The Deceptive Simplicity and Totalism of David Lang

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In recent decades, American composer David Lang has been best known as a founding member of the Bang On A Can collective – something of an activist-spirited composer/performer/educator outfit based in New York. In the aftermath of minimalism’s first wave, the BOAC crew has helped open up the city’s Downtown scene so that it may admit of many more styles and practices than before (under the banner of what is sometimes termed “totalism”).

In decades to come, Lang in particular may be remembered as the foremost composer to emerge from that organizational firmament. As aesthetically adept at conjuring repose as he is at slathering on layer after layer of contrapuntal thump, he has a broader palette than many of his contemporaries.

Lang’s early pieces betray the mark of the Bang collective’s aesthetics: Cheating, Lying, Stealing, collected on a Naxos disc of performances by the ensemble Real Quiet, is one of Lang’s best from this era. That album, titled after another like-minded piece, Pierced, also betrays just a trace of a the BOAC collective’s pop audience-seeking hustle, by including Lang’s arrangement of the Lou Reed song Heroin. But hints of Lang’s distinct, mature style are also in evidence.

Wed, an excerpt from Lang’s “memory pieces” series (with each piece dedicated to a deceased friend), gives listeners a sense of Lang’s skill not just at writing for piano, but in avoiding cheap sentimentality when dealing expressively with honest sentiment. The elegiac writing for strings on How to Pray also looks forward to the liturgical mystery of Lang’s Pulitzer-winning piece The Little Match Girl Passion.

About that Pulitzer piece. Written for a small choral ensemble (members of which are also required to play a bit of percussion), it doesn’t sound precisely like much else in Lang’s catalog – even the contemplative piano music that it roughly corresponds to in his chronological list of works.

In describing his approach to the Hans Christian Anderson fable, Lang has written: “The girl suffers, is scorned by the crowd, dies, and is transfigured. I started wondering what secrets could be unlocked from this story if one took its Christian nature to its conclusion and unfolded it, as Christian composers have traditionally done in musical settings of the Passion of Jesus.” By modeling his text in part after the form of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, Lang wound up doing something very Bang-like, in conceptual practice (if not in sound): exploding the formal structures between traditions, and pairing them up anew.