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FEATURE | David Lang: Whispering Secrets of the Internet Age

By Tyler Versluis on February 18, 2015

David Lang, composer
David Lang, composer

From his irreverent early work with Bang on a Can in the late 1980’s, to his more recent appointment as professor of composition at Yale University, David Lang juggles a dual role as an iconoclast and respected new music figure.

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Composer David Lang’s work is strongly technical and instantly communicative. His compositions are crafted out of a combination of relentless blocks of chords, and filigrees of opaque melodies. Hallmark works include: cheating, lying stealing, which sounds almost obsessive compulsive, yet smooth and glossy, and the little match girl passion –  which landed him a Pulitzer Prize for music in 2008.

Earlier in February, I spoke with Lang about his piece The Whisper Opera, which will premiere in Canada via Soundstreams on February 26th,  at the Theatre Centre. The work was originally conceived out of a major “problem” that has been plaguing Lang and many other classical composers since the early 20th century: The effects of recorded music on performance practice.

“…We are completely surrounded by music all the time. It’s at our fingertips. It’s completely available. We can log on to the Internet and illegally download anything we want at any moment – perfectly recorded and perfectly balanced,” Lang said. “And on the one hand, that’s fantastic… But the problem for me is that if you believe like I do, that the live performance experience is the core of what music is about, that is, somebody in front of you, using their human abilities to transmit a message that you receive right there from them… how do you keep that experience the centre of the musical world if so much of our musical life is done outside of that world?”

This question has been the elephant in the room for many composers, who, like it or not, must contend with the changing role and function of live concert music in the mp3 era. Some embrace the medium with enthusiasm, and produce classical music albums that embrace pop-style recording techniques. Others, like Lang, choose to act contrarily to culture’s demand for the perfectly recorded musical experience, creating unusual projects to provoke this paradigm.

“Even for someone who loves live music, like me, most of the music I hear is recorded. So, what I started thinking about in the last few years, is that we have to work very hard now to design projects where live connection is paramount,” Lang said.

On the surface, it seems unusual for a composer to pursue this direction. Lang’s works like mountain for orchestra, love fail for four singers, and pierced for large ensemble, are cool-to-the-touch, and almost hyper-modern. Lang’s music is also heavily recorded, and admittedly, sounds great coming out of computer speakers. But the ideas that the Whisper Opera wrestles with go beyond matters of style and accessibility – it reaches out to the core of the live music experience and into a world of inaudibility, failure and musical impossibility.

“What you see when you see a performance [of the Whisper Opera] is someone struggling and failing to accomplish something. And you would never record something being failed… but seeing it live is a powerful and theatrical experience, kind of emotional.” Lang explained. “So the Whisper Opera comes out of this thinking. It’s trying to figure out something that’s so fragile, so tiny and intimate, and so delicate that it can’t possibly be captured in any other way. It has to be experienced live.”

Lang is so insistent on this aspect that he forbids the work to be recorded, broadcasted or amplified in any way. Its intimate nature prompted director Jim Findlay, to construct unique design to capture the quiet essence of the performance. In addition, Soundstreams has limited performances to 52 people per staging, a limitation, Lang says, which is of integral importance.

“Part of it is the whole thing is just so quiet that you can’t have very many people, and you can’t be very far away from the action. But the other reason why is, again, this experience needs to be unique. It needs to be special, it needs to be something in your life which fills a place in your imagination that you didn’t know existed.”

Opera seems like an unusual medium to explore spaces of extreme intimacy – the lavish, extroverted productions of the Canadian Opera Company draw over two thousand people at most shows – but Lang explains that opera is ideal for such an idea.

“It doesn’t have what you would consider to be traditional arias, or traditional forms, or traditional melodies, but underlining all these things, the reason why those kinds of those things are useful for opera composers is because you’re trying to get at the larger issue, which is how you depict the emotional life of a person… and that is the core of what happens in this piece of music.”

Lang also brings the opera genre into the Internet age, constructing a libretto primarily from search engine results.

“Part of the idea of this piece was that I wanted people to be in the presence of something that would go in and out of focus, depending on what you were able to hear… And I thought that was a very beautiful idea, because, again, everyone observing this will have a different part of the overall story. You will see someone very close to you whispering to someone a few seats away from you, and you will not be able to understand what they are saying”, Lang explains.

“So no one has the full story. And then I started thinking, that’s very much what the Internet is. That the Internet is this incredible welter of voices, of people sharing things with each other. And sometimes sharing things that are tremendously revealing about themselves. And sharing their secrets and sharing their secret lives.”

On the Internet, hidden desires bubble to the forefront, as Lang compiled the libretto from Internet searches relating to human desire, things “…that people would reveal about each other on the Internet that they might not reveal to a live person standing right in front of them.” The result was a large catalogue of human emotions from every corner of the planet, though Lang did some curating, removing references to religion, politics, and specific people to keep the responses as objective as possible.

To close the interview, I asked Lang if he thought devices like smart phones and the Internet were creating a lack of personal touch and intimacy amongst people. Lang’s answer was non-partisan, and stressed that the Whisper Opera was not created to comment either way on the advantages and disadvantages of the Internet age.

“The Internet is like everything else… it can be used for good or evil. It’s like every tool. It can bring people together or drive them apart… and what determines that is what kind of people we are. It makes it much more easy to be despicable, and it makes it much more easy to be humane,” Lang said. “So, it’s neither good nor bad, and I never would want anyone to think that my point of [the Whisper Opera] is just one way or the other, that we live in a world that is getting better or worse. I just think for me personally, I look for the emotional, the humane, the noble, in whatever setting I’m in. And when I’m on the Internet, that’s what I’m looking for.”

The Whisper Opera makes its Canadian premiere on February 26 through March 1, 2015, at The Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen Street West. Start times vary.

Tyler Versluis

Tyler Versluis

Tyler is a Toronto based writer, composer, and Doctoral student at the University of Toronto Faculty of Music.

Tyler Versluis

Tyler is a Toronto based writer, composer, and Doctoral student at the University of Toronto Faculty of Music.
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