Open your ears and your mind to new music says composer David Lang

US composer David Lang presents a festival of new music this weekend. Don’t get bogged down in genres, he advises Alan O’Riordan

WHAT is ‘new music’?

Dublin has for the past decade, in spring, had a festival devoted to new music (either through the defunct Living Music Festival or, now, New Music Dublin), but what is it?

‘Art music’ seems too austere a term. ‘Contemporary classical’ is just silly. Composer-led music nowadays absorbs the influence of all forms of music and so defies easy categories.

If someone mentions jazz, we have an idea what is meant. The same for soul, punk, opera. But when the music is about music? That requires explaining.

And David Lang, the curator of What?...Wow, the working title for this year’s New Music Dublin festival, is probably as good a person as any to ask.

For Lang, of New York’s Bang on a Can, it’s not about labels.

“Who would want to listen to something called art music, or post-minimalist music?” he asks.

“The labels are helpless to tell you what composers are doing. What they are doing is taking the sum total of what they’ve experienced and trying to convey something that is personal to them about it. That is like any kind of music in any genre. When I was nine and I heard classical music, what I felt about it was its emotion. So, in the last 15-20 years, my issue has been trying to figure out how to make that emotion interesting and powerful. I’ve been influenced by medieval music, world music, lots of things. And that’s true for everyone at this festival.”

Lang is speaking from his apartment in downtown Manhattan. It’s from the streets around him that he has taken what he calls “the spark” for What?...Wow.

“I’m here in my New York neighbourhood and I’m trying to make decisions about composers on the other side of world in Dublin and I thought, ‘You know, what if I imagined the connection between my neighbourhood and Ireland’?” he says.

“The reason why my neighbourhood is important in the US is because minimalism, in many respects, was born here. Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Meredith Monk — I had all this within a couple of blocks of me and it had a huge effect on me to live in this environment.

“Even today, I walk past the homes of the composers that created my universe. I know there are composers in Ireland that listen to people down the block from me, so I thought this would be a good reason to programme a festival about those composers and what came after: who are descendants, in Ireland, of what happened in Manhattan and other places? That became the organising principle.”

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For Lang, minimalism was a paring back of the European musical tradition. What happened afterwards was a rebuilding, from a different starting point, and with a freedom to use whatever elements were to hand.

Among those working in the legacy, Lang has identified Donnacha Dennehy and the Crash Ensemble, Ireland’s leading contemporary music group; Linda Buckley, an exciting Irish composer; the Pulitzer-winning John Luther Adams; Bryce Dessner, and many more.

Cork composer Irene Buckley will have a piece performed, and the programme also looks back to the originators Lang references, such as Brian Eno, Tom Johnson and Steve Reich.

The final work of the festival will be the latter’s stunning ‘Music for 18 Musicians’.

The works of these composers, and of others, will feature across two days of music, played by a host of ensembles, including the Contempo Quartet, the Crash Ensemble and the Bang of a Can All Stars, an ensemble formed in 1992 by Bang on a Can, the music organisation founded by Lang and fellow composers, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe.

The All Stars will be performing in one of Bang on a Can’s signature musical marathons, an eight-hour concert templated on the very first Bang on a Can event, back in 1987.

It’s still an annual rite for New York music lovers and Irish audiences now have a unique chance to experience it.

Lang recalls the 1980s as an exciting time for music, but with one problem.

“It was very upsetting to us that we would go to concerts and see the same 100 people all the time. Michael, Julia, and I basically met every day for a year complaining about this, and about how things weren’t happening that we thought should be happening. Eventually, we said if we don’t do anything we’re just wasting our time. So we made a list of things we wished were different: one was that young composers weren’t being respected; another was that music was being programmed for practical reasons, because something was cheap, not because it changed history; another was that people who didn’t know were scared — how do we get them into a concert? With the marathon, we addressed a lot of those,” Lang says.

With its casual atmosphere and genre-defying lineups, the marathon stripped away barriers to contemporary music, changing how music is experienced live.

Rather than a programme of four pieces seen by each person in the audience, and tacitly agreed upon, with the marathon no two experiences could be the same.

“People need to be free to make their own decisions,” says Lang.

“If we have 30 pieces in 12 hours, no-one will see the same concert. ‘Oh, that was your favourite? Sorry, I was out having a beer with friends for that’. What that does is make you describe what you heard. Oddly, that means you get to own your own musical opinions.”

That first concert has spawned a full-time music organisation, and not everything has been ticked off that 1987 list yet.

“There are still things we need to do, “ says Lang.

“But we try to do more and more. Now, we have an ensemble, a commissioning programme, and a school at the Bang and a Can Festival, where many young Irish musicians have been students. We have programmes that invite composers and performers to come to us and work together. There’s lots that can be done in that creative environment.”

All this endeavour is unified by Lang’s conviction that no music should be a closed door.

“I listen to everything,” he says.

“I have a background in pop and jazz. I love lots of different things. I could never understand why some parts of the music world seem to have a veil of mystery about them. I don’t like that. Nothing should be secret. We can all say, ‘I like Radiohead, I don’t like this other band’. The same should be true for contemporary music: ‘I like this piece, not this piece’ — fantastic. Nothing should be too mysterious.”

  • What?... Wow, David Lang’s Festival of Music, is at the National Concert Hall, Friday and Saturday. See nch.ie

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