Composer David Lang recently put out Death Speaks, a record built around the lyrics of Franz Schubert, the master of the art song (and a re-appropriater of lyrics himself — his musical version of Goethe’s poem “Der Erlkönig” goes hard). It features musical contributions from Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond) on vocals, Owen Pallett (Arcade Fire) on violin, Bryce Dessner (the National) on guitar, and compositional wunderkind Nico Muhly on piano. Check out the stark video for “Pain Changes” featuring Worden below, along with a Q&A she and Lang provided to contextualize the clip.
SHARA WORDEN: So David, I’m writing this to you on Halloween. I’m thinking about ghouls, gore and apparitions. How appropriate it is that we are talking about the voice of Death right now. It wasn’t the easiest task in the world for me to think about singing as Death! Where did this text come from, and how was it that you even had the idea of writing a song cycle from this perspective?
DAVID LANG: And a very convincing and lovely Death you are, may I say! I wanted to write some songs, so I started thinking about the 19th-century Viennese composer Franz Schubert. His songs are beautiful and heartfelt and full of romantic excess. I was listening to one song in particular, called “Death And The Maiden,” in which Death is a real character, and he sings to the maiden to calm her down. I thought, that’s interesting — Death is speaking directly to us in our language. I poked around a bit in the rest of Schubert’s (600-plus!) songs and found 32 moments where Death says something to the living, so I thought I would use those as my lyrics.
WORDEN: This video has a really temporal aspect to it. The change that occurs is very slow and almost imperceptible. When you first showed it to me, I couldn’t believe how much it felt like the visual manifestation of your music, which uses these really sparse elements, and then it almost reflects your musical world too, in which the listener develops a texture sensitivity or something — like the ear becomes really sensitive to the slightest variations in the music over time, and then these seemingly small changes become really dramatic. Was this something you had thought about with the video concept or was it a happy accident?
LANG: I like really simple things, in music and in everything else. But the idea for the video really came out of your performance. When you sing this piece, it always feels like you have a message for me, personally, and it is truthful and direct and I want to face it straight on. So I thought that all I really needed to see in the video was you, singing right at me.
WORDEN: What made you decide to put this group of musicians together — Owen Pallett, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly and I — to be the ensemble of death? I have to say that eating out with this crew, is like, the fanciest food I have ever eaten on tour … fine dining experiences.
LANG: Yes, this is a fun group! And definitely the food at the recording was great, but my favorite moment was taking a break in one intense recording session and checking my email, and realizing that Nico had managed to email me five hilarious things, during the session, all while playing his part. I don’t know how he did it! Schubert wrote his songs for intimate salons and small audiences, but classical music doesn’t usually happen in such intimate spaces anymore. Lots of pop music does, though. I thought it might be interesting to make a band out of people who started their training in classical music and who moved into other realms. (Like you, opera star Shara!)
WORDEN: When you are sitting down (do you sit down?) to write this kind of piece, how does it work in the beginning? Because it seems like there are a fairly strict set of rhythmic principles, and then also a specific group of pitches (in any octave) that are like your puzzle pieces, and then you organize them, but somehow I still have the feeling that the music is free—like you set up these rules and then you break them. Do you begin with these guidelines, and then as you are going, make decisions about the interaction of these puzzle pieces and make little changes here and there, or is it more like a grid that is laid out, and then you get surprised by the way the pieces fall into place?
LANG: I do like puzzles. I just had to remove sudoku from my iphone because I was wasting too much time playing it every day — I am really a puzzle addict and it gets into my work. I like to set up little chains of actions and then follow where they lead. But I don’t like the patterns to boss me around—they sort of help to make the skeleton and I am much freer about how to put the flesh on the bones.
WORDEN: There seems to be this generation of composers before you who were really individualistic, and yet your collective (is that the right word?) Bang On A Can has really set the model for a lot of us, I think, as a group of composers supporting each other, and the community aspect of what you all do is so in the forefront. It’s an “all the boats go up when the water rises” kind of mentality; it seems like you, Julia [Wolfe] and Michael [Gordon] really support each other, as well as other new music groups with the Bang on a Can Marathon every year, where other composers can showcase their work. I feel like a lot of the New York composer community, and the collaboration that happens with my generation and younger, is because you all modeled that for us. Did you all feel like you were doing something different when you first started?
LANG: That is really kind of you to say. It is exactly right, that all the boats go up, but that wasn’t really the attitude of the world I grew up in. I have a really nerdy, legit classical music background, and when I was studying I always felt that composers were supposed to be selfish around each other, that there was one position in the world for a successful musician and you could only get it by pushing all the other musicians in front of a bus. When I met Michael and Julie, we just decided that it would be much more pleasant to live in a world where composers were nice to each other, supported each other, and actively helped to build a network so that musicians could notice how intertwined all their fates are. I know you feel that way too.
The limited edition vinyl reissue of Death Speaks is available via Cantaloupe Music.