In School of Music

Last week, Pulitzer Prize–winning composer David Lang visited BYU as a guest of the Barlow Endowment for Music Composition.

He delivered his Barlow Lecture on March 15 to BYU music composition students and other interested members of the public. His lecture addressed two recently completed works and the process by which he created them.

Lang first discussed his work, death speaks, which he conceived as a companion piece for the little match girl passion. He explained that both pieces arose out of his curiosity about death. While the latter took its inspiration from Johann Sebastian Bach and Hans Christian Anderson, the former is based on the lieder of Franz Schubert.

For death speaks, Lang compiled his libretto from all of the moments that Death, as a personified character, speaks in the lieder of Franz Schubert.

Lang also took inspiration from the intimacy of the cultural setting in which Schubert’s lieder were originally performed. While in contemporary society, people rarely gather together to sing art songs in private salons, Lang was inspired by a similar intimacy found nowadays in indie rock.

According to Lang, indie rock fostered “an audience that’s not afraid of weird things.” Collaborating with indie rock musicians allowed Lang to work with musicians “who started in classical music,” and were thus familiar with its conventions, “but,” as Lang noted with regret, “[who] gave it up because it was too pathetic.”

Lang also discussed how his work love fail merged contemporary and medieval sources (stories by Lydia Davis and the various retellings of Tristan and Isolde, respectively) into a meditation about love.

In addition to discussing his works, Lang also gave his advice to the assembled young composers.

“The hard thing,” he said, “is being able to step outside of yourself and say, ‘What I really wanted to accomplish was this, and I didn’t do it. Or I could have done it better.’”

He continued by saying that, as a composer, “your allegiance is basically to yourself.” When you don’t stay true to your vision, “that’s where we get into trouble.”

In addition to delivering the Barlow Lecture, Lang had his Pulitzer Prize–winning work, the little match girl passion, featured on the March 14 Group for New Music concert. That work was the subject of the Oscarson Lecture he gave on the morning of March 15.

Heralded by The New Yorker as “an American master,” Lang is co-artistic director of New York’s highly influential music collective Bang on a Can, which he co-founded in 1987 with fellow composers Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe.  The recipient of numerous honors and awards, he currently teaches composition at the Yale School of Music.

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