Passion play finds its voice
Published on 26 Oct 2011 // The Herald Scotland // Kate Molleson
A vocal ensemble breathe life into composer David Lang’s reworking of The Little Match Girl, says Kate Molleson
IT was 25 years ago when David Lang co-founded a grassroots collective called Bang On A Can. It went on to become one of the world’s most important incubators of collaborative new music. He says his initial motive was to break down barriers between New York’s avant-garde communities, none of whom were listening to each other, let alone playing together. As a composer his music is rooted in minimalism, a style born of 1960s free will and anti-establishmentarianism.
Lang is not, then, overly tied to tradition. And yet the score that won him a Pulitzer Prize in 2008 is a fusion of Bach and Hans Christian Andersen, two pillars of traditional art and Christian values who seem unlikely starting points for a cutting-edge Jewish New Yorker. Not so, he cheerfully assures me. (Photos of Lang tend to show him glaring at the camera with intense, slightly haggard eyes; that he is quite so friendly over the phone comes as a happy surprise.)
For him, as for so many musicians of all description, there remains no greater composer than Bach. “Whatever music I’m listening to, I scour for its deepest-held beliefs,” he says. “In a work like the St Matthew Passion, Bach delivers his beliefs with the most profound conviction and humanity. The frustration is that I want to share those beliefs with him. But I’m Jewish, and the Jews aren’t exactly the heroes of the Passion story.”
So Lang scripted a secular Passion, turning to Andersen’s The Little Match Girl for his narrative and replacing Jesus with a homeless child. It’s Christmas, an abusive father turfs his daughter onto the streets to sell matches, but passers-by on their way to Christmas parties don’t notice her and she freezes to death. That the story was written as a Christian parable doesn’t bother the composer.
“The message applies to anyone,” says Lang. “It’s about noticing each other’s suffering. New York has a lot of homeless people. Our daily lives would be impossible if we stopped at every evidence of hardship we saw on the streets; this piece is to make us aware of those subconscious defence mechanisms.”
Unlike Bach’s Passions, Lang doesn’t feature characters as such. There is no evangelist to narrate, no identifiable Match Girl. Instead, all roles are sung by a small vocal ensemble whose lapping lines weave and repeat to create a mesmerising reverie. “To be honest,” says the composer, “I’m not really interested in the Match Girl. The piece isn’t about individuals; it’s about us, the crowd, the community that passes her by.”
And while Bach punctuated his Passions with well-known chorales so that the original audience – a Lutheran church congregation – could sing along, Lang says that kind of affirmative participation is not his point. “Bach’s chorales were about shared experience, but I’m not out to create believers. I think that classical music these days is about giving individual space for reflection.”
The Little Match Girl Passion was not written as a stage work, but Theatre Cryptic is staging it at the Tron next week. Is there a danger that adding visuals will crowd out that space for individual reflection? “I’m not sure!” Lang admits. “But what’s life without danger? It’s possible that the visuals will intrude, but it’s also possible that they’ll add depth. Either way, I want my music to be open for interpretation. Some composers imagine their work can only be done one way… Long ago I decided to imagine that each of my pieces would be performed 1000 times. Even if it wasn’t remotely true, it has stopped me from becoming precious.”
The staging was the idea of Josh Armstrong, a young director from Cleveland, Ohio, who came to Glasgow five years ago to study at the Royal Conservatoire. He says he is fully respectful of the sense of space in Lang’s score, and promises a production free of distracting or didactic gestures. “One of the most difficult parts has been avoiding sentimentality,” he says. “People these days loath sentimentality, but stories like The Little Match Girl are full of it. So the challenge is to keep it stark.” His work will be “composition based”, he says, to do with “bodies in spaces” rather that “hammed-up operatic acting”. The Match Girl will be represented by a dancer, Emma Snellgrove, whose movements will be ordinary, simple, pedestrian. In one section she will repeatedly fall and pick herself up again; in another, she will simply pace. Just as Lang’s music stems from the minimalism of the 1960s, such movements – everyday gestures choreographed as art – are inherited from the post-modern dance world of Yvonne Rainer, Meredith Monk and Merce Cunningham.
I’m interested in the way that audience perception changes over time,” says Armstrong. “If you see the same thing repeated for several minutes, your mind starts to shift focus. You start reinterpreting what you see. The audience has to do some work, and ideally everybody comes to their own conclusion about what it all means.”
Like Glass and Reich, Lang himself doesn’t subscribe to the term minimalism. He says its essential idea – the stripping away to barest elements – was relevant for only a couple of years in the early 1960s. “But once Glass and Reich had written their seminal works of that period, it was time to build things back up again,” he explains. “Sure, I’ve been influenced by the style, and maybe my colour palette still lingers there. But I don’t try to be philosophically minimal. I try to give a complete experience.”
Bang On A Can comes to Glasgow this weekend as part of the city’s ongoing Minimal survey; here, Lang concedes, because they are performing early Reich and Glass, the term is appropriate. But in any case, terms are not really his thing.
“We founded Bang On A Can because people in New York cared too much about terms. There was John Zorn’s Knitting Factory, where if you came in with a music stand you’d be booed. And there was the Lincoln Centre, where if you came in with anything too experimental you’d be booed. All these great modern musicians at war with each other … it was crazy. So we decided to ignore the terms and work with anyone we considered innovative.”
It’s now 25 years later and many of those terms have softened. Lang reels off the list of current Bang collaborators: Sonic Youth, Ornette Colman, Burmese drummers, not to mention our own Red Note Ensemble, who join up to perform Brian Eno’s Music For Airports on Sunday. Every year Bang holds a summer school in a converted factory in the Catskills. They have a record label, and a marching band that plays experimental music in New York neighbourhoods. “Always more to be done,” says Lang. True, but what they’ve already done is an inspiring legacy.
Bang On A Can play three concerts as part of the Minimal weekend on Saturday and Sunday at Tramway and Glasgow Royal Concert Hall (www.glasgowconcerthalls.com/minimal). Little Match Girl Passion, in a double bill with David Lang’s World To Come, is at Tron Theatre, Glasgow, November 10-12 and Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, November 22-23 (www.cryptic.org.uk/performances).