David Lang: ‘Minimalism existed for about a minute ’

In curating the What? . . . Wow festival, Lang is examining the legacy of his neighbourhood, and the 1960s New York scene that gave the world minimalism


A parakeet squawks from a cage in US composer David Lang’s Soho loft in downtown New York. His mate died recently, and Lang was concerned he would be subdued to silence. He needn’t have worried; the bird keeps up a constant chatter, like a virtuosic soloist. When the subject matter of our conversation is minimal music and its legacy – which will be celebrated this month in the curiously titled What?...Wow festival in Dublin – every sound suddenly seems very important.

That’s what minimalism did when it sprang from this location, in the lower east side of Manhattan in the 1960s. “It’s a music that changed a way of listening for people around the world,” says Lang.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning composer is curating the festival, formerly known as New Music Dublin, at the National Concert Hall. Bang on a Can, the contemporary classical music group he co-founded in 1987 with Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe, will be joined by a host of Irish and international musicians and ensembles for six concerts over two days.

Minimalism reacted to the intellectual, conceptual music of modernism, where, as Lang puts it, the “the composer was a type of shaman who had secret knowledge that an audience was incapable of understanding”. It was a time when the likes of Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Tom Johnson and Meredith Monk were all living and working in the downtown area. They revolutionised music by paring it to its essentials and putting it back into direct communication between composer, performer and listener.

“What’s fascinating is how all those people were connected and influenced by each other,” says Lang. “They would go to each other’s concerts; Steve and Phil played in each other’s pieces and they really were pushing each other. I’m interested in that community.”


A dispersed scene

The scene is now dispersed and international, and its pioneers highly established, so in programming for What? . . . Wow, Lang decided to look at the legacy of this postcode in contemporary music.

“I thought I could look at how what happened in this neighbourhood changed what happened in your neighbourhood,” he says. “It would be chutzpah for me to say, ‘Here’s all that’s interesting in Ireland’.” Instead the programme is centred on second- or third-generation minimalism: a “Steve Reich’s grandchildren kind of format”.

Technology has also changed the geography of musical movements and their audiences. “What you discover is that your audience may not be the people who live next door, but the oddball who’s living in Beirut or Johannesburg, and that you may have more in common with that community than the people who you meet in the cafe.”

The programme includes music and performances by Crash Ensemble, Donnacha Dennehy, So Percussion and Andrew Zolinsky. It contains world premieres by Irish composer Linda Buckley and by Bang on a Can co-founder Michael Gordon.

It also features European premieres such as Music for Wood and Strings by Bryce Dessner, the classically trained musician who founded rock band The National.

Another European premiere is of John Luther Adams’s 2014 Pulitzer Prize- winning and Grammy nominated work Become Ocean, which will be played by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra.

There will be rare opportunities to hear modern classics of contemporary music such as Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, played by Irish and US musicians, “a high-water mark of western civilisation”, or Brian Eno’s Music for Airports played in a new arrangement.

Lang’s composition, Man Made, will be performed by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra with the New York-based quartet So Percussion. The piece begins with invented instruments. The performers break twigs, for example, and then the orchestral percussionists try to play what they hear. “I had this idea that they will come with their instruments they build, they’ll do totally cool things just for themselves, and the orchestra percussionists try to translate them so the orchestra can understand them. Then the orchestra misunderstands them, swells up and becomes excited to join them in a way that completely overwhelms the original idea. As some of these things are from the natural world, it seemed to be a metaphor for the way in which we destroy the things we love from overuse.”

It also reflects the fact that ideas change in translation and with time, and that movements evolve as they develop.


Lofty ideas

Gentrified downtown Soho is more associated with shopping and models now than squatting artists or Yoko Ono, even if Lang throws wonderful-sounding parties with Beckett performances in his loft’s theatre.

“Minimalism existed for about a minute,” says Lang. “You very quickly get to the least thing you need in a piece of music; you get to nothing.”

The parakeet tweets in the corner.

“It’s not really fair to call any of this minimal music any longer. The general thing that connects it is remembering what a powerful idea that was to have things be as simple as possible.”

Innovation is still a top priority for Bang on a Can and Lang. “I like the idea that your culture is in your hands. There’s just a complete riot of people doing what is interesting. We can’t tell from our vantage point, what’s a good idea or what will last.”

The autonomy of the audience is central to this kind of composition, as it was in the minimalist’s aims. “I tell my students that you think the act of writing music is something you do alone in your studio, but actually it’s the communication; it’s the whole circuit,” says Lang.

He is passionate that people decide what to take from a performance. “One of these things might spark you. You may remember it, and by remembering it and favouring it in your memory, you get to vote in what kind of culture moves forward.”

When Bang on a Can first began, they did marathon performances of 12 or more hours, and the second day of the Dublin festival will see an eight-hour marathon concert, which Lang calls “nothing. We have it to a science now.” Audience members can come and go, doze off, and the length of time and material covered will hopefully act as a barrier to one “correct” interpretation or value judgment on the work.

“I really want people to come and say, ‘I heard this one piece and I never want to hear it again.’ ‘I heard this one piece and I didn’t know that composer, and that composer is now central to my musical life.’ That to me is a really great musical experience. I’m going to feel disappointed if somebody comes to this concert and likes everything.”


What? . . . Wow is at the NCH, Dublin, on March 6th and 7th. nch.ie

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