Mystery Is Where It's At

What you can't see or prove is what composer David Lang wants to work with

The Chronicle spoke with Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang as several of his works are being presented in Austin. Here is an extension of that conversation.

David Lang: There's a question of how you make a role for weird music in a culture that has a lot of music in it. You're surrounded all day by music that tells you exactly what to think. You watch television and a commercial comes on for a particular hygienic product, and there's music that's supposed to tell you: This is your emotional narrative for this 20 seconds that's going to make you buy something. Or you go see Avatar or any Hollywood film, they don't trust you to have an emotional reaction of your own. You watch old films, and there's not nearly as much music. Those films say: "Okay, here's a little music in this scene, because they're in a bar or whatever, but here's a really intense dramatic moment, and we believe that the text will do it. We believe that two people talking to each other, that will do it." That doesn't happen anymore in Hollywood, because the budgets are so high. "We can't trust you to know with 100 percent certainty that if we say this one character is afraid of the other character unless we underline it." So music is all around you that's telling you exactly what to feel at every moment.

I don't like to tell people exactly what to feel. I don't want to massage or manipulate people's emotional lives. One of the things I'm really proud of in a piece like Little Match Girl is, I'm not milkin' it. I try to make it as underplayed as possible, so it's just the facts. And I try to present the music in such a way that it's clear that if you as a listener want to respond emotionally, go ahead. But I don't tell you in the way that Hollywood would: Big tension. Less tension. More tension. Big tears. Gasp. I don't want to manage your emotional life. I don't want to tell people, "Here's the big moment; here's the tragic shift." I really like opera, but that moment in a Verdi opera when somebody reads a letter, and at that moment everyone's opinion in the audience changes on a dime, your emotional life is managed. I don't want to do that. I want to have the opportunity to think more deeply about the things I need to think about. I'm not sure other composers can tell me what I need to think about, and I'm not sure I can tell that to other people. I'm not sure I can tell you when you see something of mine what it is that you need to think about at that moment. But I think it's a gift to tell you: "Here's half an hour. If you've got something on your mind, think about it." And put you in the mood where that's possible. Does that make sense?

Austin Chronicle: There's a layer of mystery in both The Difficulty of Crossing a Field and The Little Match Girl Passion, and that seems to leave space for an audience member to think for himself or herself. Whether it's the mystery of the disappearance in Difficulty or the mystery of the Gospel story in Little Match Girl, it gives this great breathing room for the whole piece.

DL: I think mystery is where it's at. You like to think the things you see and touch and talk about are things you can know because you can feel them and touch them and talk about them. But I think the reason why religion plays such a large role in our lives or my life or whatever is because it's acknowledging that the world you see is not the world, that the physicality of these things is more of an illusion than what's actually going on. I can't possibly know what's going on. I can guess about it, and I can think about it, and I can imagine it, but rationality is really thin gruel, I think. There are so many things we do that make us try to believe that the things that we feel or we see, that that's it. I remember when I was a kid trying to decide, "Well, how religious am I going to be in my life?" And I remember thinking: "Everything in the world tells you that you can prove this and you can see that and you can measure that. It must be really hard to go to that other place, where it's about the things you can't see and you can't feel and you can't touch and you can't know." Even as a kid, I felt like: "I can have this area of complete proof now. I can settle for that now, so why don't I see what that other area is like?" And that became much more interesting to me. It suited me better. It was much more amusing to imagine that the world was full of things I couldn't see and prove.

And I think in music, that's actually what you're working with. I always tell my students when someone brings in something really intelligent, that's really well-made and well-thought and really smart and really patterned and really structured and architectural, I say, "You go to a movie, and the sad music comes up, and the smart people cry and the stupid people cry." So there's something about music which actually has nothing to do with the intelligence of it. It's from a completely other part of your being. And that interests me. And I think that in order to be a musician, you have to believe – and this sounds nutty, but you have to believe that if I've chosen music as my form of communication, as opposed to choosing writing, which is very specific, or poetry, which is metaphorical, or architecture, which is structural, it must be because on some fundamental level, I believe that that message is the message that we need. All those other [aspects of the arts] are really interesting and are really important, and I really enjoy them – I go to a lot of theatre, and my wife is a visual artist, so I spend a lot of time in the visual arts – but for me, if it's a message worth giving, it's gonna come through music.

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David Lang, new music, UT Department of Theatre & Dance, Conspirare, New Music Ensemble, Thomas Burritt, The Little Match Girl Passion, The Difficulty of Crossing a Field, Mac Wellman

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