Jorge Colombo Talks With David Lang.

“Visual artists I know quite a few, so their work spaces and methods don’t surprise me. It’s the artists on different fields, like composers, that I am most curious about. Turns out a composer’s workday may be quite silent sometimes.

David Lang is one of the most accomplished contemporary American composers. A co-founder, with Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon, of Bang On A Can, his body of work is impressive by its variety scope. He has collaborated with all sorts of performers, composers, visual artists; accumulated awards, namely the 2008 Pulitzer; and is on countless CDs. For “Reason to Believe,” written for the vocal ensemble Trio Mediaeval, premiered in Oslo last October, he searched online every posted variation of the sentence “and I will make it” (make it up to you, make it fit, make it worth it, etc.) to compose a piece over the resulting string of promises. His January 27, 2011 concert at Carnegie Hall, “Death Speaks” was a collaboration with Bryce Dessner, Owen Pallett, Shara Worden, and Nico Muhly, composers with solid indie-rock credentials who started in the classical music world. “I did this piece to deal with that whole notion that these people came into classical music full of excitement and enthusiasm and the field didn’t have the gravitational pull strong enough to hold them.”

David lives on Greene Street, NYC, with his wife, artist Suzanne Bocanegra and their children Ike, Thea, and Judah. It’s a classic SoHo loft, renovated with interesting twists. A small theater, very Quaker in its starkness, occupies the front area. The couple’s bedroom stands right behind the red curtain. Directly above it, accessible by a ladder and barely holding two people standing, hovers David Lang’s office.”

-Jorge Colombo (his desk here)

“My workspace is a mess! Part of this must be because I am scattered and confused all day long, and my external world mirrors my internal pretty closely. In my defense, I have to work on a hundred projects at once – writing new pieces and articles, editing old ones, researching projects I have to fundraise for now but won’t write for years. Everything I need to do them all is within arms’ length of the chair by my desk. It may be buried under something else, but if I am going to need it soon, it is there.”

-Composer David Lang

(Listen to David Lang‘s Sweet Air)

Jorge Colombo: How long have you had this space?

David Lang: Seventeen years. This floor had been a sweat shop, and this had been an office  converted into a bedroom. We built all this other stuff, but this was the only thing that was left from the original. I like to find a little cubby hole to work. This was a nice out-of-the way place.

JC: Suzanne (your wife’s) studio used to be right outside yours. Did you two talk while working?

DL:  I think I became really annoying to her. She’d be working on the wall and I would just yell at her from the window, ‘I like that’, ‘don’t do that’. Now that she’s gone (to a studio in Brooklyn) I can play music and I can sing along as loud as I want.  It’s hard when two people are trying to work in the same space, as you well know.

I’ve actually become really, really productive and scheduled since I had kids.

JC: Some of the work on your wall is by Suzanne. She did a lot of your record covers.

DL: I have this piece which she made in Italy when I met her. I wanted to have that one up here. And this one is a very old piece of hers that a collector bought in the eighties. The collector turned out to be a crook who was thrown in prison. Then his entire art collection was auctioned on Ebay. So I bought it back.

JC: This is your old Casio keyboard.

DL: That’s been with me forever. This is very messy. It’s messier than usual. I had this idea that I was gonna remodel my studio over the summer. So I pulled everything out of the drawers and shelves. But this is as far as I got, and it’s been six months.

JC: Are those reference books?

DL: Music books, orchestra scores, chamber music scores. We have thousands and thousands of books in this house. But the books which I need, or books which I’m turning into operas, or which I’m consulting for my work, are up here. Same with CDs.

JC: And what is all this? (see above photo)

DL: Every wire I have ever owned. I’ve never thrown anything away. Because I never know when I will need it again. This chest of drawers has old tax forms and old computer equipment. This is my autoharp collection, because at some point I’m going to make a piece that has autoharps. I have a little medieval harp up there. I thought, I’m going to redo my studio the way sound is sent around in a way my sound system works. I bought this little mixer on Ebay and I thought, OK, this is gonna be really helpful for me. Of course I haven’t done the remodeling yet, so there it sits.

I was taught you should write with a pencil and a desk, away from a musical instrument.


JC: What is your routine like?

DL: I used to have an irregular working schedule. I would work when I felt like it, which was often never. The great thing about having kids is this idea you have your own schedule from 8 o’clock in the morning till 3 o’clock in the afternoon, otherwise that time is wasted and lost. I’ve actually become really, really productive and scheduled since I had kids. They leave, I come up here, I bring up some coffee, I start working.

We have thousands and thousands of books in this house.

JC: There is this perception that the composer tries everything on the piano, but that is clearly not how you work…

DL: I was raised by very snobbish, erudite European teachers and was taught you should write with a pencil and a desk, away from a musical instrument. The entire action of music should be in your head. And, if you need to hear something, you sing it back to yourself while you’re doing it. If you play things on the piano, automatically your hands go to the places where they already know things are good. Your fingers are shaped to find the chords which you have already played in the past. It’s easier to be influenced by the things you already know.

Of course there’s amazing music that’s been written by composers that work that way. You can go through the Brahms symphonies and see where his fingers are. He orchestrated what his fingers did, so if he had a progression that would go too large for the span of his hands, he would just contract it. That didn’t stop him from writing really great music.

Philosophically, it was important for me to have the idea of writing music be divorced from the immediacy of the sound of the music. Though I work on computers now, I still use the computer basically as a pencil and a desk.

JC: After you write the notes with the mouse “pencil,” do you play them?

DL: I try not to hear them too much or use the playback. Obviously, the computer can play back everything and you can spend thousands of dollars getting great samples from the best orchestras of the world. I’ve discovered if I play something back and it’s wrong, after I play it back two or three times I can’t change it, because once you hear it a few times you get used the way it sounds. Once you hear it, it’s fixed for me.

JC: I don’t remember having seen your scores. Are they traditional?

DL: They’re completely traditionally notated. I can grab a score. It’s just for orchestra and everybody is completely written out and told exactly what to do whenever they’re supposed to do it.

JC: Outside your studio you have a 40-seat theatre. What’s the story?

DL: When Suzanne moved her studio to Brooklyn, she was adding performance elements to her work. We were sitting around thinking, ‘we have this space; wouldn’t it be funny if we just build a theatre here?’ So we did. Basically they’re just excuses to invite people over and have a party.

JC: Have your pieces have been performed here?

DL: I try not to use it for my music. I feel like if I invite people over here to hear my music it feels a little too much like business to me. It won’t feel like a party to me.

David’s Classical Competition

A competition entry.

David Lang is here. Read The New York Times review of his Carnegie Hall performance. And, listen to more music here.

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