'Most of the time film music is in the background, setting the mood or advancing the story in a supporting role. This project was different. Because the leading character is a composer, it is a film as much about musical development as it is about character development. There is the music that surrounds him, the music he composes and performs, the music that comes out of him as the complexity of his emotional life deepens and grows.'
The soundtrack combines music composed especially for the film with excerpts compiled from his entire discography on the Bang on a Can-affiliated Cantaloupe Music label. Edited and produced with former So Percussion member, Lawson White, (Untitled)'s soundtrack serves as perfect introduction to Lang's work, a mid-career retrospective of sorts for this composer's composer.
1. Press Release (Excerpt) 2. I'm Still Shaking 3. Cheating, Lying, Stealing (Excerpt) 4. Ray 5. Chopin 6. My Very Empty Mouth (Excerpt) 7. Gallery Humiliation 8. Pandas 9. Sweet Air (Excerpt) 10. Out of the Taxi 11. Schoenberg 12. Beer Inspiration 13. The Anvil Chorus (Excerpt) 14. Grieg 15. Stick Figure Variation 16. Front Room, Back Room 17. I'm Not Paying for This 18. What Do You Have in The Back Room? 19. The So-Called Laws of Nature: Part III (Excerpt) 20. Wed (Excerpt) 21. The Death of Ray 22. Stick Figure (Excerpt) 23. Wed 24. Sweet Air 25. The Anvil Chorus 26. Cheating, Lying, Stealing
I wrote press release in 1991 for Evan Ziporyn. When you compose for one person, you can't get all the colors that you'd have with an ensemble or orchestra, so you have to imagine some sort of interesting problem. I wanted to do something that was really rhythmic. The original idea behind this piece was that of a high melody alternating with a low bass line, so that you get a high pop and a low pop switching back and forth as fast as possible, and these two worlds coexist. I wanted the upper melody to be recognizable and the bottom bass line to be recognizable, to be a real bass line, a driving funk thing. In classical music, the bass is only there to support the melody, which is where the action is. But the bass line is the place where funk music really shines. Who has the best bass lines in the business? I am a big James Brown fan, and, I thought, if you want a bass line, you got to go to James. So I made the key changes sound like James Brown. Because of the way the bass clarinet works, I thought you'd have to press the keys down to make all the low notes, and you'd release the keys to make the high notes.... press release. I was really proud of myself because I thought I had made this funny joke, and then of course Evan said, ''You know, a lot of those high notes you play with all your fingers down, and a lot of those low notes you play with all your fingers up.'' But I didn't think it was worth it to change the title.
A couple of years ago, I started thinking about how so often when classical composers write a piece of music, they are trying to tell you something that they are proud of and like about themselves. Here's this big gushing melody, see how emotional I am. Or, here's this abstract hard-to-figure-out piece, see how complicated I am, see my really big brain. I am more noble, more sensitive, I am so happy. The composer really believes he or she is exemplary in this or that area. It's interesting, but it's not very humble. So I thought, What would it be like if composers based pieces on what they thought was wrong with them? Like, here's a piece that shows you how miserable I am. Or, here's a piece that shows you what a liar I am, what a cheater I am. I wanted to make a piece that was about something disreputable. It's a hard line to cross. You have to work against all your training. You are not taught to find the dirty seams in music. You are not taught to be low-down, clumsy, sly and underhanded. In ''cheating, lying, stealing,'' although phrased in a comic way, I am trying to look at something dark. There is a swagger, but it is not trustworthy. In fact, the instruction in the score for how to play it says: Ominous funk.
During a trip to the dentist my oldest son Isaac was given laughing gas. The dentist called it sweet air, a gentle name to take the fear out of having a cavity filled. It worked. My son experienced something—a drug—so comforting that it made him ignore all signs of unpleasantness. This seemed somehow musical to me. One of music's traditional roles has always been to soothe the uneasy. I must say I have never been that interested in exploring this role. It is much easier to comfort the listener than to show why the listener might need to be comforted. My piece ''sweet air'' tries to show a little bit of both. In ''sweet air,'' simple, gentle musical fragments float by, leaving a faint haze of dissonance in their wake.
''sweet air'' was written for the ensemble Sentieri Selvaggi for premiere at the Settembre Musica Festival in Torino, Italy, 9 September 1999. It is intended as a birthday present for Louis Andriessen - Happy sixtieth birthday, Louis!
When percussionist Steve Schick asked me to write him a solo piece I wanted to do something that showed percussion's connection to real life activities. I didn't want to work with the pretty instruments, like vibraphone or chimes, that were invented so that percussionists could play politely with other musicians. I wanted to write a piece that reminded the listener of the glorious history of percussion — that since the beginning of time people have always banged on things as a result of their professions.
Then I remembered that I had once read a book on the history of blacksmithing, and I had become particularly interested in how medieval blacksmiths used song to help them in their work. Although small jobs could be accomplished by individual smiths, larger jobs created an interesting problem — how could several smiths hammer on a single piece of metal without getting in each other's way? Smiths solved this problem by singing songs together which would control the beat patterns of the hammers. There was a different song for each number of participating blacksmiths — obviously, a song that allowed for three hammer strokes would be confusing and even dangerous if used to coordinate four smiths.
My solo percussion piece the anvil chorus also uses a ''melody'' to control various beat patterns. The ''melody'' is played on resonant junk metals of the percussionist's choosing, and, by adding certain rules, it triggers an odd accompaniment of non-resonant junk metals, played both by hand and by foot.
I went to college to study science. I was expected to become a doctor, or at the very least a medical researcher, and I spent much of my undergraduate years studying math and chemistry and physics, hanging out with future scientists, going to their parties, sharing their apartments, eavesdropping on their conversations. I remember a particularly heated discussion about a quote from Wittgenstein: “At the basis of the whole modern view of the world lies the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanation of natural phenomena.” This quote rankled all us future scientists, as it implied that science can’t explain the universe but can only offer mere descriptions of things observed. Over the years it occurred to me that this could be rephrased as a musical problem.
Because music is made of proportions and numbers and formulas and patterns, I always wonder what these numbers actually mean. Do the numbers themselves generate a certain structure, creating the context and the meaning and the form, or are they just the incidental byproducts of other, deeper, more mysterious processes? My piece the so-called laws of nature tries to explore the “meaning” of various processes and formulas. The individual parts are virtually identical – the percussionists play identical patterns throughout, playing unison rhythms on subtly different instruments. Most of these instruments the performers are required to build themselves. Some of the patterns between the players are displaced in time. Some are on instruments which have a kind of incoherence built into their sound. Does the music come out of the patterns or in spite of them? I am not sure which, but I know that this piece is as close to becoming a scientist as I will ever get.
My piece wed is from a larger series of piano works, called "memory pieces." These eight pieces were all written between the years 1992-1997 and may be played separately or together. They were each written after the death of someone close to me, someone with whom I had a relationship that I wanted some way to hold on to. They are as follows:
Cage in memory of John Cage
Spartan Arcs in memory of Yvar Mikhashoff
Wed in memory of Kate Ericson
Grind in memory of Jacob Druckman
Diet Coke in memory of Bette Snapp
Cello in memory of Anna Cholakian
Wiggle in memory of Frank Wigglesworth
Beach in memory of David Huntley
Kate Ericson, to whose memory wed is dedicated, was a young conceptual artist and a close friend of my wife. In her hospital bed, just before she died, she was married to her boyfriend and longtime collaborator, Mel Ziegler. A wedding is usually a joyful event, full of hope and optimism, but this wedding of course had something much darker hovering around the joyfulness. In my piece, the four independent lines of the piano part are made of small changes - a half step up, a whole step down, and each line by itself is not that interesting. Put together, however, they allow the music to rock oddly back and forth between major and minor, between consonance and dissonance, between hope and despair.
One of the horrifying things about growing older is that your friends don't all grow older with you. People get sick and then they die. You watch, you try to comfort them, and then you try to comfort yourself. The true horror is that after a while your memories begin to fade. How long can you hold on to the sound of a voice, the memory of a strange event, a bittersweet feeling, a silly story?
I was friends with all the dedicatees of the enclosed set of pieces - some were closer friends than others - and I have very personal memories of my dealings with them that I don't want to fade. Each of these little pieces highlights some aspect of my relationship with each friend. I hope this will help me hold on to these memories just a little while longer.
There are a few ways to approach these pieces. In one respect they are inventions, each an intellectual and philosophical exploration of one distinct, mechanical way to make music. They are also little etudes, as each one highlights a different technical concern, such as overlapping arpeggios (Spartan Arcs), polyrhythmic counterpoint (Wed) or strange cross-hands (Cello). The way I choose to look at them is as laboratories for larger works. If I can incorporate the music or the ideas or the techniques of these little pieces into other works then I am in some way keeping something of my friendship alive.
I would like to thank the different pianists who have either premiered one or more of these works or who have offered advice about how to edit or present these pieces - David Arden, Carlo Boccadoro, Anthony de Mare, Moritz Eggert, Lisa Moore, Andrew Zolinsky. Most of all I want to thank Yvar Mikhashoff - I was writing Yvar a piece when John Cage died (12 August 1992). I put that piece aside and wrote Cage, which Yvar then played several times. Yvar was already ill then and it was his idea that I write a series of memorial pieces. If there is any one person to whom this entire set should be dedicated, it is Yvar.
A child learns to draw by drawing lines. In the hands of a child a person is a stick figure, a skeletal intersection of stark lines, stripped of flesh, without subtle details. Only later does a child learn to add things—some hair, a dress, some shoes. Watching my children go through this stage has made me realize that my music is moving in the opposite direction. With every piece a little bit of flesh is removed, a little more skeleton is uncovered.