David Lang Goes Back to Basics with 'this was written by hand'

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David Lang’s last solo disc, the little match girl passion, was a work that elevated the former enfant terrible composer into a more mainstream echelon: The title work on the Harmonia Mundi disc netted him the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 and the album itself topped many best-of 2009 lists for its Bach-ian traditions set against distinctly Lang-ish movements and gestures (to say nothing of a bang-up performance by Paul Hillier and Theatre of Voices).

For his newest release, this was written by hand, Lang subtly switches gears from choral ensemble to piano in a work that, like match girl, pairs two standalone works that serve to enhance one another in an intense listening session.

The title track was written quite literally by hand in 2003, a challenge the composer set for himself after realizing that he had spent the last decade writing entirely on computer. A seemingly imperceptible difference—notes on staves, after all, are notes on staves—there is a hint of back-to-basics that pervaces this 10-minute soliloquy.

The thoughtful repetitions are an ode to the naked process of putting pencil to paper, capturing the sketches, writing and re-writing that is apparent on the page and less so on the screen (imagine how this write-up would have looked had it been written on a legal pad rather than a world processor). Many of the thornier edges from Lang’s early work are here, like in match girl, more subdued and allow the composer’s intelligence to shine through more brilliantly.

Such introspection is most apparent during the album's second work, memory pieces. An octet of miniatures ranging roughly between two and eight minutes long, memory pieces was written over the span of five years in dedication to eight friends of Lang’s who have passed away. Even at the hands of lone, albeit incisive, pianist Andrew Zolinsky there is an explosive energy in this suite, both cathartic and empathic. How fascinating to hear that rage cede ten years later into this was written by hand.