David Lang Feature: March 1, 2011
Sentieri Selvaggi, Carlo Boccadoro
Rel. 1 Jan 2011
On Tuesday, February 22, 2011, Artistic Director Nolan Gasser spoke with acclaimed American composer and 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winner, David Lang – whose broad compositional, advocacy, and teaching activities have made him among America’s most esteemed proponents of new music. In this wide-ranging and fascinating discussion, Mr. Lang discusses several of his many recent and forthcoming projects – including a new film score, several dance works, and fascinating new encounters with works by Thomas Tallis and Beethoven (a re-write of his opera Fidelio. Along the way, the two discuss the work that greatly impacted his life, 2007’s Little Match Girl Passion, which earned him a Grammy Award along with the Pulitzer; as well as his activities with Bang on a Can, the new music institution he co-founded in 1987, his passion for teaching young musicians, and much more. Our interview is accompanied by a special Spotlight on Bang on a Can’s record label, Cantaloupe Music, which includes a FREE DOWNLOAD to all visitors of Classical Archives, as well a David Lang Playlist, and a set of videos. Don’t miss this insightful new interview!
“My principal goal now [after the Pulitzer] is to find those projects that are going to stretch me: that are going to be fun and interesting, that are going to make me work a little bit harder, and maybe that will take me someplace I couldn’t have imagined going before.”
– David Lang
Visit our Cantaloupe Music Label Store – with FREE DOWNLOAD
Nolan Gasser: David Lang, welcome to Classical Archives. Let's begin by talking about some of your current activities, which I imagine are considerably more intensive and exciting following your 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Little Match Girl Passion - which we'll come back to. I see from your website that you've recently had the premiere of a new soundtrack for the film The Woodsmans, that you scored for the ensemble So Percussion; this is your second soundtrack, if I'm not mistaken.
David Lang: Yes, it's the second film that I've completely scored myself.
NG: Can you tell us how this film project came about? And also: you once said that you're not really a visual person; is this perhaps starting to change now that you've scored two films?
DL: I still believe that I'm an advocate for those things that can only come through music. So, even though I've been involved with lots of visual artists, and lots of collaborative projects of a visual nature, I always feel that my job is to be the advocate for those emotional messages that can only come through music.
This film is about the lives of a family of visual artists, one of whom - the daughter - kills herself. Paradoxically, after her death, she becomes much more famous than the others still living in the family; and they suddenly become promoters of her fame, not their own. My job, I thought, was not to do something to heighten the visual aspect of it - or to even help the "movie" aspect of it; instead, I wanted the music to create an emotional under-story - about how people's emotional lives relate to one another. I wouldn't even say that I was "scoring" it; I was trying to do this separate, subversive thing underneath it - to link everyone's emotional lives together, which is the kind of information we can get from music.
NG: Right, sort of creating an emotional canvass that underlies the film… I thus take it that you didn't do such typical film scoring tasks as count out exactly how long a given scene is, and locate where particular incidents take place within it; but rather that you derived the overall emotion from a scene, and then forgot the film for a while?
DL: Yes, that's basically how I did it here. The previous score I did, (Untitled), was more of a typical "film score" - at least some of it. There would be a particular emotional change in a scene, where someone would look from one part of the room to another, and the music had to "show" how the character's emotion changed because of what he saw. In truth, I thought this was really "Hollywoody", and it was kind of difficult for me. But again, what I was trying to do was to present the emotional life that was underneath what the characters were talking about. And it meant that I didn't have to hit any exact numbers.
NG: No, sudden crescendo at 14 minutes, 32 seconds, for example?
DL: Yes - that would be so frustrating, because the composer wants the music to carry this huge emotional wave, and they give him three seconds to do it in. But this was a very different thing, the music is much more relaxed, and much more "moody".
NG: There are a growing number of "classical" composers - yourself, John Corigliano, Philip Glass, among others - who write concert works, but who are also finding the medium of film to be attractive. What's nice, I imagine, is that the director already knows your music and your style, so he's not trying to impose, as a typical Hollywood director might, by saying, "Here's what I want: this part should sound like a big John Williams / Star Wars passage"; but instead, saying, "You do your thing - that's why I hired you."
DL: Yes, that's exactly right. I got hired to do what he already knew I could do; and that was really relaxing.
NG: And are you finding that you're now looking for more film projects to do in the future - that perhaps there is something about the film medium that sparks your creativity differently than in an abstract concert piece?
DL: I don't think of it that way. The way I'm trying to live my life after the Pulitzer is to take on the most interesting, most enjoyable, and most rewarding projects possible. So, I can really imagine a film job being offered to me that I would really want to do; and another that I would not want to do. My principal goal now is to find those projects that are going to stretch me: that are going to be fun and interesting, that are going to make me work a little bit harder, and maybe that will take me someplace I couldn't have imagined going before.
NG: We'll come back to that life-changing Pulitzer in just a bit; but I want to continue on with some of your current activities - so people can get a sense of the diversity of your current projects. Another thing you're doing a fair bit of now - which also has a visual component - is working with dance. For example, you collaborated in an interesting way with two choreographers, Jessica Lang and Pontus Lidberg, on an earlier-written chamber work called Forced March…
DL: Yes, this project was for the Guggenheim's Works and Progress season; they found those two choreographers and gave them my music. It was a really interesting collaboration, because I had nothing to do with it [laughs]! I just sat back and watched them do something. NG: I saw that each choreographer took a very different approach, and that neither was told what the other one was doing - which I though was very interesting.
DL: Yes, it was a great project, actually. In a way, it's like using dance and choreography as a means to analyze music; that's the way I looked at it: they both had to choreograph the same music, and then the concert allowed us to see how different their versions were.
NG: It seems like Jessica took a more analytical approach - counting out the beats, for example; whereas Pontus adopted more of an overall aesthetic and emotional approach.
DL: Yes, he was much more poetic, and she was more rational about it.
NG: It's nice to know that your music can inspire both approaches. This is a balance that you've talked about - and one I think all creators think about: between technique and expression; and it's reassuring that two different choreographers could latch onto both.
DL: That's the great thing about it: the minute that your music is recorded, it's available for millions of people to do all sorts of things with it - whether great or ridiculous. So, I'm really lucky that choreographers like my music; there are some pieces of mine that have been choreographed by maybe twenty or thirty different choreographers. When I see them - posted on the Internet, or at a concert - I'm actually finding out the way people hear my music. The way a dancer hears it is very different from the way a musician hears it; and certainly different from how I hear it. It's fascinating to see all the different versions of a work, and I really welcome them all.
NG: It's like what many poets say: once they publish a poem, it no longer belong to them; and how they originally thought about it is almost of no consequence; it's really in the eye, or mind, of the beholder.
DL: Also, when you think about a Goethe text - which is set by Schubert, and then set by Schumann, and then by someone else in the 20th Century: in a way, the "meaning" of the poem is the total of all those different interpretations. So, it's nice to think that all these people are adding something to my work; it's very flattering.
NG: Indeed - it also shows what currency your work has at the moment. Now, you've also got another dance piece that just recently premiered - can you tell us about that?
DL: Sure, it's called plainspoken, and I wrote it specifically as a collaboration with Benjamin Millepied. He is one of the hot choreographers at the New York City Ballet - and around the world - right now; I might add that he's also in all the society pages, because he's the father of actress Natalie Portman's child.
NG: Ah, yes, of course.
DL: This one is a real collaboration; we had many conversations about how to create the project before I actually wrote it.
NG: And is this an actual narrative ballet, or more of an abstract piece?
DL: It's a very abstract piece; it premiered in October of last year at the New York City Ballet, and then was revised. Most of it was from Benjamin's ideas: he gave me a formal plan, saying, "Here's the number of dancers you have for this part; then it's going to go to a trio; and then to a solo; and then to a duo - and then at the end to the full ensemble…" He gave me a bare-bones skeleton of how he would choreograph each piece, and I composed music that had a shape that I imagined would work for it. We then went back and forth about how to adjust it, and the final revision just got premiered this past Saturday.
NG: And are you pleased with how the overall collaboration worked?
DL: Oh, yes. I thought it was really good; I was very happy with it: I like the music, and I like the dance; and the dancers themselves are amazing!
NG: I want to continue with a few more current projects, but I actually see here a few interesting parallels between your collaboration with Benjamin Millepied and the work that changed your life, Little Match Girl Passion - so let's use that as an excuse to discuss this work.
One parallel that I see is with the actual title of your new dance piece, plainspoken: I read in one interview, following your winning of the Pulitzer, how you very consciously decided to set the very emotional text of Hans Christian Anderson's story with a musical language that was decidedly "plain spoken" - to not overplay it for fear of making it exaggerated or even "cartoon-like"; this sober approach thus seems to be a theme in your aesthetic. The second parallel is the fact that as with Benjamin and your new ballet, Paul Hillier - who commissioned Little Match Girl Passion - gave you some overall parameters, including the number of singers…
DL: Well, of course, every commission comes with certain rules; some of these are things you can change or adapt, some of them are things you can outwit, and sometimes commissions come with problems - which are just problems to solve. With Paul Hillier, he gave me the number of singers; I didn't have any requirement to add percussion, or to write in any particular format, or have the story be about something in particular. But Paul and I had a conversation regarding his connection with religious music, and about whether or not I could somehow take advantage of that.
One interesting piece we talked about was Curlew River [Op.71 (a church parable) by Benjamin Britten, which I've always liked. It's is a religious piece about Christianity - without every saying that it's about Christianity; because it's presented in a church, you hear it as a parable. And so I started thinking about ways of "messing up" the relationship between people who are just singing, and people who are singing something which is interpreted as religious, or interpreted otherwise. This was my way of figuring out how to add something to the basic commission: here are four singers; you've got 30 minutes; do whatever you want.
NG: As you may know, I interviewed Paul some time ago [November, 2009] - actually one of the favorite interviews I've done, being a long-time fan of the Hilliard Ensemble. We talked about his commission and recording of Little Match Girl Passion, of course; he noted how he'd been working with [American composer] Steve Reich, and it was Steve who pointed to the Bang on a Can [the New York-based new music organization co-founded by David Lang, Julia Wolfe, and Michael Gordon] composers as the "next big thing." He met you and obviously liked what he heard, and told me, "I described to him the sort of piece I was interested in, which would be a narrative piece, in which a small number of singers - it turned out to be four - would both sing the various roles, and also would represent the chorus commenting on it." I jokingly made the point that it sounded like he gave you the formula for a Passion.
DL: I think there's a little bit of truth there; we talked about a lot of things. Perhaps because this is the one I chose, and it turned out well, he is remembering that he told me these specific ideas. But I think he would have been open to lots of different ones.
The thing that is interesting to me about any of these collaborations is that you want to make someone satisfied when they commission you, and write something that is appropriate for them; but you also want to write something that stretches them, and not actually give them what they think they want. My philosophy is that there's a thing they want lying underneath what they think they want. So, when I'm commissioned, I try to use my music to get to the level underneath the obvious level of connection. If someone came to me and said, "Here's exactly what I want, and here's exactly what I need, this is all you should do, don't do anything else," I wouldn't want to do that job. So, I took the things that he and I talked about, and used them to distill a kind of fundamental layer - of something that would be appropriate and meaningful for him, but was underneath the specific things that we talked about. Actually, we had started off talking about writing a kind of an un-staged opera, and that's why some of the storytelling feels the way it does.
NG: Well, in the quote he gave me, he's simply mentioned the number of singers, and that they'd carry out different roles - including a chorus; that's obviously a broad outline. He also added that you came back with your own vision, and that he was very pleased.
DL: That's nice.
NG: And I think that any good commissioner - any wise patron or commissioning entity - would never want to limit you and your creativity; that's why they're coming to you: that you'll surprise them and stretch them - and yourself, hopefully.
DL: You would be surprised [laughs]; well, you're a composer, you know…
NG: Well, yes, that's generally my experience. Most individual patrons who have commissioned me have made it clear that they don't want to interfere or restrict my creativity; they have some agenda, sure - a purpose or meaning behind making the commission, but so far, nothing too limiting. With institutions, it's a bit different, of course, since they have a larger contingent to deal with - for example, I just got a commission to write a children's opera from San Francisco Opera.
DL: Oh, congratulations!
NG: Thank you. They had some constrictions, of course, but they gave me the ability to come up with the subject and most of the parameters. At any rate, I'm sure that Paul Hillier - being so eclectic in his tastes, knew he was going to get something that he'd like from you.
DL: The weird thing for me is that I've lived my whole life on commission, until I started teaching at Yale two years ago; and so I've seen the whole range of the way commissioners talk to composers - and way composers talk back; and the enlightened opportunities are not nearly as frequent as one would hope.
NG: Sure; well, part of being a successful composer - or a successful artist in general - is to make your own opportunities: to learn from your models, but also to follow your instincts, so that you aren't pigeon-holed. And money plays a role too…
DL: Yeah - and the money is never good enough [laughs]! And it's certainly never good enough to make you want to give it all away.
NG: That's part of our mantra as composers: we can't sell our souls completely.
Let's come back, if we can, to a couple of your other current projects - and then circle back then to your 2007-08 success. I was very intrigued by the work you're writing for the Sage Gateshead group in England - a work premiered last November called i never, which is set to your own text, as a companion of sorts to Thomas Tallis' monumental motet, Spem in alium. For those not aware, the Tallis is a bit of a Renaissance musical curiosity: a work for 40 voices arranged as 8 choirs of 5 singers each - quite a "wall of sound". I understand that your text is a commentary on the original Latin, but can you talk about how you interact musically with Tallis' work?
DL: Tallis is sort of like [American maverick composer] Charles Ives in that piece: his motet has this strange combination of independent voices, and voices coming together in harmony - in ways that are very unpredictable. I wanted to push that idea as far as it could go. There was actually a limit to how independent Tallis could make his voices, because he was working in very resonant spaces - in churches; and so, there's inevitably going to be this huge "blur" among the voices. But my piece is going to be done in a concert hall, not in a church. And so I had the opportunity to make each part even more independent - not independent in that they're improvised, but that each part could be in a strange place: either by itself, or by hooking up oddly with someone else across the ensemble. It's like following up on a little thread in the original, and seeing how far I can go with it. With the text, too, I re-wrote a version of the original in my own words - again, to push it as far as I could make it go.
NG: Very interesting. Is your work also for 40 voices; and do you actually quote from Tallis' original?
DL: My piece has exactly the same format as the Tallis: 40 individual parts divided into 8 choirs of 5 - but there's no quote from the music; and there's no real quote from the text either. I took God out of it discussion, because the text has to do with this uneasy relationship between a sinner and God; and by taking God out of the text, it became a about the relationship between one person and another that he may have wronged - or that he had to apologize to. There's subservience in there, but not with God in mind.
NG: It almost sounds a bit like the Jewish feast of Yom Kippur.
DL: That's right - yes, it's a big apology piece [laughs].
NG: I look forward to hearing it. You've clearly given yourself one of those great challenges that a composer can give himself: to write a piece for 8 choirs of 5 voices each - and make it work.
DL: Well, I love the original so much; one of the things I love about it is that so many people know how the piece is constructed formally - though they can't whistle or sing a single melody, nor do they know any of the words. It's the way the piece is structured that made it so famous - and I find that very interesting, and kind of clever in and of itself.
NG: Incidentally, there's another great piece for multiple voices - written a bit earlier, the Missa Et ecce terrae motus, for 12 voices; it also creates a rich canvas of sound, and in my view was an astounding step forward in the evolution of vertical harmony - but that's another story.
DL: Yes, that's a beautiful piece.
NG: You've discussed how you wrote the text of i never as a bit of a trope on Spem in alium. Another interesting new activity is that you're taking a new approach to Beethoven's opera Fidelio, also for the Sage Gateshead. We all know that [Joseph] Sonnleithner's libretto has problems - but now that you have so many opportunities, post-Pulitzer, what got in your head that you had to come into dialogue with Beethoven's opera?
DL: Well, I'm composer-in-residence at the Gateshead, and so they have commissioned a few things from me - including one they said would be a "giant" piece. These days, I'm trying to figure out are what the most exciting and fun projects that I've always wanted to do - and now that people are crazy enough to let me do them, I can actually let my imagination go to places I didn't think were possible.
One of the things that has always been so frustrating to me is Fidelio. I love the music, but dramatically it's really flawed; the libretto is terrible, and it doesn't work at all in a theater. It's an odd hybrid piece that has terminal problems, which keep you from focusing on one of the most important parts of it - namely, that people need to be free! But the opera is not able to say the very thing that we need great art to express. So, at the end of the story, the man [Florestan] is made completely free [through the cunning of his wife Leonora - or Fidelio], and what does the chorus sing? Do they sing, "Long live freedom" or "Down with tyranny" or "People need to be free"? No, they come out and sing, "Happy is the man who has a loving wife." This is a disaster - and not a way to build up our society. And so, because people are now crazy enough to let me do what I want, I proposed to Sage: "I've always wanted to re-write Fidelio: I want to change the libretto; I want to take out the stuff that doesn't work; I want to rewrite all the text so that these characters have a different kind of narrative thrust through the whole thing; I want to change the parts of the story that don't make any sense; I want to make it work dramatically - and I want to write new music!"
So, there's no Beethoven in my music at all - just as there's no Bach in Little Match Girl Passion, even though I borrowed my favorite parts of the St. Matthew Passion. I took the libretto as a kind of outline; I chopped the stuff I didn't like, and re-wrote everything else. This is going to premiere in the fall of 2013, as a fully staged opera. I've been working on it now for a few years, and I've submitted my libretto to them, as well as some music. I'm continuing to develop and work on it - and I have to say, I'm really excited about it.
NG: I can imagine. It's not everyday that one gets to re-write Beethoven!
DL: Well, you know - I think I'm going to get skewered for it, because that music is so beautiful. I'm not trying to drag the piece through the dirt; I'm trying to make something that is noble too - but noble in a different way. I was going to change the title so that there wouldn't be any conflict, but I also feel that, in a way, my opera really is like Fidelio 2.0. It's like a commentary on the original.
NG: You mentioned that this is an idea that you've had brewing for a while. Can you recall when it started - was there a particular performance of it that you saw, where you came out fuming, and said, "This will not stand!"?
DL: I remember seeing a performance of Fidelio when I was in college - I believe at the San Francisco Opera, back in the early 1970s. I remembered knowing the piece from a recording; I listened to it before I went, and I thought, "Wow, this opera is really great!" And then I remember seeing it and thinking, "Wow, this opera is really terrible!" I remember so vividly the contrast between hearing it on a recording and seeing it as a failed piece of drama. Later, in 1993, when I got my commission from Santa Fe Opera to write something for them, my conversation with John Crosby, the Director and Founder of the company, started, "If we commission an opera from you, what would you do?" I said, "Oh, that's easy: I really want to rewrite Fidelio, because that piece has problems."
NG: And the line went dead…
DL: Almost. He said, "You know, our audience at Santa Fe already knows Fidelio, so we're not going to let you do that - so, think about something else." And I did [his 1995 opera, modern painters]. But that was a long time ago. So, I've had these ideas for a really long time, and again, I'm really excited that someone's actually letting me do it.
NG: So, entirely new music, but you're keeping some aspects of original libretto?
DL: Right, I'm keeping the parts that are interesting to me, and I'm commenting on them. For example, one of the scenes which has always been so frustrating to me is the Prisoner's Chorus, "O welche Lust" [O, what joy", near the end of Act 1]: the prisoners are let out into the courtyard, and they're transformed magically after taking just one step into the sunlight - from being murderers and robbers into people who love freedom, and who are inspired and touched by God. In that first production I saw, I remember thinking, "This is so ridiculous: they're in the dark; they take one step into the light, and they're suddenly different people."
In my version, Fidelio [Leonora] asks for permission to let them out into the yard, but she's not allowed. So, she goes to the prisoners, and tells them, "I was just outside, and let me tell you what I saw"; she sings a moving aria about running her hands through the dirt, and feeling the sunlight on her face; the prisoners are in the dark - that's where they live; and what they then sing is a very different kind of aria about freedom and light - a song which is more about how much they miss it, and their hunger for it, because it's been withheld from them. In other words, I'm trying to find a way to make the emotional feelings deeper - which is done in sort of a "cartoonish" way in the original. I'm not trying to challenge them, or get rid of them, or make them cynical, or make the whole thing about Guantanamo, or any of that. I'm just trying to make theatrical those things that were done un-theatrically; maybe I can make them darker, and more human.
NG: Certainly, bringing the story into the 21st century - where the theme of freedom is as vital as ever - is a good thing; and making them not quite as metaphorical and allegorical - or, as you say, "cartoonish" - will certainly help.
DL: That's right - although I hesitate to say that anything Beethoven did was a cartoon. Again, I know people are going to yell at me hard when this thing comes out; but for some reason, it seemed like this was a really good thing to do.
NG: Well, one of the jobs of the composer is to be provocative, and get a conversation going - and so this certainly will do that; I'm looking forward to it. Incidentally, some of the themes you just mentioned with regard to your re-write of "O welche Lust" are reminiscent of Secret Garden - which is the opera I'm writing for San Francisco Opera.
DL: Oh really? That's a great book, and a great topic for an opera.
NG: Yes, it is. One of the main characters is the boy Colin, who is stuck in his bed out of fear and illness; what transforms him to health and optimism are the descriptions of sunlight and the blossoming garden given to him by his cousin Mary - that alone transforms him.
DL: Right, that's very similar.
NG: Well, at last we've come to the end of reviewing your current activities - though, I'm sure there are many others. This last one, your re-write of Fidelio that people are now "crazy" - or trusting - enough to let you do: it underscores how your life has changed post-Pulitzer. I did have a question about how David Lang's life is different now, which you've answered a bit; but perhaps you can tell us what is the biggest surprise that you've experienced in your career in the wake of that award - and the Grammy that accompanied it?
DL: I don't mean to say this cynically - because I don't want to sound like a cynical person, because I'm not; but one of the frustrations of being a composer is that you spend your whole life waiting for people to take you seriously. And so, I'm completely gratified that, at this moment, it seems that people do take me seriously: I say things, and people listen to me; and if I have an idea about a project that I want to do, people's first impulse is not, "This composer is an idiot," but instead, "Oh, maybe this composer knows something!" The thing that is very strange to me is that I'm the same person that I was the day before I won the Pulitzer; I was already deserving of that kind of respect and thoughtfulness before.
On the one hand, I'm happy to have it now, and I'm really grateful for it; but I also feel that to have a healthy field, we need for everyone to be treated like that all the time - and not just when something good smiles on them. I've spent so much time with Bang on a Can, and so much time teaching, and so much time with general composer advocacy - trying to figure out how to build a world where composers will get as much respect as possible. Because why else are we doing it? We're doing it because we feel like we have musical opinions that are necessary to be heard.
So, there's a weird aspect about it for me: I feel like I'm really happy that now people are thinking that what I have to say means something; but I also feel that if the world only chooses one person a year to listen to, that's not a very healthy way to move our field forward. In a way, it's made me more active as a teacher, and more active as an advocate - trying to imagine a better world for composers to live in.
NG: You say how you were the same person before the Pulitzer as you are after it, but - playing Devil's advocate here - you now have this incredible platform; so is that not affecting your actual musical work: is it not having an impact, even on a unconscious level that you've been able to discern - just knowing that your music is reaching a larger audience?
DL: Yes, you're right - it definitely has had an effect. So much of what we do is about psyching ourselves into a project; about building our confidence. I definitely feel more confident now than I did two years ago. Because I know people are playing my music, I feel stronger; I feel stronger as a thinker - that I am now able to get credit for having deeper thoughts; and so I should have deeper thoughts.
And, yes, it has also pushed me into the kind of music I'm currently writing. It has been a great gift to me - but I feel that it's a gift that everyone in our field deserves; not the prize part of it, perhaps, but the confidence part.
NG: I'm sure that there are many composers who would nod their head to say, "Yes, we all deserve that kind of confidence and validation" - but it's in the nature of these things. The Pulitzer isn't the only composition award, of course - though it is one that has a pretty special cachet. And compared to earlier times in music history, we now live in such a pluralistic musical landscape: we all have multiple influences, and each of us occupies our own little pivot in the overall wheel of musical styles; so when you get an award like this, it's a wonderful validation that your own personal aesthetic - your approach, techniques, and inspirations - have been deemed as worthwhile. I'm sure that it very liberating, because it takes a tremendous amount of self-belief to be a composer, and until you get that validation, you have to be your own cheerleader.
LD: That's right. Of course, for me, the most important thing that happened was that it finally made it possible for my father to sit back and say, "Okay, I guess it's alright that you didn't go to medical school." That's actually of real value to me.
NG: Absolutely, it's always good to have our dad accepting that we're doing something worthwhile with our lives.
Little Match Girl Passion was clearly something that changed your life. Looking back - and thinking about your "plainspoken" aesthetic approach to the original heavy emotionality of the Anderson story; and your interest in melding aspects of Bach's
LD: Actually, I had no idea; I just was trying to do a good job. I really thought - like with this Fidelio thing - that here was an example of me sticking my finger into an electric socket. Here was a snotty Jewish composer coming out and saying, "Okay, I'm going to set a version of the most famous text about Jesus, and I'm going to take Jesus out of it." I assumed that it was going to be controversial, and that I was going to get myself in trouble. But for myself, I thought it was an interesting idea, and that it was worthwhile doing. And so, I was really surprised when it got the response that it did; I knew that I was going to take it seriously and that it was going to have meaning for me - but I didn't know that anyone else was going to see past the blasphemy of it.
NG: Well, there is a great lesson in there: that you've got to follow your own heart; and sometimes being an iconoclast pays off. And this is an approach you're taking in other works as well - such as your encounter with the Tallis motet, taking God out; and with Fidelio, taking Beethoven out: so, let the trend continue!
Finally, David, this interview is also being presented in tandem with a celebration of the group you co-founded in 1987, Bang on a Can, and it's record company Cantaloupe [see the associated link to the Cantaloupe Records Store]. We haven't had much of a chance to chat about this, but in the moments remaining, can you share with us your thoughts about where it's gone - I mean, are you amazed to see how much it has become a prominent institution in American new music; and where do you see it going from here?
DL: I just feel very happy that everything has blossomed so well for Bang on a Can. It was created to solve some problems in the world - problems with audience and problems with lack of openness to different kinds of musical styles, and different ways of presenting and learning about music. Those problems haven't necessarily gone away, so it's nice to know that Bang on a Can is still in the middle of this good fight - which I really enjoy.
To me, one of the best things about it is the school: we have a summer festival at MASS MoCA [the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art], an art museum in the Berkshires - unofficially referred to as Banglewood [a wordplay on the nearby famed festival at Tanglewood]. We do so many things: we have the "marathon" [their now-famous all day concert programs, featuring a wide array of musical styles and approaches], the composer commissioning fund, the record label [Cantaloupe], the Bang on a Can All-Stars, and other projects such as the new Asphalt Orchestra [see attached video]… but I love the school, because I love to find these young musicians from all around the world; to tell them that it's okay to be optimistic, and that they can decide for themselves what's worth doing - and to encourage them to do it in the most inspiring way they can. It's one of the most moral things I do; and I'm really happy that we've lasted long enough to start this school - because I feel that this is a direct connection between what's happening now, and what will happen in the future.
NG: Indeed, it is a major part of what we do as composers and professional musicians: to pass it on, in the most positive way possible, to the next generation. You are certainly a good example of why young composers and musicians can be optimistic; and I agree that we are gradually entering a very positive era in the history of art music - so I thank you for being a part of that, and thanks too for your generosity with this interview.
DL: Well, thank you - I really enjoyed talking to you.