Interview: David Lang

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First published in the Guardian on 29 June, 2016

“I guess I’m emotionally complicated in the most simple terms,” says David Lang, Pulitzer Prize winning American composer, eyeing me with an expression that is simultaneously intense and placid as if to demonstrate the point. He’s explaining why his music has become such a favourite of choreographers and filmmakers — particularly the Italian director Paolo Sorrentino, who has featured Lang scores in his recent films. In the latest, Youth, Lang was tasked with writing Simple Song #3, hit opus of Michael Caine’s ageing composer character. Basically he had to write the ultimate tune: a melody so easy that beginners can play it yet so beautiful that it moves everyone to laughter and to tears.

“I wrote that song many, many times,” Lang tells me, amused rather than offended. “I would send a demo to Paolo and he would write back saying, ‘I’m crying a little; I need to cry a lot!’ He wanted to trigger a deeply complicated but very accessible emotional response, so I suppose that’s why he came to me.” At last the director replied with a one-line email: “now I am crying a lot”.

Which sounds like a daunting commission, having to come up with a tune so simple it’s profound, but Lang is well-versed in that art of writing music whose very plainness is loaded up with meaning. Over his career (he is 59) he has honed a signature sound that is spare and chiselled, especially when writing for voices. It’s a mix of minimalism, medievalism and sour-sweet pop harmonies; maybe it could be called neo-plainchant, with repetition and clarity driving home the meaning of the text. I ask about why he is increasingly drawn to writing for voices, expecting an answer to do with purity or human frailty or general unadorned-ness, but that’s not entirely it.

“Well, there is that, too,” he clarifies. “I mean, the power of voices is that they are people, that there’s no instrument between them and us, that they’re just telling us something. It’s the closest thing to a memoire or personal statement that a musician can give. But to be honest I’m not totally interested in voices by themselves. I’m not interested in all the splendid technical things they can do. Sure, they can produce lush, florid, wonderful sounds, and I’m in awe of that beauty, but text is the thing. That’s why my pieces end up being so paired down.” Even the spaces that invariably hang around his ultra-lean melodies (there’s a lot of space in Lang’s music) are saturated with meditative intent. To get a sense of it, listen to his little match girl passion — the piece that won him the Pulitzer Prize in 2008.

Lang was born in Los Angeles but co-founded an ensemble, Bang on A Can, which has defined an unequivocally New York contemporary music sound for the last three decades. Now he’s rooted in the city. “You can see what an old-fashioned Soho artist’s loft looks like,” he emails as we arrange this interview. “My wife and I feel like we are historic re-enactors!” He has a point. His home is on the top floor of a Greenwich Village apartment block with a brightly graffitied street door and no light on the way up several flights of creaky wooden stairs. At the top I’m greeted by a compact man wearing thick-rimmed round glasses and standing barefoot in a big family kitchen, bagel in hand. Parakeets and a turtle in the living room provide the soundtrack to our conversation (parakeets more than turtle) and for breakfast Lang lays the table with bagels, cream cheese, smoked salmon, filter coffee.

It all feels very, well, New York, and a long way from WWI and the Battle of the Somme. But that’s what we’re here to discuss — or rather, we’re here to discuss a piece called Memorial Ground that Lang has written for amateur and professional choirs to commemorate the centenary of the Somme, which began with the bloodiest day in British military history. Co-commissioned by the East Neuk Festival and a UK-wide cultural programme called 14-18 NOW, Memorial Ground will be premiered in a potato barn in rural Fife by 100 singers from local choirs plus the Scottish Chamber Orchestra Chorus and the Theatre of Voices conducted by Paul Hillier. It will then be restaged by choirs across the UK, culminating in multiple performances around Remembrance Day weekend.

The ‘score’ for Memorial Ground is a loose thing. Lang has written a hymn that repeats over and over like a passacaglia. That’s the ‘ground’ of the title, and in Fife it will be sung by the Theatre of Voices. “The power of repetition!” he exclaims, eyes wide as he describes it. “Such a deep part of ritual and prayer!” For a text, he simply asked the internet. “I typed in the sentence ‘we must always remember those who…’ and google completed it. ‘Those who went before us’; ‘those who sacrificed their lives’; ‘those who struggle every day’. I chose all of the suggestions that weren’t pornographic or about a particular culture, which didn’t say something bad about someone or advertise a particular product.” (Lang uses this kind of google sourcing fairly often for his texts: “it’s super fun!”)

As well as the hymn he wrote a collection of little tunes. “Vague things, just shapes of things, not full-blown melodies. Motivic scraps, like cries of London.” He uploaded those tunes to a website then invited the public to come up with texts to match. Responses included names of fallen soldiers and snippets of letters or memoirs, and these will form the solos of Memorial Ground. Each iteration of the piece will be unique: how many times the hymn repeats, the choreography of the how the various parts fit together — all that can shift to suit the performers.

“It’s made to feel churchy,” Lang explains. “A broad doorway that lots of people can come into. I didn’t want to make anything too hard, too high, too low. Even in the hymn there’s a tune that says, ‘sing in whatever octave you can’. The idea is that people should find it useful.” He says he loves using music to solve problems — how to suggest nostalgia in Youth; how to atone for our collective role in poverty and injustice in little match girl passion. “And with Memorial Ground we have an event with both personal and communal injuries attached to it. The problem is how the personal and communal can coexist in the music. I needed to construct a ritual that would accommodate both.”

Another daunting commission, then: how to construct exactly the right music for collective remembrance. “Right,” Lang nods, but he doesn’t look daunted. “How to write something that seems ancient, like a kind of music whose origins we don’t question. Actually, these are exactly the kind of problems I really like trying to solve. You can do a lot of things in music that call attention to your own existence, your own skill as a composer. Flashy things, exciting things, grandiose things that show how great the moment is. Music that says ‘aren’t I clever for thinking of this’? But being an adult composer has been about learning to get rid of all that.” Perhaps it makes sense that his music seems to be getting leaner and leaner, as if searching for some nugget, some essence. “I’ve been figuring out what’s on topic and what’s off topic. That’s the struggle I’ve been having for the past 20 years. That’s the struggle I’m still having.”