Sunday we turned over a new page here at Music11, as we had our first full day with guest composer David Lang. He arrived yesterday, while most of us were off exploring, so today was our first day really getting to spend time with him. In the evening he gave a presentation on his music. As with Pintscher and Hoffman, Lang's presentation was absolutely fascinating. First he spoke about his musical background, including his first forays into composition by composing trombone parts to Beethoven Violin Sonatas, and playing them along with recordings by Oistrakh and Richter! His love of Bach and his experience performing in a Gregorian chant choir were also important influences. Lang shared about his struggle as a Jew dealing with his love for an enormously Christian music tradition. This challenge was an integral part of the first piece he shared with us: the Pulitzer-winning little match girl passion. In this work, Lang delved into his love for Bach's Passions while grappling with his position as a Jew relating to Christianity. He had initially intended to compose a completely different piece, setting a text by filmmaker/writer Peter Greenaway. However, Greenaway's text proved to be highly inappropriate in its final form, leading Lang to abandon the text and start over within a month of his commission deadline. Having previously considered writing a sort of passion, he searched for a way to make a passion about the suffering of someone besides Jesus Christ. Lang was primarily interested in the passion play's ability to ponder human suffering, rather than its status as a central element of Christian doctrine. At his wife's suggestion, he chose Hans Christian Andersen's story "The Little Match Girl" as his subject. This immensely powerful work exhibits enormous sensitivity and architectural craft. In my experience, Pintscher's music often uses painful materials to say something beautiful, Lang's piece uses beautiful materials to say something painful. (I realize this statement is somewhat unqualified, and is heavily dependent on one's definition of pain and beauty. I don't claim it as anything more than a subjective reaction. This blog does allow for the posting of comments, so please discuss!) Lang spoke about his belief that each work should have the same level of polish on both the large and small levels. Creating this balance was extremely difficult in the short time he had to finish this piece; therefore, he began sending the music in installments so that the musicians could rehearse while Lang continued working after the original deadline. He also told us about the near-disaster of having the finished scores trapped in his lost luggage on the way to the first rehearsals, forcing him to frantically recompose the last few movements in order to have them ready in time. On the whole, this mishap was a blessing in disguise. Lang said that the original version had been much more fancy and complicated. Rewriting these movements so quickly forced him to dig down to their roots and come up with something very simple and direct. The result is quite stunning - these movements exhibit strong connections to the great passions of Bach and Schütz, as well as ancient Greek tragedy. Lang managed to leverage the uncomfortable circumstances to compose music with a truly universal quality. (Again, my reaction - feel free to debate!)
We then heard a live performance of Lang's piece lend/lease. Deidre Huckabay (piccolo) and Katy LaFavre (woodblocks) gave a riveting account of this incredibly difficult piece. Lang's score provides only a piccolo part, requiring the woodblock player to find her own way of playing in unison with the piccolo. Katy chose to use five woodblocks and follow the contour of the pitches in Deidre's part. Lang's score includes detailed phrase markings, but is suspiciously devoid of dynamics. Deidre and Katy spend much of their rehearsal time developing and refining their own choices of tempo and dynamics. When they rehearsed with Lang earlier in the day, he implored them to play with much more aggression. He found their original interpretation to be too smooth - eighth blackbird flutist Tim Munro affectionately described it as "minimalist Schumann." Their rendition in performance was a synthesis of this original smoothness and the new edginess demanded by Lang. This brought up *once again* the controversial Matthias Pintscher question of how a composer should express musical intention on paper. Since Lang leaves so much up to the performer, the question is how demanding can he actually be when working with performers who have taken his invitation to play the piece their own way. Lindsay Kesselman, a singer, pointed out that there are different types of performers: some enjoy realizing a set of highly detailed instructions, while others enjoy the co-creative process of dealing with problems intentionally posed to them by the composer. This discussion helped us find some sense of synthesis to the various approaches to the whole issue of notation and expression. Obviously, this is an issue that has no final and concrete answers; therefore, continual fascinating discussions are vital to maintaining freshness in the way we approach our art.