I’m not making any decisions about the way things look.” Then he would move it over there. And then I would say anyway, “I don’t like that.” Based on nothing. Basically, based on my background or my making it up, you know? But somehow, we managed to make it work. You know, I feel very insecure about— Well, for example, all of my work involves text. I work with a lot of text; I make my own librettos. So I almost always use text that exists, and I adapt it to my own uses. So I’m constantly involved working with text, and I love to work with text. But I would never start from a blank page, to write something. I can make something exist in a format, so that music makes sense with it; but I can never start from nothing. And I feel the same way with the show. I can look around and see relationships of things; but I would never feel comfortable enough to start from nothing. Whereas I think that’s what Ian does all the time.
Miller: We have just a few more minutes left, right? We’re trying to finish at seven-thirty?
Man: Hi. For this show, you’re using the artists’ own rules as your texts. When you were setting them, did you concoct some rules for yourself that you followed?
Lang: Well, my rules were all kind of specific to the project. So the first rule was that this beautiful piece— Which as soon as we’re doing talking, is going to get turned back on and the sound will get turned back on; it’s this beautiful piece with the clinking china. So I knew that this was going to be here, and I wanted to make sure that the voices sounded really good with it, so I tuned it to the same notes, you know? I tuned the music, I made the decisions about what the singers would sing, so that it would live in a harmonious world with this piece. I wanted to make sure that all the voices could be individuals and could be heard; that they would be emotional, in some way. Because I think that these people— I asked them this question, and some of them answered in a very dry way, or some of them were very silly, or some of them tried to avoid the question, or some of them were dead.
You know, so I got a bunch, a range of answers; but I treated them all as if the singers were telling you something deeply personal. Because really, how people work is very personal. And I wanted to treat them that way, as individuals singing something that’s very expressive, that’s revealing a truth about themselves. And I wanted each of those to be heard. So then I worked with Jody to make sure that only a few of them were heard at the same time, and that they were spaced out in a particular way and at the right volume, and that the speakers were placed— We worked very well with Ian and his staff, with the placement of the speakers, so that everything would be as respectful to the artists as possible. But basically, the major pre-compositional thing was to treat every single statement that an artist made as being an emotional response, and to make them all sound as if they were the resonance of this pool.
Miller: Final question? Anybody? Oh, sorry.
Woman: [inaudible] in terms of composition, music composition, we can see beautiful colors or image. Do you ever see a visual composition make beautiful music? I don’t know if you understand.
Lang: I’m not a visual person at all, so— I’m really not. You know, I have one outfit I wear, and that’s it, you know? I think about other things, you know. So I don’t actually see things and I don’t actually hear things. I think about how relationships between sounds change over time. That’s sort of how I think about this, you know? There are composers who associate visual things with music. So there’re people who actually— There’s a medical term for it, called synesthesia, were you have music and color associated. And Scriabin or Messiaen or Michael Torke or whatever—you know, there are people who associate colors and music. And I think that’s totally great, but I actually— And I don’t work from the inspiration side, so I don’t go out and think, it’s a beautiful day and the grass is green, and there’s a cloud and there’s a beautiful bird, and I hear a symphony. Which some people do. And I don’t mean to say anything bad about it.
But my thinking is really something else. My thinking is always about, there is a way that music can connect people, that may be interesting, that it hasn’t been tried yet. And I’m curious about that; I’m going to do it.
Miller: Paul, did you want to just wrap up?
Man: Thank you very much.
Miller: Our pleasure.
Lang: Thank you. [applause]