An Evening with David Lang and Nico Muhly

Though music is their primary medium of expression, David Lang (1991 Fellow) and Nico Muhly both share a deep interest in words—particularly hidden meanings and how they are used. This was evident at a recent program of the Conversations/Conversazioni: From the American Academy in Rome, where the celebrated composers discussed a range of topics related to their creative work, and in a surprising treat, shared brand-new compositions with a packed auditorium at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York.

Academy president Mark Robbins, a 1996 Fellow, opened the program by relating how the interdisciplinary tenor of the Conversations/Conversazioni series embodied the very idea of the American Academy in Rome, describing it as “a monastery for creative and scholarly work, as well as an engaged cultural institution,” where the interplay of disciplinary exchange is a given.

No matter where one happens to be at the Academy—in the Salone, at a Shop Talk, in the Bass Gardens, or, especially at mealtimes—they will undoubtedly observe constant dialogue between Fellows and/or Residents. For example, a musician might help an archaeologist understand how sound floats through the arches of a medieval church; or, a visual artist may be inspired to use ancient text in his work after chatting with a Renaissance scholar. Many of the artists and scholars who have spent time at the Academy often talk about the lasting influence these exchanges have had on their work. The public, of course, has benefitted from this work over the last century, but for those not in Rome, it is rare to be privy to these magical synergies in real time, as they happen. The Conversations/Conversazioni series is designed to export these exchanges to the public, with events featuring some of the leading voices in the art and humanities—including Fellows and Residents—in the form of lectures, presentations and performances throughout NYC and Rome.

Lang and Muhly’s symbiotic energy was tangible from the very beginning. “It’s the David and Nico Show!” quipped Muhly during sound check. It was a fitting name for the pair, who had the audience enraptured well past the event’s scheduled ending time. Longtime friends and collaborators, the composers are considered equally iconoclastic and groundbreaking within their respective contexts: Lang has been making waves since he co-founded the music collective Bang on a Can as a graduate student, and in 2008 he won the Pulitzer Prize in music for The Little Match Girl Passion. Muhly is the youngest composer ever to be commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera, for whom he wrote the opera Two Boys. Both are very much in demand, zig-zagging the globe completing various commissions for symphonies and opera halls, as well as for collaborations on film and popular music projects.

“In a sense, poets are doing for their text what we as composers are trying to do,” said Lang, speaking about reworking found material for his compositions. “They care for the rhythm, the melody, and the pace at which information is delivered and withheld. And some time ago, I started to think that it was unfair to them to wreck what they had done so carefully.” Instead, he explained, in searching for text for which to set his music, he looked for material that he could process himself, as he did with evening morning day, a choir piece where the text is a simple list of all nouns from the Book of Genesis. “I thought I would just make a list of everything that is needed to create the world, everything that is mentioned in the Genesis,” said Lang. “In this form, the text takes on a different meaning because it’s not trying to convince you of anything, it’s just an object that says: ‘this is what we have’.”

Lang explained that he used the same principle in the writing of a brand-new work, Just. (In fact, he had only received the recording of it on his way to the evening’s venue, which means it had its US premiere at Conversations/Conversazioni: From the American Academy in Rome!) Beautifully spare and hypnotically repetitive, Just is centered around the ancient text The Song of Songs (or The Song of Solomon), and was recently premiered in Ireland.

“I remember being shocked when I read Song of Songs as a boy, because it’s so scandalous,” said Lang. “On the surface, the text is a man and a woman describing the parts of each other that get them excited. But of course it’s not supposed to be a story about a couple, but rather about man’s relationship to God.” In describing his thought process for the piece, Lang wondered if making it less specific by removing all instances of “his” and “her” might help listeners better understand the message about “the eternal” within the text, whether it is love or spirituality, by repeating a refrain: “just your hair, just your teeth, just your lips, just your mouth”.

“There is always a sort of landscape to your music, and there is a refusal to point out the path the listener has to take through it,” said Muhly, in commenting on Just, and Lang’s work in general. “Instead of a formal garden, there is an empty space in which the listener can do whatever they want.”

The discussion then moved on to style and form, when Lang pointed out that Muhly seems to do well with meandering, sprawling pieces, as well as more formal or tighter compositions, asking how he managed to navigate between the two modes so easily. Muhly responded by thanking Lang for his efforts (as well as the efforts of Lang’s peers) at resisting narrative, which allowed Muhly license, as a younger composer, to do something wholly different. “I feel like I want to write an episode of Law and Order and put it on the stage of the Met, which is sort of what I did with Two Boys,” Muhly explained, to applause.

The piece shared by Muhly, Old Bones, had a very interesting backstory: written for countertenor lestyn Davies, it revolves around the recent discovery of the remains of Richard III. Weaving quotes from a Guardian interview with the Richard III Society, as well as what Muhly describes as “a piece of Welsh poetry that describes Richard III’s death in this unbelievable way; where you’re not sure what anyone is talking about—there are ravens and boars and all this heraldry metaphorical information, essentially saying, ‘Welsh people are awesome because we killed Richard III.’” “I wanted the text to be a vehicle for Iestyn Davies’s voice, which is so beautiful that you can just listen to him singing scales all day,” said Muhly.

Returning to the subject of setting poetry to music, Muhly pointed out: “With a great line of poetry, you need to be able to look at it, consume it, go back over it again. But music unfolds in scrolling time, so you can’t jump back a line, the eye can’t see the way the enjambments work—even something like a sonnet sets terribly because it just takes so long to get to the middle of a line when you are singing it that you forget what the beginning was. Setting good poetry tends to undo it.”

Lang agreed: “I think that’s why a lot of the texts Schubert set, for example, weren’t actually very interesting as texts. You look at them and they’re just hyperemotional. I think that Schubert looked at them and thought, oh, there is room for me here. I can do something in taking this fairly flimsy emotional story and making it deep. That’s the role of the composer.”

The event finished with a lively audience Q&A, led by AAR President Mark Robbins. Bringing the audience from the current state of contemporary classical music to the pitfalls of the concept of “world music,” Muhly and Lang closed the evening as they had opened it: with a combination of lightness and insight that made even the most technical subjects accessible.

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