ArtsATL > Music > Interview: Composer David Lang on “Little Match Girl Passion” and downside of the Pulitzer Prize

Interview: Composer David Lang on “Little Match Girl Passion” and downside of the Pulitzer Prize

Like almost everyone who listens to contemporary classical music, I’ve been smitten and pained and overwhelmed by David Lang’s “The Little Match Girl Passion,” on the Harmonia Mundi label.

A 35-minute setting of the Hans Christian Andersen parable, where a poor girl freezes to death on New Year’s Eve on a city street, Lang’s Passion finds a model in Bach’s “St. Matthew” Passion and won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Music. It is heartbreakingly beautiful, very modern yet timeless, and through seemingly simple means — four singers, who also strike small drums or ring bells — conveys stabbing emotional truths.

I interviewed Lang (at left) this afternoon, primarily about another work — his “Sunray,” which will be performed January 22 in Atlanta when drummer Glenn Kotche and the Bang on a Can All-Stars, the new-music collective that Lang co-founded, performs a concert at Emory University.

Nevertheless, “The Little Match Girl Passion” became a focus of our talk. In conversation, Lang is a gentle and witty guy. He’s a do-gooder from the rebellious, rock-inspired classical fringe. He has more recently gained respect from the tradition-bound corners of the classical community — and the rebel in him still chafes at that. Here is a bit of the conversation.

ArtsCriticATL: “The Little Match Girl Passion” to me sounds sometimes like English Tudor choral music, especially in ways when the voices sing a glorious gothic chord and then one voice adds a note and the harmony shifts abruptly, and it gives the listener a little chill.

David Lang: I wanted it to be in the tradition of religious music. I wanted people to feel the weight of religious music, but not Byrd or from any one period. I feel like I’ve spent my life writing complicated music based on one line… I was really drawn to the way Andersen found a moral equivalency between the suffering of Jesus and the suffering of this poor abused little girl, always with a balance between suffering and hope. With this piece, there was a danger that it would get too contrapuntal, too polyphonic, and after the first section I realized if it was going to work, then I couldn’t out-Bach Bach. I had to get off that playing field completely. The comparison would not have been pretty.

ArtsCriticATL: I read somewhere that Bach is, in fact, special to you.

Lang: Yeah, he is, but the Perotin-to-Machaut span [c. 1200-1377] is my favorite period from music. I’ve spent a lot of time there, that’s where I’ve spent a lot of energy, and gets back to my building complicated harmony off a simple line.

ArtsCriticATL: But that describes a style or really a structure, not a sound. How do you describe your “sound” — I can’t think of any consistency from you ….

Lang: You know, Steve [Reich] and Philip [Glass] do a remarkable job reminding you with every piece of what their commodity is. That’s not a criticism; their music is great. But I don’t feel an obligation about sound the way they do — that’s the skin. I didn’t become a composer because I loved sound. I first fell in love with the job of being a composer, and then I started writing music. My obligations are to my pre-compositional thinking, which is the skeleton. All my pieces have the same type of skeleton, but the skin is different….

ArtsCriticATL: So did the success of “The Little Match Girl Passion” change your thinking about composition?

Lang: How I wrote music? No…. But to tell the truth, I had mixed feelings about it [the Pulitzer]. The very next day people started thinking I was smart and a good composer and listening to my older music, which is a lot like the music they suddenly liked because someone told them it was good. I got a little cynical, and immediately people contacted me to write very traditional pieces, a string quartet and so on. Like suddenly I was safe and of the establishment and it was OK to listen to my work. I’ve spent too much time with Bang on a Can trying to make other people happy, on a mission that’s not about my music. I feel very deeply that people need to have contemporary music in their lives like they have film and books and art. Maybe when thousands of happy people are at a concert and there’s a wild range of styles, then my own music will find its place.

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