‘Passion’ Player

Photo: Peter Serling

Near the beginning of the cumbersomely titled film (UNTITLED), a humorless avant-garde composer takes the stage and befuddles the half-dozen members of his audience with howls, screeches, keyboard-pounding, and a chain clanking in a metal bucket. The music is by David Lang, who won a Pulitzer last year not for abstruse onslaughts but rather for The Little Match Girl Passion, a work of seraphic clarity and ardor. In that witheringly comic scene, Lang says, “I used every new-music joke I could think of: an oversize score, a duck call, yelling into the piano, the clarinet player crying and turning the page at the same time. It was fun.”

Lang has achieved the sort of worldly success that would make Adrian, the fictional composer played by Adam Goldberg, twitch with scorn. Bang on a Can, the organization he founded in 1987 with fellow composers Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe, has become one of new music’s national brands. He teaches at Yale and Oberlin; a studio recording of The Little Match Girl Passion was recently released on Harmonia Mundi, and WNYC will air a choral version on November 8. It’s going to be a busy fall for him, in fact: On September 9, the Museum of Modern Art will show five short films made to accompany Lang’s music, and American Ballet Theatre opens its season on October 7 with the premiere of a dance that Benjamin Millepied choreographed to three of Lang’s works.

Lang got involved in (UNTITLED) when the director, Jonathan Parker, asked for permission to use one of his gentler piano pieces for a scene in which Adrian thinks about a woman he is in love with. Lang eventually became an informal consultant on the character and the world he inhabits. “One of my roles was being an advocate for what a composer is,” Lang says. “It was important to me that his life feel recognizable and real.”

Though he doesn’t share Adrian’s glower and aggressive aesthetic, or his belief that only posterity will understand him, he still has sympathy for his movie counterpart. “People in our field take this stuff seriously, even if they’re doing ridiculous things. They’re really passionate people who focus on this little tiny area. We can’t make them look like idiots.” Lang knows Adrian—he has attended his concerts, shared billing with him, studied and argued with him. “I identify completely. There’s a shot of him coming out of his broken-down apartment building in New York City. That’s my building.”

Opens October 23.

MoMA Premiere: Elevated
September 9.

Untitled ABT work
October 7.

‘Passion’ Player