Music

David Lang: Pierced

Michael Kabran

David Lang deftly channels Ornette Coleman, the Bug, and Lou Reed to provide even more proof that he is the future of experimental music.


David Lang

Pierced

Label: Naxos
US Release Date: 2008-11-18
UK Release Date: Available as import
Amazon
iTunes

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.

8

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image