David Lang on “solitary”: ‘I made myself miserable’

From Thursday 24 through Sunday 27 November the Tenso Music Days will take place in Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ in Amsterdam. It’s been seven years since this ambitious choral festival took place in the Netherlands, and this edition features internationally renowned ensembles such as Cappella Amsterdam, Netherlands Chamber Choir, Polski Chór Kameralny and the Frensh chamber choir Aedes.

There are workshops, master classes and concerts that both present the canon of choral master works and new compositions by e.g. Tenso Award winner Georgi Sztjonanov and the upcoming Estonian composer Evelin Seppar. The festival will be opened on Thursday 24 November with the programme again and again, named after a composition by Grammy Award winning David Lang, whose solitary will receive its world première that evening.

Lang wrote solitary for Cappella Amsterdam, and  I will introduce it during a public talk with conductor Daniel Reusss at 4.45 pm, followed by a public rehearsal. I’ll also moderate the pre concert talk from 7.15 to 7.45 in Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ. Unfortunately David Lang cannot be present, so I asked him some questions on his new work.

David Lang

David Lang

What typifies you as a composer?

‘When I was young I got interested in all kinds of music, not just classical. I played jazz trombone in a big band and guitar in a garage band – I didn’t just want to do classical music. When I did eventually focus on classical music it always surprised me that it was seen as something separate from all the other types of music, that it was its own world.’

‘I would tell my friends that I was a classical musician, and they would look at me like I was from Mars. This always made me feel bad, but it also made me feel that we weren’t doing enough, as classical musicians, to advocate for the universality of the musical experience.’

‘Pretty much everything I have done for the past 30 years – composing, teaching, programming, creating Bang on a Can with my friends Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe – has been about trying to explain to the world that all borders between musical genres are artificial and that they keep people from hearing things they really need to hear.’

Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem (c) Rembrandt van Rijn

Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem (c) Rembrandt van Rijn

How would you describe ‘solitary to a non versed audience?

‘It is a setting of the Book of Lamentations, that I’ve always been a big fan of. Ít seems to see deep inside the weaknesses of people, into the darkest places in our souls, and it is very clear about the punishments we deserve for not being better people. Some biblical texts are much softer encouragements for us to try to do better, but Lamentations is hard core.  I wanted to look closely at just how hard core it is, so I made my lyrics by compiling a list of all the horrible things that will happen to us if we don’t change ourselves, in the order that these are mentioned in the original text.’

What did you do first when you started composing it?

‘In order to write the music, and in keeping with the subject, I made myself as miserable as possible. For me the great thing about composing is that it requires a lot of time spent alone, in my studio, trying to be honest with myself about what I think and feel. I am interested in writing this music not really to entertain people, but because it is important for me, as a person, to spend time examining my own life – trying to imagine how to be a better person, and how music might help that happen.’

‘So I started with my own emotional trajectory. Then I added notes. Since the lyrics are just a list of horrible things, I started composing with the idea that all the singers would sing the list from start to finish, in the most methodical and straightforward way possible.  This became the skeleton of the piece. After that I imagined that individual singers, like individual people, might feel the power of this list at different times and could emerge, as solos, from the texture of the choir.’

In my public introduction I’ll talk to Daniel Reuss and two singers in the hope of giving you some more insight into the music. 


About theaderks

Thea Derks is a Dutch music journalist, who studied musicology at Amsterdam University. She' specialized in contemporary music and always has an eye open for women composers. In 2014 she wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw and in 2018 she published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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1 Response to David Lang on “solitary”: ‘I made myself miserable’

  1. Pingback: Peter Dijkstra: ‘Glass was as groundbreaking as Harnoncourt’ | Thea Derks – Music Journalist

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