‘man made’ world premiere

May 7, 2013

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As part of Nico Muhly’s A Scream and an Outrage festival, The Barbican Centre features two premieres by David Lang.

On May 10, So Percussion and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with conductor Jayce Ogren, give the world premiere of Lang’s concerto for percussion quartet and orchestra, man made. Lang combines found percussion (sticks, pipes, metal trash) with orchestral instruments in a unique and incredibly compelling work commissioned by the Barbican Centre and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Watch a video about the concerto with Lang and So Percussion.

On May 12, Lang’s death speaks, which was just released on Cantaloupe Music and as an Editors’ Choice on iTunes, is given its UK premiere by Shara Worden (vocals), Nico Muhly (piano), Pekka Kuusisto (violin), and Mark Stewart (guitar).

Premiered in January at Stanford University the work is, in part, a companion to Lang’s Pulitzer Prize-winning composition the little match girl passion. Lang found inspiration in Schubert lieder, particularly in the texts for such songs as “Death and the Maiden” and “Die schöne Müllerin.”

Lang writes about death speaks, “What makes the texts of these Schubert songs so 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.” Just as the text for the little match girl passion is made up of Lang’s paraphrases of texts from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, the libretto for death speaks quotes every instance in Schubert of Death speaking directly to us, taken from 32 different songs.

Lang comments on the concerto:

I have worked with So Percussion for a very long time now and I know them really well. When I got the opportunity to write a concerto for them I wanted to make it specifically for them, for the things that they have been concentrating on for the past few years. The are frequently theatrical, they invite found objects into their performances, they build their own instruments, etc. I wondered if I could make the unusualness of their musicality the centerpiece of this concerto, but how could an orchestra of ‘normal’ instruments doing mostly ‘normal’ things find common ground with them? My solution was to set up a kind of ecology between the soloists and the orchestra, using the orchestral percussionists as ‘translators.’ An idea begins with the soloists on an invented instrument, the percussionists in the orchestra hear the solo music and translate it into something that can be approximated by more traditional orchestral percussion, the rest of the orchestra hears and understands the orchestral percussion, and they join in. The opening, for example begins with the soloists snapping twigs, which the orchestral percussionists translate into woodblocks, marimba and xylophone, which the orchestra takes up and embellishes, eventually overwhelming the soloists. This process of finding something intricate and unique, decoding it, regularizing it, and mass producing it reminded me of how a lot of ideas in our world get invented, built and overwhelmed, so I decided to call it ‘man made.’