Take 5: Composer David Lang

Take 5 offers a brief introduction to Yale faculty members in a Q&A format. The featured faculty member selects 5 out of 10 questions to answer.
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(Photo by Peter Serling.)

Take 5 offers a brief introduction to Yale faculty members in a Q&A format. The featured faculty member selects 5 out of 10 questions to answer.

David Lang, a member of the Yale School of Music faculty since 2008, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer whose work has been performed by major musical, dance, and theatrical organizations throughout the world. Named Musical America’s Composer of the Year for 2013, he is Carnegie Hall’s Richard and Barbara Debs Chair in Composition for the 2013/2014 season. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for his “little match girl passion,” commissioned by Carnegie Hall for the vocal ensemble Theater of Voices, directed by Paul Hillier. His recent works include “love fail” for the early music vocal ensemble Anonymous 4, with libretto and staging by Lang, at the Kennedy Center, UCLA and the Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; “reason to believe,” for Trio Mediaeval and the Norwegian Radio Orchestra; “death speaks,” for Shara Worden, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, and Owen Pallett, at Carnegie Hall; “writing on water” for the London Sinfonietta, with libretto and visuals by English filmmaker Peter Greenaway; and “the difficulty of crossing a field,” a fully staged opera with the Kronos Quartet. The CD of  “little match girl passion,” on Harmonia Mundi, won the 2010 Grammy Award for Best Small Ensemble Performance. Lang is well known as the co-founder and co-artistic director of New York’s legendary music festival Bang on a Can.

What scholarly/research project are you working on now?

I am currently working on the music and the libretto for a giant choral piece called “the national anthems.” I wanted to see if I could learn anything about nationhood from the things that we believe in so strongly that we put them in our national anthems. I thought if I took one sentence from the anthem of every country in the world I could assemble a kind of meta-anthem, of what we all believe — our hopes and dreams, our ideas of what might bind us all together, and then I would set that meta-anthem to my own new music. At first I imagined that I would find this to be uplifting but what I quickly discovered was that most anthems are really bloody, with gory details of death and fighting and slavery. My libretto became terrifying to me. The music that I am writing along with these words turns out to be very emotional and dark. I am enjoying it immensely.

What world problem would you fix, if you could?

The poor people in this world are too poor and the rich people are too rich. I have a feeling those two statements are related.

What is your most treasured classroom memory — either as a student or a teacher?

Music composition is studied mostly in private lessons, one-on-one, so you often develop really intense relationships with your teachers. The greatest lesson I ever had came here at Yale, where I did my doctorate. I had to give a presentation to the assembled faculty and I have to say I was very arrogant about it. I had a private lesson right after the presentation and my teacher, the great American composer Jacob Druckman, was fuming about how brash I had been. He yelled at me for an hour, in what became ultimately a very passionate argument about the social aspects of being a composer — how everything we do is about making a connection between what we write, the community of people who perform it, and the community of people who hear it. It was essentially a lesson about citizenship. I have never forgotten it, and I have tried to instill the notion of citizenship among my students ever since. Without yelling, of course.

What do you do for fun?

I love to read, almost anything, and my wife and I spend a lot of time hanging out in the experimental theater scene in New York.

Is there something you’ve always wanted to do — either professionally or personally — that you haven’t yet?

Recently I have started stage directing my own operas and music theater things. This is something I actually started here. Last year the super-courageous leaders of the International Festival of Arts and Ideas here in New Haven let me direct the premiere of my piece “love fail” before it went on tour to such venues as UCLA and the Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Now I am hooked. Thanks to this experience here I will be directing several of my pieces in the coming years. One thing I would love to do professionally that hasn’t happened yet is direct someone else’s opera. Someone long gone.

Hear Lang talk about “Creating Music in the 21st Century” in this School of Music video.

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Media Contact

Susan Gonzalez: susan.gonzalez@yale.edu,