Eight Days of Steve: David Lang

Thursday, December 10, 2009 - 09:07 PM

One of my high-school jobs was as a stock boy in a classical music record store. A perk of this job was that I got great discounts on records and I would buy anything that caught my attention. One day around 1973 I noticed a Columbia Records release with a violin in a rainstorm on the cover. It was a recording of two recent pieces - Violin Phase and It's Gonna Rain. I bought it.

Violin Phase was immediately very appealing but the piece that knocked me out was It's Gonna Rain. This piece was made in 1965 by looping tape fragments of a street preacher's testimony about Noah's Flood that Steve had heard and recorded in San Francisco's Union Square.

It's Gonna Rain is one of those pieces that invents its own powerful magic, its own world. It is a piece that asks a lot of questions, presenting an expansive array of paradoxes, not the least of which is how an individual's humanity can become illuminated in confrontation with technology. The piece is full of real contradictions. It is at the same time aggressive and restrained, its means of composition is elegant but its source material is raw.

It is dense and complicated but it is made very simply. The piece employs a repetitive process but somehow moves forward with a continuously evolving shape. The man's voice is rough and human and down-and-out, but the music transforms the voice into something intensely spiritual, with the promise of eventual redemption. Most important, it is a deeply musical experience made from something that is not supposed to be musical at all - from the spoken word itself.

For me, as a young and inexperienced listener, what was most provocative was that this piece was clearly about something new - it wasn't about harmony or melody or orchestration. It wasn't satisfied to be about writing a nice tune or making a pleasant noise. It was a piece that was bursting out of the restrictions of the traditional definitions of music. Knowing that such a thing could even be attempted was a revelation to me, and I never forgot it.

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