8:29 am Oct. 19, 2010
"I don't really think of music in terms of dance," David Lang said the other day. "I don't really like the idea of writing for dance. What dance needs from music is not very interesting to me."
Coming from a composer—a Pulitzer Prize winner and co-founder of the legendary experimental music collective Bang on a Can—who has had significant success writing for choreography, those are blunt and surprising words. In New York, in the last two weeks alone, there have been two major showpieces of Lang-composed dances, one at the Guggenheim featuring two choreographers and the dancers of Morphoses, and one at New York City Ballet, choreographed by Benjamin Millepied.
For a well-known and well-regarded composer, dance work is the kind of stable, lucrative assignment that can anchor a mid-career; the prestige and pace of commissions increases, along with everything else, after that composer wins the Pulitzer, as Lang did in 2008 for the little match girl passion. Audiences often think that dance and music collaborations are labors of love between friends—just like in the '70s! And sometimes they are. But more often it's, well, just a gig.
"You just saw three dance pieces of mine," Lang said, his bright blue eyes staring, "and I didn't choose the choreographers. They chose me. And at the Morphoses one, they didn't even choose me—they were assigned me. So they're not my choreographers; I didn't choose to work for them."
In a still photograph, Lang's eyes peer intensely from his angular face, but in person it's animated: he laughs easily and seems genuinely humble. We met on the stoop of his converted loft building in Soho, the neighborhood he's lived in for 30 years, now with his wife, Suzanne Bocanegra, a visual and performance artist, and his two kids, a son and a daughter. The rest of the Bang on a Can crew—Lang's best friends, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe, who are married—live nearby. Their post-minimalist, rock-inflected style is the last gasp of the homegrown arts scene of downtown Manhattan, once the place where those intimate cross-genre collaborations were easy. Going uptown to the Guggenheim and City Ballet, Lang's dance forays this month felt more like shotgun weddings, not unpleasant but a little detached, a little bland. The two choreographers asked by the Guggenheim's Works and Process series to set dances to Lang's work (listen to part of the score here) both produced generic, forgettable pieces. Millepied's ballet was likewise inoffensive, even casually virtuosic, but strangely pointless. The performances were reminders that dances can't rely for their emotional impact on brooding sounds and dim lighting alone. All three choreographers seemed stymied by Lang's music, even though, moody and propulsive, it seems particularly well-suited to dance.
Lang thinks that his music appeals to choreographers because, on a quick listen, it doesn't seem to change very often, creating the defined sections that dancers love.
"So choreographers can go, 'OK, this is the section where we hop like this kind of animal, and this is the one where we wiggle around, and this is the one where we carry each other,'" he said over grapefruit juice at the tourist-filled cafe across the street from his apartment. "And it's helpful for them to organize their thoughts, but they're not listening to it, I don't think, mostly. If you look at what Benjamin did, it's like, what was my job? He said, 'We want you to make a piece in sections,' so I made a piece in sections and he could make a dance in sections. I gave him a huge amount of latitude to change things and rearrange them because it has to work for him, and I don't care, basically. I feel like when I make a piece of music that people will play as music, I'm going to make it different."
It's a reminder that even for Lang, who is about as successful as a composer can be these days, there are those labors of love—he has particularly enjoyed doing dances with Susan Marshall and the Canadian company LaLaLa Human Steps—and there are just labors. "I tell my students that there are two kinds of work: there are jobs you can get fired from and jobs you can't," he said, "and you have to know the difference and you need to have a certain amount of work you can't get fired from so that you can have the right attitude towards the work you can get fired from. If someone else is in charge and is hiring you to make them happy, I'm not saying you shouldn't do a good job and you shouldn't try to be fulfilled, but there's a power imbalance."
Lang was born in 1957 in Los Angeles. He didn't grow up in a particularly musical household, but he quickly became a "classical music nerd," as he likes to call himself. In his case, though, the self-deprecation rings true: he was the kid who got to school early every day to blow the bugle while they raised the flag. When he was nine, he saw a screening of a Leonard Bernstein Young Person's Concert during which the maestro conducted Shostakovich's first symphony. Bernstein explained that the symphony had brought its composer overnight fame at the age of 19. All Lang thought was, he had ten years to go.
His first composition was a piece for trombone in which he played along to David Oistrakh and Sviatoslav Richter's recording of Beethoven's Violin Sonata. He didn't know how to notate, and drew squiggles reminding him when to come in and what to play. "I didn't think of it as postmodern at all," he said. "I just thought of it as, here are my friends."
In high school, he'd go around to record stores and offer to order their classical discs for them. He had been introduced to John Cage's work in a summer music camp between his junior and senior years, and when he was 17 he first came across the early records of Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and LaMonte Young. It wasn't just the highly conceptual, rigorous work that attracted him, but the do-it-yourself mentality; the composers weren't depending on established orchestras to perform their work, but were starting their own ensembles, producing their own concerts and tours, starting their own record labels, and producing their own recordings.
It was a degree of collaboration possible because all the early minimalists lived, as Lang was told by a friend, within a couple of blocks from each other in downtown Manhattan. Lang resolved to move to New York after college, even subscribing to the Village Voice while at Stanford. "The joke," he said, "is that when I was 17 years old, I was programmed to live where I'm living."
He met Michael Gordon at the Aspen Music Festival when Gordon was 21 and Lang was 20. Gordon was the first person Lang had come across who knew anything about new music; since each was possessive of the Glass and Reich music they both adored, they hated each other immediately. It was only a few years later, when both were in grad school at Yale, that they quickly became best friends, sitting next to each other for hours and writing music. In the early '80s, Yale was still under the sway of twelve-tone serialism — "saying 'Meredith Monk' was like saying 'Beelzebub'," Lang said — and when Gordon would do his strange, repetitive pieces, large swaths of the faculty would walk out.
By that point, Glass and Reich and the other minimalists had moved on from their difficult early work to a slightly more accessible, even pretty style; for Glass, Einstein on the Beach had given way to Satyagraha. Lang, Gordon, and Wolfe didn't quite feel betrayed by this. However, the turn of the minimalists from astringency to lushness (and on to the soundtrack for The Hours) must have had an effect on Lang's generation, teaching the lesson that, to become a famous composer, at least at the end of the twentieth century, compromise with the mainstream is essential.
"My whole thing has been to find the things that these two worlds have in common," Lang said. "How do you take restriction and repetition and show that it is a thing that comes out of the repertoire and western tradition? It's like an Obama approach—how to push the mainstream over to this place where I want them to be."
That delicate balancing of the accessible and the difficult has been the general aesthetic of Bang on a Can, which Lang, Gordon, and Wolfe founded in 1987. The group's annual marathon, which stretches 12 hours, is one of the signature events of the new music world, at which it's possible to imagine that New York is still a cohesive and exciting place for artists to make work. It's a scene that exists perpetually in the lives of Lang and his friends: at Lang's daughter's bat mitzvah, So Percussion performed "Drumming"—with the composer, Steve Reich, present (and kind of shocked that the piece was there as entertainment for 13-year-old girls).
It's hard to imagine a sweeter ending for a composer than having the idol of your teenage years at your daughter's bat mitzvah. The Pulitzer doesn't hurt, nor does a teaching appointment at Yale, which was always Lang's dream. The recognition has been nice, and there are some unexpected perks: years after Peter Gelb, then the head of Sony Classical, dropped Bang on a Can from the label for disappointing sales, Lang is now invited to performances at the Met. And it's much easier to get funding for what he calls his "crackpot projects," the things he's able to do because of all that dance work: a rethinking of Beethoven's opera Fidelio, at the moment, as well as an idea to have a thousand people singing in a street.
"People are paying me to be ridiculous," he said with a smile. "So I'm being ridiculous."
More by this author:
- Marilyn Horne, who ruled American opera in the 1970s, trains a new generation for a very different art
- Model citizen: Composer Eric Whitacre, dashing star of high-school choruses worldwide, makes the big bucks