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The amazing appearances of David Lang

The LA-born composer is, unlike his fictional namesake, alive and kicking with two exciting ballet commissions in

New York, writes Olivia Giovetti

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The story goes that on September 23, 1880, David Lang disappeared in the blink of an eye – in plain view of his wife and children – while crossing a field. Shortly after, the grass around the area where he vanished yellowed and he could be heard calling for help, as if from another dimension. By the 1970s the urban legend had been proved a hoax, an invention from Ambrose Bierce’s 1893 short story The Difficulty of Crossing a Field, which was then expropriated by mystery novelist Stuart Palmer in 1953 for Fate magazine.

Today there is a David Lang far more ubiquitous in the cultural consciousness and far more real. Yet, born in the equally multidimensional world of Los Angeles just four years after Palmer’s story ran, Lang does tend to play with mysteries in his music. “I really like the idea that my pieces are made with all sorts of riddles and little structural problems inside of them, which I don’t really expect anybody to hear or know about,” Lang explains from Massachusetts, where he is currently stationed at MASS MoCA for the summer residency of Bang on a Can, the new music cabal Lang co-founded with fellow composers Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe in 1987.

These layered dimensions he refers to, which are invisible to the human eye (or ear), serve a purpose: “They exist so that I can make a piece which actually takes advantage of its structure, where I can build a structure inside that does something…But again, the point of a structure is to build something that people can live in, and to me that’s the emotional part of the music.”

A composer who grew up in the palm-frond shadow of John Cage, Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg, Lang has given listeners a large and varied amount of musical houses to inhabit – from the rock-tinted comic-strip opera The Carbon Copy Building co-written with Gordon and Wolfe, through his Kronos Quartet commission and Biercebased The Difficulty of Crossing a Field to the Bach-inspired The Little Match Girl Passion.This last netted Lang a Pulitzer in 2008 and a Grammy this year.

If one of the most striking things about Match Girl was the interplay of the story’s opposing aspects (as Lang himself described it, “The girl’s bitter present is locked together with the sweetness of her past memories. Her poverty is always suffused with her hopefulness”), it speaks volumes about the opposing aspects of Lang’s style. He sets the gruesome story of a child freezing to death in such a way that the choral lines depict the girl’s spiritual release while the words portray her physical breakdown. Jump from that to ensemble Real Quiet’s all-Lang disc for Naxos, Pierced, however, and it’s like going from fire to ice. Flowing vocal lines are replaced with craggy instrumental edges. Players still oppose, but to form an incisive, somewhat disjointed whole rather than to create a poetic balance. Both results are equally galvanising.

“In a way it’s sort of like emotional problem-solving,” explains Lang, who was first introduced to classical music by a tape of Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts, featuring Shostakovich’s First Symphony. To the nine-year-old