He may not be Kanye West but, in the world of contemporary classical and avant-garde music, David Lang’s star is seriously blingin’. It was no surprise to critics when the New York-based composer nabbed 2008’s Pulitzer Prize in music for his Little Match Girl Passion, a powerfully simplistic and surprisingly accessible work, based on a Hans Christian Andersen fable and inspired by a Bach composition, scored only for voice and percussion. Among his musical colleagues—in and out of the classical realm—Lang had already earned major street cred for co-founding the now legendary Bang on a Can musical foundation. Bang on a Can has commissioned works from a wide range of exciting artists, including noise rocker Thurston Moore, jazz drummer John Hollenbeck, and experimental pianist Matthew Shipp. The organization has also served as the catalyst for a variety of touring and recording groups like the similarly named Bang on a Can All-Stars.
What has made Lang particularly appealing as a composer is that, unlike many of his peers, he has never shied away from rock and jazz and never championed classical music’s superiority over pop and folk forms. Pierced, a brilliant new collection featuring four Lang originals and an arrangement of the Velvet Underground classic anti-anthem “Heroin”, is no exception. The album epitomizes Lang’s aesthetic, feeding equally off jazz, pop, and classical experimental music, with the swinging polyrhythms of post-bop, the edginess of metal, and the atonal inflections of horror movie music.
Pierced‘s eponymous and aptly named opening track, which features conductor Gil Rose’s Boston Modern Orchestra Project, is a rhythmic smorgasbord that seems to pull from jazz, rock, and dub-step realms all at once. The song begins with a jazzy repeating staccato passage of chromatic percussion—xylophone, vibraphone, etc.—that pierces the air, creating an uncomfortable, almost maddening feeling in listener. A second section replaces the chromatic percussion with staccato strings that seem to gnarl and fizzle like punk power chords. The entire song is underscored by percussionist David Cossin’s muscular bass drum which steamrolls out of control into an almost dub-step snare and kick drum coda.
Lang’s arrangement of Lou Reed’s “Heroin” proves to be the album’s biggest success. At first listen, even the most ardent critics of the Velvet Underground would be appalled at Lang’s apparent destruction of a punk classic. Gone are the rough-around-the-edges, off-key vocals and sparse, distorted power-chord accompaniment that made the original version such an underground sensation. It’s only after repeated listens that you come to realize that Lang isn’t performing destruction as much as he is performing deconstruction. The song, performed as a duo by cellist Felix Fan and rising star jazz vocalist Theo Bleckmann, is somber, slow, and polished. Like the Zapruder film, Lang has slowed every syllable and every chord, in an effort to expose every blemish. Each word is a series of tones, chanted by Bleckmann like a Gregorian monk. Each chord is a sequence of arpeggiated notes, which Fan infuses with a velvety coolness. The song’s meaning is conveyed not in the meaning of the lyrics but in their sound and the sound of the accompanying chords. As a result, the starkness and accessibility of the original version isn’t lost but simply transmogrified. It is a triumph of music in any genre.
The rest of the songs on Pierced are all also highlights. “Cheating, Lying, Stealing”, a Lang composition from 1993, is a clear predecessor to the album’s title track. It features repeating rhythmic passages augmented by electronic flourishes that give the song a futuristic quality. This music could easily have served as the soundtrack to Bladerunner or Running Man. “How to Pray”, a 2002 work, includes a swinging piano and string riff that is sure fodder for hip-hop producers the world over. “Wed”, featuring Andrew Russo on solo keyboard playing a minimalist work, is delicate and funereal, a perfect theme to HBO’s Six Feet Under.
Pierced is a significant achievement, not only because it sates the appetite of the diehard 21st century classic music aficionado but because it serves as an avant-garde music gateway drug to modern jazz, post-rock, and electronica enthusiasts—fans of William Parker and Anthony Braxton, Sigur Ros and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Madlib and the Bug should take notice, if they haven’t already.
Whether or not Pierced is the future of experimental music or classical music or all music remains to be seen. What is certain is that Lang has seriously laid down the gauntlet for future composers across all genres with a deceptively simple, beautiful, unsettling, and varied work that owes as much to Grandmaster Flash and Brian Eno as it does to Arnold Schoenberg and Morton Feldman. That is a serious accomplishment.