I became a composer because, when I was nine years old, I saw a movie of Leonard Bernstein conducting Shostakovich’s First Symphony with the New York Philharmonic. I fell in love immediately with the music of Shostakovich, with the idea of being a composer, with the orchestra itself. I was so in love with Shostakovich, in fact, that I immersed myself in his music, and then all Russian music, then I studied the Russian language in school, I read all the Russian literature I could find, and I spent the summer of 1975 studying in the Soviet Union.
My pursuit of Shostakovich led me to the poetry of Anna Akhmatova, his great contemporary. There is a (possibly apocryphal) story that they were each aware of the other their entire lives but met only once – they spent twenty minutes together, staring at each other, in total silence.
One of Akhmatova’s greatest works is her introspective, memory-laden Soviet-era “Poem without a Hero.” I have always loved this work — it is kaleidoscopic and strange, both fragile and powerful at the same time. And of course, who is the non-hero of the poem? The young poets she remembers and writes about, or herself? Is it her present or her past?
The poem can be hard going. My Russian was never good enough to read it in the original and there are things about it that make it inscrutable in any language — it is the distant memory of people and things so personal to her as to be almost unknowable to us. Reading the poem can feel like watching Akhmatova from afar, and through a gauzy veil. I started thinking that the idea of ‘distant memory’ was a musical idea. Memory is, after all, the basis of musical form — we hear something, we remember it when it returns, it is in our memory of it that we assemble the details of a piece into a particular structure. I started wondering if memory in music could work the same way that memory works in the Akhmatova — a wisp of something delicate and precious that might hover vaguely someplace beneath the surface of an overwhelming and oppressive present.
I began by writing a melody that went from the beginning of the piece to the very end – a 28 minute long tune. I superimposed many different versions of the melody onto each other, simultaneously, in layers of slower and faster speeds, in the foreground and in the background, with greater or lesser detail. I thought I could create the feeling of a distant, elusive memory by making a tune that was constantly in the process of revealing itself, without ever revealing itself completely.
— David Lang