This week at BAM, the busy composer David Lang—best known as the founder of the Bang on a Can collective—premieres Amelia, a furiously athletic pointe-driven work choreographed by Édouard Lock, with lyrics extracted from Velvet Underground songs by Lou Reed and John Cale. He spoke with Alicia Zuckerman.
What’s made your music such catnip for dancers?
Pretty much everything I do has been choreographed—Twyla Tharp, the Royal Ballet—but I’ve never worked closely with choreographers. The music gets found somehow.
But Lou Reed? How’d that happen?
A few years ago, bam commissioned Bang on a Can to make pieces for the Next Wave Festival. Mine was my own version of “Heroin.” You know, I grew up in a squeaky-clean, bookish environment, really interested in classical music. The things that classical music can talk about are all very noble, life and death and love and brotherhood. And then I got hooked by the Velvet Underground—the Andy Warhol yellow-banana record—in junior high. It was the first time that I’d ever heard anything say, Art is dangerous and scary, and people live lives which include crime and sex and drugs and danger and New York. A song as twisted as “Venus in Furs”—people whipping each other? For sex?! Unbelievable! So I thought, A fun project would be about this autobiographical moment. After I did “Heroin,” I sent it to Édouard, and he got incredibly excited and said, “This is it—I want this in the show.”
Has Lou heard it?
I needed to get permission, so I made a demo of “Heroin” and sent it to him. He called me and said, “I’ve been waiting my whole life for somebody to do this.” But I haven’t heard his reactions to the other songs, so maybe I’ve pissed him off. I’ve never met him, and I’m dreading it.
It must have been hard to separate yourself from music that you know so well.
It’s a classical-music idea—that’s what happened with the Schubert settings of Goethe. Schubert found them, and it became something all composers wanted to do. How many “Ich Grolle Nicht”s are there?