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Composer David Lang on Winning a Pulitzer and Covering Lou Reed

Jonathan Horowitz’s Obama ‘08 (2008).

The current exciting contemporary-music scene in New York owes quite a bit to a 1987 meeting between Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe, and David Lang — the future founders of the Bang on a Can collective. Bang on a Can is now an institution, and Lang won a Pulitzer Prize this year for the latest in his canon of intrepid works, The Little Match Girl Passion (out on Harmonia Mundi this spring). He’s playing (Le) Poisson Rouge tonight in honor of the release of his new Pierced and took a few minutes to speak to Vulture from his Tribeca home.

How did you find out you were nominated for the Pulitzer?
I had no idea that I was nominated or that I was in the running, and actually I was the last person to find out. I was in a recording session all morning, in a really cranky mood, and I came out just to get a breath of fresh air at 3:30, flipped on my phone to call my wife. Immediately, NPR was saying, “So, do you have some comments for us?” And I went, “About what?” Apparently they’d been looking for me all morning.

How did you react to that, having been a bit of an outsider for most of your career?
I’m really gratified that people would listen to my music and take it seriously and like it … it’s unfortunate that some people will like it better now that it has this credential. I’m the same composer I was the day before I won it. So that’s slightly creepy, that all of a sudden because I have this imprimatur it’s safe to listen to my music. But on the other hand, if people now decide they can take a risk on me, maybe I can do even more ridiculous or meaningful things.

Tell us a bit about your winning piece and why you chose to use the Passion format.
I wrote it for this singer, Paul Hillyer. When I got the commission from Carnegie Hall, I did some research into what he’s done and realized that because he’s a singer, he’s spent his whole life doing vocal music from the Western tradition — which means in the service of Christian music. It just sort of hit me — that’s always been a strange sore spot for me, because I’m a Jewish composer, who loves classical music and feels it very deeply, but there are times you are sort of hit in the face with the fact that a lot of it is about being in the service of a religion that is not yours. So I thought I could do something more humanistic — make this Passion format work if I took Jesus out and put somebody else’s suffering in.

What is your writing process like?
My wife and I get our kids out early in the morning, and I get to work immediately. The great thing about having kids, all of a sudden you have a really definite schedule. Before I had kids, I could write anytime, 24 hours a day — which meant I didn’t write that much. Now, I feel like, ‘Okay, it’s a race against time — when they come back, all creativity stops.”

The new music scene in the city seems to be flourishing. Do you think a mainstream new music exists now — and are you part of it?
Well … it’s hard to know what a mainstream new music would be. I’m pretty sure Philip Glass can go to the grocery store and not be noticed by too many people. I don’t think anyone in my world needs to worry about becoming Brad Pitt — and I think that’s good, in a way. What’s interesting is you don’t know who’s making these rules about what’s outside or inside; it’s like a terrorist list! Maybe all anybody in America can hope to be is an outsider to the European tradition — that we’re the acceptable barbarian.

Tonight you’ll be presenting your take on Lou Reed’s “Heroin.” Why did you decide to cover it?
I was a nerdy classical-music person in high school, right? I played in a rock band, but I was totally unprepared for hearing this music because I’d never heard anything that was dangerous before. You get used to what these musics are for: Classical music is about nobility, about things with capital letters that are big marble busts on pedestals, and pop music is about dancing and sex. But I’d never thought of music as something that was terrifying. It was an introduction to a way of living I found scary, and still do. I thought for years and years I’d just make my own arrangements of those songs, and finally I thought, Maybe I just want to deal with the lyrics. The first one I made was “Heroin.”

So now that you’re living post-Pulitzer life, have you noticed organizations are more open to programming your work?
Yeah, I’ve definitely had good things happen. People have called up and said, “Remember this project of yours we were considering doing? Well, now we’re doing it.” But basically the real value of this thing is that now my father doesn’t think it was a terrible idea that I didn’t go to medical school. “He doesn’t make a good living … but he won the Pulitzer!” That’s really worth something to me.


Composer David Lang on Winning a Pulitzer and Covering Lou Reed