CD review: David Lang’s the national anthems

First published in the Guardian on 16 June, 2016

David Lang: the national anthems
Los Angeles Master Chorale (Cantaloupe)

Of the three Bang On A Can founder-composers, David Lang’s music has always been the glassiest, the sparest, for some listeners the most precious. In recent years his aesthetic has become leaner still, pairing down already-simple material to gaunt extremes in something approaching neo-plainchant. the national anthems (note the lower case; there is nothing vainglorious about these anthems) takes fragments of text from all 193 United Nations member states and unfolds at speaking speed, plenty of room for breaths between phrases, plenty of clarity to the words. It has the feel of sad and eerie intoning. The Los Angeles choir clinches the right sound for Lang — unflinching, spellbound — while the Calder Quartet gives sleek accompaniment. Also on the disc is a new choral version of Lang’s little match girl passion, the piece originally for four voices that won him the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 and which in the mouths of many becomes a sort of collective prayer in the congregational tradition of Bach’s chorales.