David Lang has been a musical hero of mine for a very long time. The piece wherein I understood, where I caught the bug, was a Lang composition for six pianos, recorded twenty-five years ago by the ensemble called Piano, titled “Face So Pale.” It has an utterly stable, even unyielding, melodic home. It’s pristine and sad and beautiful and monolithic. It’s essentially a drone for eight or nine minutes played by six players on six pianofortes with eighty-eight pitches, much of them, in this recording, entirely unused. When I encountered “Face So Pale,” I knew I was in the hands of a contemporary musical thinker that I could really invest in.
In the years after, there were a great number of recordings by Lang that were of a similarly deep cast for me: powerful, complex, supple, listenable over protracted periods of time, even years and years. “Child” from 2001 and “The Passing Measures” from 1998 (two orchestral works), The Woodmans from 2011 (a soundtrack from the documentary of the same name, performed by the ensemble called So Percussion), “Love Fail,” a sort of modern madrigal sequence performed by Anonymous 4… these are all incredibly important and moving contemporary works, and they are just a beginning, a way into a very diverse and significant body of work.
Lang, of course, is not only a great composer in his own right; he is also a chief instigator and artistic director of the Bang on a Can organization and its various spinoffs, alongside Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon. My engagements with Bang on a Can, whether in the form of attendance at the marathons they hold annually in New York City, or with their many recordings, including especially the performances of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, are now so numerous and varied that I would say, in a way, that Bang on a Can better exemplifies what kind of music I listen than any other musical organization today. Their anti-establishment, pro-experiment, post-genre, non-elitist, and democratic model of being and funding and playing is just where serious music, or music for adults, should be these days.
With all of this in mind, I was incredibly excited to have had the opportunity to talk with David Lang, especially because of the occasion at hand, the recent performance of Lang’s Symphony for a Broken Orchestra, the circumstances of which are described below, and the subject of which is exactly as the title would suggest. We talked by phone in the early part of December.
The Rumpus: Can I ask you some questions about the new piece (Symphony for a Broken Orchestra)?
David Lang: Please!
Rumpus: I listened to it yesterday and I listened to it with incredible delight.
Lang: Thank you.
Rumpus: So, can you recap the backstory for me? I’m interested how you came to the piece.
Lang: What came to me was kind of vague. The guy who runs the Contemporary Art Museum at Temple University (Rob Blackson) got access to all the broken instruments in the Philadelphia public school system and he didn’t really know what to do with them. He thought: “I need to figure out something cool to do with this,” so he called me up and, trying to think of something, said: “Can you do something with them?” So, basically he was the person who did all the hard work and I probably would not ever have thought of accumulating all the broken instruments in Philadelphia to do this project but, once he called me, I immediately knew this was an amazing project, one I would enjoy. He is the person who came up with the idea to do something and I was the person that came up with the idea to do this thing. All of these things about the life cycle of the pieces and what to do with them and to repair them, those were things we worked out together.
Rumpus: That’s what I wanted to ask about next. What was the work flow diagram for assembling this warehouse of broken instruments into the ensemble that you wanted to work with?
Lang: The first thing that needed to happen was to figure out what they were and what they could do. I think one of the interesting things about a broken instrument is that it’s unique. When you make a violin, the point is that it should look like every other violin and sound like every other violin and that’s what makes it dependable as a violin but, when you say that an instrument is broken, they may be broken in similar ways but the result means that it has its own unique character. Instead of just looking at them as damaged Western instruments that couldn’t ever be used again, which is the way they had been treated, I thought it was more respectful to them to say that you are now changed into something that has new capabilities. So, to respect them, we needed to figure out what those new capabilities were.
My suggestion was, before we did anything, that we needed to investigate every individual instrument. We needed to document it and archive it and sample its sound. We needed to make a kind of database of these unique instruments and what their uniqueness was and so we hired the social action wing of the Bang on a Can organization, which is this group called Found Sound Nation. They’re people who do education projects for Bang on a Can, and they also go around the world doing musical good deeds. We enlisted them to look at every single instrument, to document it, to play it, to try to see what its capabilities were.
We made this incredible online database of all these incredible broken samples which are now available for other people to download and use and find. One of the very interesting things about the project, which I felt very strongly about, is that when we say that the instruments are broken all that we really mean is that they are no longer able to function the way that Western classical instruments are supposed to function. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have musical capabilities.
If you take a violin: a violin has all these really sophisticated, Western things on it—it has a finger board and it has a sounding board and it has a sounding pin in the middle. It has a bridge that raises the strings up over the body; it has four strings; it has tuning pegs… If any of those things is broken, it can’t be played as a Western violin. But there are lots of musical cultures in the world that have one-stringed instruments where a string is strung across a piece of wood. And so, a lot of the instruments were things that had been, in a way, made more international by being wounded. Which I always thought was kind of funny! One of the things that was ultimately very frustrating for me about listening to the database—the Found Sound Nation database—was that every single one of these instruments was taken and investigated and played by a skilled, high-level musician whose job was to try to make the instrument sound as good as possible. The samples are amazing; they sound great! So, you listen to them and you go: “Where’s the broken instrument?” That’s kind of a revelation for me also, which is that I didn’t want to hide the fact that there were things these instruments couldn’t do.
There are a lot of these samples where, if you listen—the players at the Found Sound Nation are great—they’re playing these instruments and they’re so musical and they’re so subtle and I understand why they want to have them available as a sampling library because the sounds are special; they’re magical. So, my thought at the beginning was “Do I want to take these sounds and make something that sounds beautiful and sophisticated and magical or do I want to do something that shows how wounded they are?”
It seems like it’s the point of this piece to draw attention to the fact that these instruments are wounded; it shouldn’t be something that tries to hide it. It should be trying to foreground that so the larger issue can be dealt with which is how to bring a community together to pay for its instruments to be repaired.
Rumpus: Is there a commentary about music education that’s built into the piece? Was that there from the outset?
Lang: I’m a musician because of the public schools. My parents weren’t interested in music at all and I even went to college as a chemistry student (pre-med) because I has been raised to think that being a musician was a dopey thing to do. The only reason I became a musician was because I got accidentally exposed to music in my elementary school. I was lucky because my public schools—my very good, academically oriented elementary, junior and high schools, all public schools in Los Angeles—all had music programs. At the same time, I’m doing my science work that I’m trying to focus on so I can go to medical school like my dad. I got enormous pressure from [my parents] my entire life, you know, about how I disappointed them by being a musician. The only thing that stood up for me was music in the public schools. That was it. That was the only place where I got the sense that I was not throwing my life away by wanting to play in an orchestra or sing in a choir.
So, when Rob called me and said he had these broken instruments and he went, “I don’t know what to do with them; should I commission ten composers to make little chamber pieces with them? I don’t know what to do,” I immediately saw this opportunity autobiographically which is this thing, this issue of broken instruments in the schools. Not only does it resonate with me autobiographically but this was the thing that made me into a human being, you know, that made it possible for me to imagine how our society worked and how to live with other people and how to accomplish something and how to live my life. If these instruments were not in the public schools, if they were so broken that kids couldn’t have them, then all those other kids who would have the same possibility to have that experience that I had, they weren’t getting that chance. So, these people were not having the opportunity to have their lives enriched or changed.
When he called, it was immediate to me that this was a tragedy. The tragedy was not a tragedy just to the individuals whose lives were not going to be changed but it’s a tragedy to the community of people who are not going to be enriched by people who know what music is. That’s why—very, very immediately—this hit me that this had to be a community event with as many musicians as possible. It had to be musicians who represented the entire range of music-making in the city, so both members of the Philadelphia Orchestra and school children. We had students who didn’t know how to play instruments but were in the music programs of the public schools in Philadelphia; some of them brought their parents into the orchestra who didn’t know how to play instruments. The range of people really was so moving because it was everybody in Philadelphia who wished that music was part of their lives.
Rumpus: You’ve been making some conceptually formulated pieces recently and I’m thinking about the written-by-hand pieces you released recently, for example, and I’m wondering, therefore, if the Symphony for a Broken Orchestra is attractive to David Lang because he’s faced with all these compositional limitations that are so conceptually rich—a violin that only has one string or the like. Is it possible that that’s an attractive aspect of the idea here, too?
Lang: Well, I can answer that in a kind of long-winded way if you don’t mind.
Rumpus: Of course!
Lang: Because I was a chemistry student and was never supposed to be a musician, I always felt like I was an outsider looking at music going “Why is this interesting to me? Why should I be doing this?” and I never felt like I was a natural musician. I never was somebody who, at the age of two, walked over to a piano and fiddled around and discovered I liked making sounds and I’m just going to keep making sounds. It came into my life, kind of, as a conceptual problem and I think all my pieces are, in a way, looking at some issue and sometimes veering toward an inside baseball model of classical music.
Lang: They’re dopey issues of how we learn stuff or how we write stuff and some of them are bigger issues we kind of take for granted which are asking, “Why do we take that for granted?” I think all my pieces begin a conceptual problem to solve and, if I had to start with a piece of music where I went, “The beginning impulse of this piece is me sitting down at the piano moving my fingers until I come up with something beautiful,” which is a completely legitimate way to make music, you know, but I can’t do it that way. I’ve never been able to work that way. The music, to me, is always the byproduct of something else, of a kind of thought process. So, 1960s conceptual art is where I learned how to think about how to be an artist.
Another thing about it, too, which is on another subject but it’s sort of related for me, which is that I think, when you’re a young composer, and I don’t know if this is true for writing as well—I’m sure some of these pressures are the same—but you’re told constantly that what you’re supposed to do is figure out what your voice is. “What is your thing supposed to sound like?” You know: “What’s the thing you do,” that everyone can recognizably tell from a long distance is you and then you’re supposed to be in search of that marker and you’re supposed to find it and you’re supposed to live there for the rest of your life. And it seemed to me, from a young age, that was what I was encouraged to do. You find a sound and that’s your sound! That’s what you do. That always felt to me like making yourself into a commodity; you do the thing that becomes your trademark and then you trademark it and then you only do things that point toward your trademark and not away from your trademark. That seemed really limiting to me and mercantile, so, what I started thinking was, because I like this conceptual way of working, what if all my pieces are all made with the same kind of thought and the thought sends them out to different areas where they sound very different. So, I have pieces which are quiet and meditative and pieces which are loud and fast and I have pieces which are aggressive and change every second and I have pieces which are one chord that last for an hour but the thing that unites them, to me, whether they unite to anybody else or not, is that they all were me trying to think of something that we take for granted, and that music is being used to solve that thing we take for granted.
Rumpus: I’m interested in your invoking conceptual art of the 60s. It’s a rich vein to be sure. I note that you are married to a visual artist as well. Does having a visual artist in the household support conceptual thinking, too?
Lang: It was part of my education and part of my interests. I’ve always been interested in visual art, not enough to do it, but sort of to be interested in thinking about it and, in particular, it was pretty much simultaneous when I discovered Philip Glass and Steve Reich. When I was working at a record store in the mid-70s and buying or stealing every record by Philip Glass or Steve Reich that came through, that was also when I found out about Sol LeWitt, and this whole idea of action and thought resulting in sound as being equivalent to action and thought resulting in a stroke on a wall or a movement in space.
I wasn’t raised to think aesthetically; I wasn’t raised to think, “Here is a beautiful melody,” and I know some composers and musicians I feel very envious of because their parents were musical and they grew up, from a very early age, listening to everything and becoming discerning listeners. I didn’t have that background; it was just like a lightbulb that went off that I should do this and I had to understand it. The thing that’s so liberating, I think, about conceptual art is it does sort of prioritize the thought behind a work and the work then is the doorway that you walk through to get to the much deeper thought and that was something I felt immediately comfortable with. I was interested in this long before I met my wife but it has been incredibly inspiring to me that there’s someone who is close to me who thinks deeply about art all the time and I’m sure that makes me a better thinker in my own field.
Rumpus: I feel the same way as I, too, am married to a visual artist.
Lang: Oh, you are?
Rumpus: I am. Can I ask you a couple questions just about the specifics of how you made the symphony? I’m really interested in its movement as a piece of music and its gathering of melodic themes and so on. I’m interested in how you framed up the whole—for example, the miraculous and beautiful opening section.
Lang: The first thing I had to do was figure out who could do it, because I wanted this to be as much a community project as possible and wanted to have this invitation to musicians of all abilities and to people who were not yet musicians. I had to figure out how to write it down—how should this event be made so everyone can do it? If you have musicians in the Philadelphia Orchestra there or other professional musicians who are involved, they are obviously people who are very skilled at reading notation and you can give them this kind of musical shorthand which allows them to make interpretive leaps from very little information but if you have school children who barely know how to hold an instrument or people who don’t know anything and you have something that’s complicatedly notated, those things are going to escape them completely.
I really wanted to have it be a level playing field since I wanted it to represent this community. What I did was, instead of giving people notation, I would describe their actions in language, in English. I wrote down for them things that I hoped each section would accomplish and they each had a kind of very understandable title. The piece is in ten sections, and one of the sections is called “Introduction of the Pitch” and one is called “Unstable Chorale,” so everybody gets the idea from the title: “Okay, this is the general thing we’re supposed to accomplish.” Instead of telling them in musical notation: “Here’s this note and this rhythm and here’s what you’re supposed to do,” I would just describe for them. “Begin to tap on your instrument and tap in this irregular way,” and, “This is how you do it.” So, that was basically the first problem to solve. I had to think of a way to describe the job to them so that everyone in the community would be on equal footing doing the job.
Then the question was how to set them up; if you are doing something about the community, that’s very different from how classical music is normally set up. Normally classical music is set up so you have professionals on a stage and a bunch of audience—it’s us versus them. You spend your entire time as an audience member looking at the back of the conductor so you’re already aware of a certain kind of hierarchy when you are there: there are people who can do it, who are on stage, and you aren’t on stage so you can’t do it. There’s also a conductor who is telling the people who are onstage exactly what to do and when to do it and so you know that person is more important than the people on stage.
Lang: So, you already know something about the power relationships which seemed very antithetical to the kind of community I was trying to build. What I thought was that we should have the people playing the instruments all around the audience; the audience should be seated face-to-face with the performers so they’re looking in the eyes of the people who are playing music for them. The conductor, who is needed to coordinate all the actions, should be completely invisible because I don’t want anyone to think there’s any kind of hierarchy. I designed the performance space so all the chairs are facing out in a circle and the conductor is in the middle where no one can see him except the musicians and the musicians are scattered in a circle around the audience.
I gave the instruction that all the seats are supposed to be as close as possible to the performers so that, if you’re in the front row of the seats in this performance in Philadelphia, you were four feet away from a child playing a piece of music for you. What those pieces of music were, you know, someone holding a cello that no longer has a neck or strings or a sounding board. You would see these people holding these cellos that were like empty tortoise shells, and it’s very moving to see these instruments. I wanted seeing the players and seeing the instruments to be a central part of this piece. I had to design this piece so everyone could play it, and I had to design this piece so everyone in the audience could see all the players in front of them, so they could see what was going on. I had to design the piece so that the people in the audience would look exactly like the people who were playing the music, so that the people in the audience would be from the same community as the people who were playing the instruments.
It was an incredibly diverse experience and this made it very moving. I really wanted to enforce the idea that the people in this audience are no different than the people who are playing the instruments, that the instruments are going to get repaired and that these people who learn how to play music, well, some of them may become professionals, but that’s not the goal. The goal is that these people get their instruments, they go back to their school, they learn how to cooperate with each other, they learn how to be better citizens, and they graduate from those schools. They live in that community; they don’t leave. They become the leaders of the community for the next generations of school children.
So, anything I could do to equalize things, I wanted to do it, and that became true with the music as well. I tried very hard to make it so that no one had a right note or a wrong note. When there are notes and it says, “Play this note,” do I want people to find that note or do I want them to put their finger where that note usually is and be happy with what usually happens? I decided that I wanted people to, if it says, “Finger the note F,” to finger the note F and play whatever note they get—if what they get is air or noise or some other pitch, that’s fine. One of the beautiful moments I found in rehearsal (and it was really funny) was I saw this little kid and he had this clarinet and it would squeak every time he tried to play a note and you could see him getting very frustrated as he would try to keep the instrument from squeaking so, during rehearsal, I ran over to his group and I just said “Look! Everybody in this group: I need to tell you something. See this instrument? Every time you play that note, it squeaks and I see you trying to make it not squeak. The point of this piece is, when you play that note and it squeaks, the squeak is the beautiful thing your instrument does and that’s what you should be doing.”
Anyway, it was super fun! I can’t even express to you how fun it was to see these people play these instruments.
Rumpus: It sounds fun!
The piece begins with percussion. Is percussion, in a way, the natural beginning for this ensemble? To me, it’s saying that no matter how degraded, all these instruments could potentially be a percussion instrument. But it also doubles as a sort of beginning of music. You derive the history of music in the piece.
Lang: It definitely has this sort of Fantasia feel to it, like the evolution of the dinosaurs. Here’s the lava pit, you know. I thought if we started with percussion then every instrument is equal and every instrument is doing something it’s capable of, every instrument there is doing the same thing and we have a community of people who are equal. It is very true the way things were introduced was to say, “I’m going to introduce notes,” so then you get a couple of pitches where you get string pizzicato coming in so there is the introduction of pitch and it’s called “The Introduction of Pitch,” and then the woodwinds play a note and it’s called, “Introduction of the Note.”
Lang: It starts with the introduction to pitch, then long notes, then harmony. It really does try to perform my original idea which was the piece would be about struggling to have everyone play a tune together, that there would be a beautiful tune and eventually what would happen is that people would work hard to figure out what their instruments can do and, by the end of forty minutes, they would figure out how to play this tune together. That’s sort of what happens in it; there are a couple of little detours but that’s basically how it works. So, you’re perfectly right in thinking there’s something kind of primordial about it how it’s made.
Rumpus: I love the drone section, too, because it’s almost like you’re daring them to be able to unite on a pitch but it never entirely happens and, at least to my ears, it’s that beautiful sort of Portsmouth Sinfonia effect where you have to reckon with the idea of pitch being elitist in a way and that multiplicities of pitch are somehow much more expressive than pitch is.
Lang: I love this idea of thinking about music as trying to get away from musical elitism. It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes which I’ve heard attributed to The Plastic People of the Universe—my favorite revolutionary band—wherein one of the members was quoted as saying that “tuning up was a luxury of the bourgeoisie.” Many composers have spent so much energy controlling microtones and being very specific about how tuning works, about how to make things go very carefully and slowly in and out of tune and there’s so much beautiful music which is made this way and some of it is very fussy in how it is notated and here all I did was ask everyone in the ensemble to play one note together and it gives you this unbelievably textured and unstable and layered sound! There are European composers who have spent months trying to notate that to a professional orchestra and I could get that just by asking people to play one note.
Rumpus: When the sort of melodically ambitious part comes in at the end, how did you generate that tune? Did you write out a specific melody or did you just sort of direct it?
Lang: I wrote out a specific melody. I wrote it out in as easy a way as possible so that everybody would be able to do it. It’s the one part where everybody had to rehearse something together because most of the piece has people kind of joining as individuals so, again, people come together to do something and agreeing about rhythm and melody is one of the ways that we signal that people are cooperating with each other. I really wanted it to get there and, again, some of the instruments were incapable of playing those notes and incapable of playing along and they would just have to do the best they could but, statistically, I think most of the people were able to figure out how to participate.
Rumpus: Now, in the ideal world this piece would obviate the need for itself in that the performance of the symphony (and the tickets sales associated with performance) would help these people repair their instruments. And, if their instruments are repaired, there’s no need for the piece. So, it has a moral and practical arc to it as well.
Lang: It does and it was something we talked about from the very beginning of this project, which is that the concert was not the end of the experience: the concert was a way station toward having these instruments repaired. The kind of beautiful and existential thing about that is their uniqueness is already in the process of being taken away; those instruments went to the shop to be repaired the next morning and now they’re all in the process of being regularized. They’re having their independent, odd, quirky traits removed and one could look at that as their being zombified back into being Western instruments. I have no doubt we could have had a fundraiser for them and done some other kind of thing; we didn’t have to have a concert, we could’ve had a barbeque to raise money for the instruments. We could’ve had, you know, a bake sale, and that would have been totally fine, too. The idea was that we wanted to show them how they were at that moment and then repair them. It seemed like a picture of the entire life cycle of musical experience. It seemed very poetic.
Rumpus: Are you worried that other school districts are going to contact you?
Lang: Other school districts have already contacted us and, so, I have a feeling that there are a lot of broken instruments out there and it would be wonderful if people used this as an example. There are a couple things I must say about it without getting too political or unhappy. The first thing is a positive, which is that I think it’s great that a problem can be solved by an artist. We look in our society and, so many times, we think, “This is a problem that needs to be solved by an administrator,” or “This is a problem that needs to be solved by an engineer,” or “This needs to be solved by a politician,” you know. I think it’s important to remember that an artist could be at the center of healing our problems because, every day, that’s what we do. Every day, our job is to make something that wasn’t there before. We’re kind of built to go into situations that need a kind of fresh thought to solve them so I’m happy about that and I would encourage anyone with any problem in the world that needs to be solved to consider having any person in the creative arts be at the core of its solution. I think that’s one of our unused or untapped values.
The flip side is, this is not a problem that should exist. These are problems of neglect and these are problems of a kind of destructive thinking in our world, of people paying attention to how much they want to pay in their lives in taxes, or in anything, as opposed to first paying attention to what kind of world they want to live in and then figuring out how to pay for it. Ideally, we shouldn’t have these problems. One of the things that I think is really kind of heartbreaking about this is we did this with the help of a lot of volunteers. A lot of people from the public schools came out and helped us; we did this with members from the community who gave a lot of their time and energy. We did this with the help of a lot of people who put in a lot of effort and these people are all heroes. Fixing a musical instrument should not be a heroic act, you know. Having music in the schools, having art in the schools, having art in your life, should not be heroic. It should be every day. Having things we’ve paid for years ago and that we depend on kept up—our schools, our political institutions—should not be a heroic act. It should be part of our daily citizenship. The idea that we had to do this incredibly exhausting, two-year-long, very expensive, labor intensive, community-based action, is, one the one hand unbelievably great, and, on the other hand, really depressing.
Lang: The depressing part is when you realize there are so many things in our society that we need that we aren’t taking care of and we aren’t talking about. So, that’s the part which is really moving to me and which really angers me. It’s not the people of Philadelphia’s fault; it’s not the Philadelphia public school system’s fault; it’s not the administrators’ fault; it’s not anybody’s fault. It’s just that we are living in a world right now that is moving away from the things that make us human and the things that make us good citizens and the things that make us able to live together and it’s going to take heroic action from all of us to bring those things back.
Rumpus: That is very well put. One last question: what are you turning your attention toward now?
Lang: The piece I’m working on at this very moment is, again, one of these community-based, problem-solving pieces. I am doing a piece for the Lucerne Symphony and this is a piece in Switzerland and this is a piece that has no audience. It’s a piece where the audience comes in at the beginning and the first half of the piece is the conductor comes out and teaches the audience how to perform their part of the piece, then the orchestra comes out and everyone performs it and that’s it. It’s a piece about people coming together to make a piece of music and that piece is called Harmony and Understanding because, you know, I’m from the 60s. Doing these kinds of community pieces is not a large part of my practice; it’s a tiny part of my practice. I just finished a giant half-an-hour piece for the Seattle Symphony called Symphony without a Hero which is as abstract a piece of music as you can imagine. It requires a very skilled, high-level orchestra to play at the top of its ability for an audience to sit quietly and not do anything but listen. So, I still write all different kinds of music. I have a very wide range of things which I’m interested in and I don’t see why I shouldn’t be able to do all of them.
Photographs © Karl Seifert, provided courtesy of Symphony for a Broken Orchestra.