Rob Cline, Hancher, 319-335-3827
A UI homecoming for prize-winning composer
A UI homecoming for prize-winning composer
A UI homecoming for prize-winning composer
Composer David Lang’s University of Iowa homecoming will come a little later than it will for most alums. But it should be memorable both professionally and personally.
UI graduate and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang returns to Iowa City for a performance of his piece “love fail.” Photo copyright 2009, Peter Serling
Lang’s mid-October return will allow him to revisit and remember the campus and city that in the late 1970s helped launch him on a musical career that brought him critical acclaim, capped by a Pulitzer Prize in 2008, and at least enough fortune, as he notes, “to feed my family.”
It will also be a professional homecoming of sorts as Lang returns for a Hancher performance of love fail, which he wrote for Anonymous 4, an a capella musical group that focuses on medieval and ancient music. The performance will take place Thursday, Oct. 11, in St. Mary’s Catholic Church on Iowa City’s north side. To view a related story click here.
The performance is the latest in a series of Lang works commissioned and co-commissioned by Hancher. This one is co-commissioned by Hancher and Brooklyn Academy of Music 2012 Next Wave Festival, Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA, International Festival of Arts & Ideas, New Haven CT, The John F. Kennedy Center Abe Fortas Memorial Fund, and Wake Forest University/Secrest Artists Series.
“You guys have been really lucky with the people who run Hancher,” he says, giving special credit to former Hancher artistic director Judy Hurtig, whom Lang says “invented our relationship.”
“I get the sense that there are a lot of people who care about culture very strongly in Iowa, and one of the things I really loved about Iowa City was that it was a culture magnet for the region,” he adds. “Anything that came within a hundred miles, the gravitational pull of Iowa City just brought it in. There’s always a lot going on.”
Perhaps most importantly for Lang, this homecoming will be a family affair. Ike, the oldest of his three children, is a first-year student at the UI this fall. “I’m really happy I’m coming out because I’m going to get a chance to see him and make sure he’s eating properly,” Lang says, perhaps only half-joking.
He’s particularly excited that his son will be able to vote for the first time in a presidential election and that he’ll be able to do it in a swing state. As he told his son, “You are really lucky because voting in Iowa is actually going to mean something.”
What follows are excerpts from an interview with Lang.
You’ve said love fail, was developed for Anonymous 4. How do you go about the creative process … what to write and who’s going to perform it?
It’s so interesting that you put those things together because that’s what goes through your mind. There’s what you want to do and then someone has to perform it. So what happens is as a composer, you’re constantly trying to imagine the place where what you’re interested in can be translated for somebody else who has very different ideas or talents.
If I’m doing something with Anonymous 4, what I get to do is to think, “Where are my musical interests intersecting with theirs? How can I tell a story that’s important to me that also might be important to them?” Because they dedicate their lives to studying and performing music that may be even a thousand years old, I wanted to do something that way too. I thought if I could tell a story that reminded them of the stories they are used to telling and use their voices in a way that they’re comfortable with, then we’d be able to explore where our worlds interact.
That’s one of the interesting things about being a composer. Part of it must be lonely, and yet so much is about collaboration.
I don’t ever believe that the point of music is to make something just for myself. It’s so hard to write a piece of music. And if you were just going to do it to please yourself, wouldn’t you do something easier? Wouldn’t you do something that wouldn’t cause you so much anxiety? The point of making music is to communicate something. It’s to say “I have something I want to tell you, and I’m going to build a doorway so you can get to it.” And sometimes it’s interesting to build a door that a million people can go through. And sometimes you go with a door that a hundred people can go through. But if you’re not going to build a door, there’s no point in doing it. I think this goes with every single piece. What is the conversation that a listener is going to want to enter into with me?
So what is the conversation about in love fail?
There couldn’t be anything more universal than thinking about how people love each other, yet there are limits to that: what that love is good for… what it can and can’t do … the strain of trying to get along with another person, the very human tragedy of where it inevitably leads.
One of the things that’s interesting in this piece, because it’s a place for me to meet Anonymous 4, there are these things that have to do with old music. There are stories that I’ve taken from different Tristan and Isolde stories from a thousand years ago, but I’ve taken out the names and the technology—no spears and no dragons—so you don’t necessarily feel that it’s mythic or old. And then I’ve put them next to these very modern stories by this really great American writer named Lydia Davis. One of her stories is about a man and a woman who are in love with each other but they can’t talk to each other without fighting. So it’s like on the one hand, there’s this story that is old and mythic and highly idealized. And then another part of this piece is just a list of things they can’t talk about without fighting: “How much money you make? How much money I make? What newspaper I read? What newspaper you read?” The idea was to make the widest possible definition of the things that cause problems in relationships. The things that people have to overcome in order to love someone.
Must be fun to collaborate with people like Lydia Davis.
I am so lucky! One of the things I get to do in my practice is to think that I have the right to call up anybody to ask them a question about what they do. I get to use the music as a way to understand what other people do in other fields. Because I’m a musician, I have tools for understanding something and can call up someone like Lydia Davis and say, “Maybe I can use my tools to try to get at the core meaning of what you’ve done here.” That is one of the great collaborative things that music makes possible.
When you were young, what did you want to be when you were older?
I always wanted to be a composer. That’s it. I started writing music when I was nine. And it was completely by accident. I saw one of Leonard Bernstein’s “Young People’s Concerts.” My parents were not musical. Nobody in my family really listened to classical music, and we didn’t have instruments in the home. It was just sort of by luck that I ran across this Young People’s Concert, and that my school actually had some instruments that I could borrow.
What brought you to Iowa City and the University of Iowa?
I followed a teacher. I went to Stanford as an undergrad, and there was a teacher in composition at the University of Iowa named Martin Jenni, and he had come to Stanford as a leave replacement to teach for a semester. And I just thought he was amazing. He knew a lot of stuff that I’d never heard of before. So when I thought about grad school, I went to Iowa. I was happy I did. It was really a kind of golden age. I really loved it.
What drew you away from Iowa City?
I always knew from when I was a kid that I was going to go to New York. When I was a senior in high school, I was interested in all these weird composers that not many people at that time had heard of before. Steve Reich, Philip Glass, La Monte Young, and John Cage. I just thought that this was the coolest and weirdest thing, that people were experimenters in classical music. What a great idea. And somebody told me, “Oh, you know the interesting thing about all the composers you like is that they live within a few blocks of each other in Manhattan.” So I remember thinking—I’m going to live in that neighborhood. And now I’ve lived in that neighborhood for 32 years.
Advice for UI music students?
I think there are a couple of really important things. You need to be always really curious about what’s going on in the world musically—about everything in the world, actually—but especially about the musical part.
And you need to be honest with yourself about what it is you really want to do. You should try lot of different things and be really honest with yourself about which of them give you pleasure, or whether or not you’re good at them, and whether or not you think if you worked really hard you could be better at them. For young musicians, that’s the hardest thing, to be critical about what it is you can do as compared to what it is you want to do. That’s probably the hardest thing for anybody in any walk of life.
Do you feel successful?
I’m proud of the fact that I can feed my family. I’m really happy that people will let me take risks and do all these ridiculous things that I do. I don’t feel like I’m done. I don’t feel like I’ve accomplished what I want to accomplish and I’m ready to retire. After all these years of fighting and hard work, I’ve only now gotten to the stage where people are willing to ask me, “Well, what do you want to do?” And now, it’s like the second part of my life has begun. Now I have to figure out the things that I think are essential for the world that don’t exist yet, and I have to do the best I can to make sure they happen.