Performance Friday, January 27, 2012 | 6 PM

Making Music: David Lang

Zankel Hall
In October 2007, Paul Hillier and Theatre of Voices premiered David Lang’s little match girl passion; only a few months later, it won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for music. On this concert, part of the Making Music series that focuses on today’s leading composers, Hillier and his acclaimed vocal group return to perform Lang’s poignant work, followed by some of today's most exciting independent rock musicians who give the New York premiere of a newly composed companion piece.
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The Program


About the Composer

Passionate, prolific, and complicated, composer David Lang embodies the restless spirit of invention. Lang is at the same time deeply versed in the classical tradition and committed to music that resists categorization, constantly creating new forms.

Lang’s pieces often resemble each other only in the fierce intelligence and clarity of vision that inform their structures. His catalogue is extensive, and his opera, orchestra, chamber, and solo works are by turns ominous, ethereal, urgent, hypnotic, unsettling, and very emotionally direct. Much of his work seeks to expand the definition of virtuosity in music—even the deceptively simple pieces can be fiendishly difficult to play and require incredible concentration by musicians and audiences alike.

the little match girl passion, commissioned by Carnegie Hall for Theatre of Voices, was awarded the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for music. His other recent projects include reason to believe for Trio Mediæval and the Norwegian Radio Orchestra; concerto (world to come), premiered by cellist Maya Beiser and the NorrlandsOperans Symphony Orchestra; darker, premiered by Ensemble Musiques Nouvelles; plainspoken, a new work for the New York City Ballet; writing on water, for the London Sinfonietta, with libretto and visuals by English filmmaker Peter Greenaway; the difficulty of crossing a field, a staged opera for Kronos Quartet; loud love songs, a concerto for the percussionist Evelyn Glennie; and the oratorio Shelter, with co-composers Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe at the Next Wave Festival of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, staged by Ridge Theater and featuring the Norwegian vocal ensemble Trio Mediaeval.

Lang is one of America’s most performed composers. Audiences around the globe are hearing more and more of his work, in performances by the Santa Fe Opera, New York Philharmonic, Netherlands Chamber Choir, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Münchener Kammerorchester, and Kronos Quartet; at Tanglewood, the BBC Proms, Münchener Biennale, Milan’s Settembre Musica Festival, Sidney’s Olympic Arts Festival in 2000, and the Almeida, Holland, Berlin, and Strasbourg festivals; in theater productions in New York, San Francisco, and London; alongside the choreography of Twyla Tharp, La La La Human Steps, Netherlands Dance Theater, and Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris; and at Lincoln Center, Southbank Centre, Carnegie Hall, Brooklyn Academy of Music, and the Barbican.

Lang is the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including the Rome Prize, the BMW Music-Theater Prize (Munich), and grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts, National Endowment for the Arts, New York Foundation for the Arts, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1999, he received a Bessie Award for his music in choreographer Susan Marshall’s The Most Dangerous Room in the House, performed live by the Bang on a Can All-Stars at the Next Wave Festival of the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The Carbon Copy Building won the 2000 Village Voice Obie Award for Best New American Work, and the recording of The Passing Measures was named one of the best CDs of 2001 by The New Yorker. His recent CD, Pierced, was praised both on the rock music website Pitchfork and in the classical magazine Gramophone. The commercial recording of the little match girl passion received the 2010 Grammy Award for Best Small Ensemble Performance.

Lang is co-founder and co-artistic director of New York’s legendary music collective Bang on a Can.

the little match girl passion

In the Composer’s Own Words

I wanted to tell a story—a particular story—of The Little Match Girl by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. The original is ostensibly for children, and it has that shocking combination of danger and morality that many famous children’s stories do. A poor young girl, whose father beats her, tries unsuccessfully to sell matches on the street, is ignored, and freezes to death. Through it all, she somehow retains her Christian purity of spirit, but it is not a pretty story.

What drew me to The Little Match Girl is that the strength of the story lies not in its plot, but in the fact that all its parts—the horror and the beauty—are constantly suffused with their opposites. The girl’s bitter present is locked together with the sweetness of her past memories; her poverty is always suffused with her hopefulness. There is a kind of naive equilibrium between suffering and hope.

There are many ways to tell this story. One could convincingly tell it as a story about faith or as an allegory about poverty. What has always interested me, however, is that Andersen tells this story as a kind of parable, drawing a religious and moral equivalency between the suffering of the poor girl and the suffering of Jesus. The girl suffers, is scorned by the crowd, dies, and is transfigured. I started wondering what secrets could be unlocked from this story if one took its Christian nature to its conclusion and unfolded it, as Christian composers have traditionally done in musical settings of the Passion of Jesus.

The most interesting thing about how the Passion story is told is that it can include texts other than the story itself. These texts are the reactions of the crowd, penitential thoughts, statements of general sorrow, shock, or remorse. These are devotional guideposts, the markers for our own responses to the story, and they have the effect of making the audience more than spectators to the sorrowful events onstage. These responses can have a huge range; in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, these extra texts range from famous chorales (that his congregation was expected to sing along with) to completely invented characters, such as the “Daughter of Zion” and the “Chorus of Believers.” The Passion format—the telling of a story while simultaneously commenting upon it—has the effect of placing us in the middle of the action, and it gives the narrative a powerful inevitability.

My piece is called the little match girl passion and it sets Hans Christian Andersen’s story in the format of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, interspersing Andersen’s narrative with my versions of the crowd and character responses from Bach’s Passion. The text is by me, after texts by Hans Christian Andersen, H. P. Paulli (the first translator of the story into English, in 1872), Picander (the nom de plume of Christian Friedrich Henrici, the librettist of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion), and the Gospel According to St. Matthew. The word passion comes from the Latin word for suffering. There is no Bach in my piece and there is no Jesus—rather, the suffering of the Little Match Girl has been substituted for Jesus’s, elevating (I hope) her sorrow to a higher plane.

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation


death speaks

In the Composer’s Own Words

death speaks was commissioned by Carnegie Hall and Stanford Lively Arts, specifically to go on a program with the little match girl passion. The opportunity came without many other parameters, so there were a lot of questions I had to answer. Would the new piece be for an existing ensemble or some group I would assemble for these performances only? Would it relate to little match girl, musically or emotionally, or would it start from its own place?

Something that has always interested me about The Little Match Girl story is that the place where we are left emotionally at the end is so far away from where the Little Match Girl is. We are all weeping at the end and yet she is happily transfigured, in the welcoming arms of her grandmother in heaven. The original story switches starkly back and forth at the end, between her state and ours, perhaps in order to show us just how far away from redemption we are; it is Andersen’s way of making us feel left behind.

This reminded me of certain other stark comparisons between the living and the dead. I remembered the structure of Schubert’s beautiful song “Der Tod und das Mädchen,” in which the text is divided in half; the first half of the song is in the voice of the young girl, begging Death to pass her by, and the second half of the song is Death’s calming answer. This seemed to be the same division as in the Andersen story—the fear of the living opposed against the restfulness of death.

What makes the Schubert song interesting is that Death is personified. It isn’t a state of being or a place or a metaphor, but a person, a character in a drama who can tell us in our own language what to expect in the world to come. Schubert has a lot of songs with texts like these; I wondered if I assembled all of the instances of Death speaking directly to us, maybe a fuller portrait of his character might emerge. Most of these texts are melodramatic, hyper-romantic, and over-emotional; one of the knocks on Schubert is that he often saved his best music for the worst poetry. Nevertheless, I felt that taking these overwrought comments by Death at face value just might lead me someplace worth going.

I went alphabetically in German through every single Schubert song text (thank you, internet!) and compiled every instance of when the dead send a message to the living. Some of these are obvious and some are more speculative: Death is a named character in “Der Erlkönig”; the brook at the end of Die schöne Müllerin speaks in Death’s name when it talks the miller into killing himself; the hurdy gurdy player at the end of Winterreise has long been interpreted as a stand-in for Death. All told, I have used excerpts from 32 songs, translating them very roughly and trimming them, in the same way that I adjusted the Bach texts in the little match girl passion.

The question then arose of what musicians should play and sing this new piece. Art songs have been moving out of classical music for many years; indie rock seems to be the place where Schubert’s sensibilities now lie, a better match for direct storytelling and intimate emotionality. I started thinking that many of the most interesting musicians in that scene made the same journey themselves, beginning as classical musicians and drifting over to indie rock when they bumped up against the limits of where classical music was most comfortable. What would it be like to put together an ensemble of successful indie composer-performers and invite them back into classical music, the world from which they sprang? I asked rock musicians Bryce Dessner, Owen Pallett, and Shara Worden to join me, and we added Nico Muhly, who, although not someone who left classical music, is certainly known and welcome in many musical environments. All of these musicians are composers who can write all the music they need themselves, so it is a tremendous honor for me to ask them to spend some of their musicality on my music.



© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

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Sponsored by Ernst & Young LLP
Carnegie Hall's co-commission of David Lang's death speaks in the 2011-2012 season is made possible, in part, with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts.
This performance is part of Making Music.

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