Left “Lang-ing” for More…

On Sunday night the University of Iowa’s Center for New Music (CNM) presented the works of U. Iowa alumnus and Pulitzer Prize wining composer David Lang. The concert also featured pieces by Michael D’Ambosio and Brian Ciach, who was in attendance and played his own work. I have always found David Lang’s music very interesting and having been to a couple of lectures that he has presented in the past has added to that interest. His ideas for compositions are always very specific and often deeply philosophical. He also strives to compose in a way that challenges the performers, usually with repetitive rhythmic patters that differ just enough that the performer has to stay focused throughout the piece. 

The concert began with one of my favorite works, “Cheating, Lying, Stealing.” Since I played on this piece I wont talk about it to much. As Lang says in his program notes he wanted to change the typical idea of a composer writing about what they like about themselves and instead decided to write about what he disliked about himself. This idea can be seen the two brake drum parts that are used to accent the rhythmic cell. The parts are written at forte with accents on every note and are intended to be the focus of the work. As he told the ensemble during the sound check, “this is a concerto for break drums.” The abrasive break drum parts are offset by a beautiful but very difficult cello melody. We decided to amplify Tom Maples’ cello to help him be heard over the rest of the ensemble, and when Lang saw this he told Tom that “the microphone shouldn’t make it easier to play, it will just make it easier for everyone to hear you struggle.” For those that were not able to attend the concert here is a link to a performance of “Cheating, Lying, Stealing.” 

The second piece of the concert was a piano sonata written and performed by Brian Ciach. In watching his performance and hearing the way it was composed it was obvious that he had a deep personal connection with each note that he played. The first movement, World of Hate, began with a thick chord played in a Stravinsky-esque rhythm at the bottom of the piano. The first movement continued to show the composers anger with closely voiced chords and, for lack of better words, pounding on the keyboard. The second movement, Broken Love, traveled through a number of the composers emotions, from overwhelming sadness to jubilation and back. 

“Pierced” by David Lang featured Anthony Arnone as the cello soloist as well as Casey Rafn on piano and Andy Thierauf on percussion with additional member of the CNM ensemble. This piece was composed with the idea that the three soloists were playing playing together and the CNM ensemble was playing together. It starts with the three soloists playing a pointilistic, highly chromatic melody while the CNM ensemble played a more traditional chord progression. During the piece the roles switch and the Piano and Percussion begin playing a chord progression made up of simpler major and minor chords with a cello solo soaring over the top. While they have become more traditionally tonal, the members of the CNM ensemble begin playing more dense harmonies in sharp rhythms. This combination created a really interesting juxtaposition of tonal and atonal, but despite the fact that they do not seem like they would work together to the listener it comes across as one cohesive idea. 

“Super Groove” by Mike D’Ambrosio was performed wonderfully by Elliot Czaplewski on oboe and Casey Rafn on piano. That being said this composition was probably my least favorite of the night. The title of the piece gave me an expectation of a funky, Tower Of Power, like groove but I felt like the work ended up being sort of floaty and it seemed to drag on for a long time. Harmonically the piece was very interesting and it’s possible I would have enjoyed the piece more if I did not have the preconceptions of what the piece should sound like, but with a concert filled with amazing compositions it seemed out of place. 

The final piece of the program was another David Lang piece called “Increase.” This piece featured challenging rhythmic patterns with slight variations as the piece progressed. While the ensemble continues to play short, busy, rhythmic passages the stings begin playing a beautiful melody made up of mostly longer note values that create a nice compliment to the busy underlay. In true David Lang style near the middle of the piece heavy percussion kicks in and begins accenting specific beats. After a dropping of all the instruments except flute and vibraphone a thick texture is created by having everyone join back in at the same time, all playing forte that goes until the entire ensemble abruptly stops signaling the end of the piece. 

All of the works presented in this concert were well executed by the CNM ensemble members and made for a fantastic evening of great music. It was very evident that all of the performers, as well as Dr. David Gompper and Professor Zachary Stanton worked hard to show our guest composers that the University of Iowa can execute these extremely difficult works and put on a thrilling concert for the audience.



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2 responses to “Left “Lang-ing” for More…

  1. Thanks for your performers’ insight on Cheating, Lying, Stealing. I’ve listened to the piece several times over the years (it’s one of my favorites too) and never considered it a “concerto for break drums.” They are certainly an integral part of the ensemble, but (as with a lot of Lang’s pieces) the ensemble all blends together into a single entity for me. I like how your staging reflected the prominence of the break drums though, placing them right up front while lots of other performances (like the Kentucky one you linked) have put them in the back.

    I also question Lang’s basic premise that most composers write about what they like about themselves. There are plenty of pieces written about a composers’ fears or negative emotions.

  2. nspinfo1

    Music criticism must surely be a lonely art. The music critic wears, individually or collectively, one of several hats, as the term, according to Oxford Music Online, refers to “several related fields of activity: evaluation of the achievement of individual composers, critical commentary and analysis of works in scores, appraisal of newly created works, accounts of public performances and of recordings in electronic form.” They key words here are “evaluation”, “commentary”, “analysis”, and “accounts”. A critic’s job, essentially, is to determine the value of someone else’s work – at best, a highly subjective and contentious enterprise. Add to this the complexity of new music in that last fifty years and not only must the critic be an effective communicator, they must also be knowledgeable over a vast musical landscape. Finally, when a student dons the hat of music critic, the job becomes still more complicated as they attempt to evaluate the works and performances of works and styles they may be minimally familiar with, utilizing a breadth of knowledge that they are still compiling and developing.

    And, given that these student music critics are often evaluating the performances of their peers – any step into the realm of serious critique brooks the fear of alienating those peers. A lonely art indeed.

    Given the complexity of the nature of music criticism, it is no wonder that student music critics may appear uncertain of what it is they are critiquing: the performance? the work? the place of the work within the repertoire? within the composer’s oeuvre?

    Aaron Ziegler’s student review of the University of Iowa’s Center for New Music Concert on Sunday, September 22, 2013, featuring (among others) the works of David Lang, presents a case in point of the difficulty of producing an insightful student review.

    The first David Lang work on the program was Cheating, Lying, Stealing; Ziegler notes that it is one of his favorite works – although no details are given as to why this is so. Is it his favorite merely because he played in the ensemble performing it? Or has he been listening to it on his ipod for the last five years? We don’t know as Zeigler does not tell us. Is it not the role of the reviewer to explain why they view a particular work favorably? The reviewer provides a reasonable explanation of the musical arrangement within the piece, but provides no subjective evaluation of that arrangement, instead remarking that since “I played on the piece I won’t talk about it too much”. Perhaps adequate if you are reviewing your colleagues, but should we not expect a little more depth when reviewing the work of a Pulitzer Prize winner?

    II. Broken Love, from the Third Sonata for piano, by Brian Ciach (and performed by the composer), a Philadelphia based composer and pianist, was the second work reviewed by Ziegler. The short paragraph devoted to this work seems to espouse contrasting viewpoints without committing to either; in one sentence Zeigler observes that “it was obvious that he [Brian Ciach] had a deep personal connection with each note that he played” while in the next he notes “the composers anger with closely voiced chords and, for lack of better words, pounding on the keyboard.” The first observation appears neutral; Zeigler gives us no indication if he views this perceived personal connection as enhancing the performance or not, nor does he reveal if that connection reached him as a listener. More problematic from a critical perspective is Zeigler’s mention of “the composer’s anger with closely voiced chords”. Can a composer who feels a “deep personal connection with each note” also feel “anger with closely voiced chords”? The implication appears to be that Ciach reviled these chords, and if that is the case, why did he bother to write them? While it is appropriate for a reviewer to gauge the level of emotion a performer instills in the performance of a work, is it not something altogether different to assume that the performer feels those emotions himself?

    This same work was the subject of some conversation in a composition seminar later that same week at the University of Iowa. Several composition students remarked how odd it was that such a “lame” work (Brian Ciach’s Broken Love) was programmed next to David Lang. When asked to explain why it was “lame” these same students rolled their eyes but offered no genuine explanation. This incident clearly points out the great problem with music criticism: subjectivity. Alas, Zeigler and the seminar students are in good company here; there are many examples of negative reviews of great composers. Influential German music critic Rudolf Louis, writing in Die Deutsche Musider Gegenwart in 1909 on Gustav Mahler’s symphonies noted that “one does not have to be repelled by Mahler’s artistic personality in order to realize the complete emptiness and vacuity of an art in which the spasm of an impotent mock-Titanism reduces itself to a frank gratification of common seamstress-like sentimentality.” Impotent mock-Titanism? Complete emptiness and vacuity? Mahler? William Foster Apthorp, writing a review in 1898 of Tchaikovsky’s final symphony the Pathetique for the Boston Evening Transcript, remarked that “the Pathetique Symphony threads all the foul ditches and sewers of human despair; it is unclean as music well can be.” And German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, known more for his declaration that “God is Dead” than for his musical criticism, when writing about Wagner and his music, queried his readers thus: “Is Wagner a human being at all? Is he not rather a disease? He contaminates everything he touches – he has made music sick.” With words such as these, who needs enemies? Or music critics?

    In the end, Ziegler chose the safe alternative. Rather than commit to an aesthetic evaluation of a work or performance and commit, good or bad, he chose to walk softly, speak gently, and keep his friends. An excellent, if tentative, first step. But then, who wants to be lonely?

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