DAVID LANG ‘This Was Written by Hand’ = DAVID LANG: This Was Written by Hand; Cage; Spartan Arcs; Wed; Grind; Diet Coke; Cello; Wiggle; Beach – Andrew Zolinsky, piano – Cantaloupe Records CA 21073, 45:17 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
This is a different sound and a different aspect of David Lang’s music for me. As one of the founding members of Bang on a Can, and a composer of many different pieces, David’s music was familiar to me and provided what I had as a clear notion in my mind – one that I like a great deal. He was known to me, for a kinetic, frequently high energy and striking style that contains strong pulse and a sound that is usually accented, big, edge-of-your-seat kind of stuff. I was only somewhat familiar with Lang’s ability to write very plaintive, restful music that had some minimalist touches and a kind of internal narrative – or at least the feel of theme and story. One of his strongest examples of this approach can be found, in my opinion, in his 1995 opera, Modern Painters, that I also greatly enjoyed.
This collection of some of Lang’s solo piano work is a wholly different side of his output and one that I found instantly attractive. This is intimate, beautiful and frequently ethereal music. The title work, This Was Written by Hand, is so-called because Lang, literally, went “old school” and wrote out the score with paper and pencil for the present performer, Andrew Zolinsky. Lang’s stated intent was to almost conduct an experiment to see if the labor intensive method would have a subconscious effect on the type of writing produced. Lang does not answer that question but the work is infused with a simple beauty and a fairly uncomplicated harmonic vocabulary and a forward motion created by gradual change as opposed to key-pounding pyrotechnics. The effect is wonderful, beautiful and mysterious all at the same time.
Lang wrote all the remaining short works in this collection as a set, entitled Memory Pieces and were written between 1992 and 1997. Lang explains that each piece is intended as a memorial of sorts to people in his life and people he has admired who have died. Lang admits that, as he ages and, as we all do, there is a stark realization that friends, former teachers and loved ones pass on, frequently unexpectedly as we will too one day. A tough but emotionally pure and human reality to come to grips with. (I, too, have started to lose mentors, friends and teachers who have meant a lot.)
Each piece has a slightly different tone and feel that – no doubt – evoke some of the personality or vibrancy (or introspective side?) of the persons whose lives and memories are being commemorated. Yet, each piece bears Lang’s characteristic attention to harmonic interest (but not convoluted at all) and the pulse that comes from either a rhythmic drive or from a persistent sense of floating forward. Prime examples of this can be found by listening to the light as air quality of Wed (in memory of Kate Ericson) compared to the wildly impulsive feel of Wiggle (in memory of Frank Wigglesworth) and then to the nearly static simple beauty of Cello (in memory of Anna Cholakian).
Some of the dedicatees are names that most people well versed in contemporary music ought to know, such as John Cage, Jacob Druckman and pianist Yvar Mikhashoff. The rest are less familiar to me and – of those – many are probably personal to David, only. The beauty of this very personal set is that, clearly, the composer knows what these people have meant to him. Lang also points out that the set, as a whole work, is dedicated, unofficially, to Yvar Mikashoff, for whom Lang was writing a piece when John Cage passed away. Mikashoff – ill at the time – suggested that Lang write a series of memorial pieces. The dedicatees are (in order) John Cage, Yvar Mikhashoff, Kate Ericson, Jacob Druckman, Bette Snapp, Anna Cholakian, Frank Wigglesworth and David Huntley.
I felt that it helped to know the reason for these pieces. They are individually, and collectively, beautiful as is. Knowing the deeply personal nature of the works makes it feel like the listener is sharing in the composer’s memories, thoughts and cherished friendships. This is a very fine collection, beautifully and sensitively played by Andrew Zolinksy. I have enjoyed David Lang’s music for some time. Now I feel I know another side of his art. One that sounds made by heart, if not entirely “by hand.” Beautiful!
In celebration of 150 Years, Vaughan Williams!