David Lang (11.29.06)

Posted on July 28, 2008


Not all rackets pay that well

Cheating, Lying, Stealing sounds like the title of a John Lee Hooker song—broken-down, low on dough, burdened with remorse. But this particular ditty, written in 1980 by renegade composer David Lang, is a different, more exuberant story altogether. This week, it—along with three other Lang pieces—will resound through the palatial gardens and Wayne Manor atmospherics of the Gardner Museum.

Lang is a 49-year-old maniac who’s marched through the last few decades of his life, leaving behind a trail of scrap metal, sawdust and broken dinner plates. Pieces of his music clamber around each other, trip over their own meters, and crash like televisions dropped down the stairs. It’s noisy and clumsy and hard to ignore; Lang would make a lousy burglar.

Born of the fertile soils of the California new music scene in the early ’70s—he moved from L.A. to San Francisco for a Stanford undergrad degree—the unbridled curiosity of Lang’s music has roots in a sort of blissfully naive ignorance and lack of concern for the financial stability of popular music.

“It was just a hotbed then,” Lang says. “You had John Adams at the San Francisco Conservatory premiering Steve Reich, Le Monte Young, Terry Riley, Philip Glass.” At the time, these big names weren’t exactly dominating the world, nor were they even considering it.

“No one was working with the mainstream industry back then. People who followed these guys, we just thought it was the California sound, just local music.”

Lang went on to found the Bang on a Can group, humbly writing hundreds of adventurous percussion pieces and composing the amazing orchestral odyssey The Passing Measures, in which one chord is played continuously for 40 minutes.

Somewhere along the way, he moved to New York and became a player in the everyday music world. His Anvil Chorus is routinely performed at percussion workshops worldwide. “I don’t think it’s a virtue to be unaccepted,” he says. “It’s just something that you can’t be afraid of if it’s part of the path that feels most creative for you.”

Following in this attitude was the fresh-faced So Percussion quartet, who approached Lang right after they got out of school in 1999 with the hope of commissioning him for a short piece. “These guys had just gotten out of Yale and scraped together a tiny amount of money. I loved them, and I knew that with what little money they had, all I could afford to do was to write a huge piece. I said, ‘I’m only doing this if I can demand a lot of work from you.’”

Lang began churning out the centerpiece for this week’s concert, The So-Called Laws of Nature. The half-hour piece is all wonky mechanics, ambling along like a patient little android wandering through a garden, checking out the bees and sprinklers. Laws of Nature (a reference to Wittgenstein) requires that the musicians play certain sections on instruments they build themselves, while other sections have them quietly tinkering away on teacups and flowerpots.

“I realized that these guys were really the most expressive in the quiet parts,” Lang recalls about the group’s first rehearsal together. “You never get to hear, in percussion pieces, the sort of range of expression you’d expect from something by Brahms or Tchaikovsky, but I knew that was part of these guys’ repertoire that I needed to use.”

In the end, Laws of Nature evokes a sort of widescreen landscape, with glassy icicles dangling from trees and jets leaving contrails across the sky. Highly subjective metaphors, sure; but the point is that the misty flow of the piece gives you ample space and plenty of time to sort it out for yourself. As much of a racket is coming from the scraps of tuned steel and planks of walnut onstage, Lang’s music is oddly suited to reflective listening.

This week’s concert promises to be unforgettable. The Gardner‘s performance hall is just weird enough (think Clue mansion) to throw you off-guard and make you sufficiently vulnerable to this stuff—which, like the whole of Lang’s career, doesn’t cooperate much with rigid expectations.

“I think, nowadays, things aren’t as difficult for people trying to do new things,” he says, reflecting on today’s ostensibly more open-minded musical climes. “The industry isn’t as strong and there really aren’t any benefits to selling out anymore. People have lousy careers no matter what they’re playing.”

[Originally Appeared in Boston’s Weekly Dig November 29, 2006]