We talk to composer David Lang ahead of the premiere of his work for 1000 untrained voices, Crowd Out
Crowd Out, David Lang’s new work for 1000 untrained voices, was inspired by the experience of an Arsenal football match. The American composer and Bang-on-a Can founder talks to Helen Wallace about the ideas behind the piece and how he plans to be ‘yelling as loudly as everyone else’ at the Birmingham premiere on 8 June.
How did Crowd Out come about?
Some years ago I went to a football match at Arsenal’s Highbury Stadium and found myself in the strange – and alien – position of being in the middle of a crowd yelling, chanting and singing. I realised I was part of a huge spontaneous performance just as powerful as any other big musical event. We’ve built our society so that there are professionals, amateurs and audience, but if you look at your life, there are a huge number of activities where you participate in creating sound. You go to a church, a book group, the pub, a football match, you yell for your team and you yell about how horrible the other team is – that’s a musical activity.
It doesn’t seem an obvious commission from the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group?
Well, no! A while ago another organisation contacted me to say they would like to commission the one thing I have always wanted to do and never been able to write. I told them I wanted to compose a piece for ‘1000 people shouting in the street’. ‘We’ll call you back’, came the reply. I have a good relationship with the BCMG, who commissioned My Evil Twin (1992) and The Passing Measures (1998) and when their artistic director Stephen Newbould asked me what I wanted to do when they came to New York in 2008, I told him. It’s very much in the spirit of BCMG’s work, and it’s fantastic that Simon Halsey is on board to direct it. Spitalfields and the Education Programme of the Berlin Philharmonic have also come on board.
Does it relate to anything you’ve done before?
As a composer, I’m here to create something that was not there before. So I drink a lot of coffee and think about what can be done! I never want to repeat myself. The musical canon that already exists is so powerful that we have to be very careful not to be ruled by it. Contemporary music doesn’t have to be part of this grand historic narrative – though we reward composers who do try to fit into this story. But it’s not the best environment to hear something really new. I wrote an opera last year that was all in whispers – whispers make very beautiful sounds. We are too used to thinking of opera as loud, dramatic singing in front of 4000 people. But lots of human experiences can’t stand up to a form that large. I wanted to make an opera out of something which had to be really tiny, really quiet.
This sounds like the polar opposite of a whispered opera?
Yes, I guess so. But even though it’s for 1000 voices, it’s actually about the experience of being alone in a crowd. There’s room in this piece for people to say things that they make up themselves, to answer questions on their own, and to say things at their own speed. Things are coordinated and things happen in a certain progression but the idea is that people are supposed to be able to feel the tension and the beauty of being an individual surrounded by other people trying to accomplish the same thing. I’ll be there yelling as loudly as everyone else.
How did you go about creating the text?
I trawled the internet for completions to the following sentence: ‘When I am in a crowd I…’. I found out how people felt when they were in a mass of people. I’m interested in how we retain our individuality and hang on to the things that make us unique when we are confronted by the things that make us want to conform – and a world of surveillence in which governments, corporations and almost everyone else has information on us. Most of these turned out to be people’s fears – ‘I feel alone, I feel lost, I draw deep breaths, I hate, I glare, I feel like rushing into tears, I feel left out, I start to panic, I lose control’. I took out all the answers that were specific in any way. I wanted it to be universal so that everyone could feel that some part of them was reflected in what they were saying.
So there is notated music as well as speech?
Yes, part of the score involves some simple notated music, but this was a project specifically for non-trained musicians. I do believe we lose something when we ask really specialist people to perform. Virtuosity is great, but it can’t be the end of what music can do. The paradox of a musical education is that the more sophisticated you become about how it all works, the further away you move from the things normal listeners actually hear. I want you listeners to ask for all the other kinds of musical expression you wish existed, which won’t exist without you!
Why do you think people feel more comfortable making judgements on new art than new music?
It’s true that people who see contemporary art are more curious than those who go to music. An art audience is used to the idea that the experience will be challenging. At every Whitney Biennial people line-up along the block so they can be offended and challenged and disturbed – they like being part of the decision-making process. Somehow the way we teach classical music puts out the message that we don’t want an audience participating in the rawness of decision-making; we want to neutralise their opinion somehow. But I want to say: 'your ticket, your participation, your interest is a vote for the world you want to live in.' That’s why it’s so great that the BCMGs Sound Investment scheme encourages the music-loving audience to help fund, and therefore bring to life, the works they will be listening to.
Crowd Out will be premiered at Millennium Point in Birmingham on Sunday 8 June. Further performances will take place in Berlin (14 and 15 June) and at Spitalfields Summer Festival on Saturday 21 June. Visit: bcmg.org for more information
Photo: Adrian Burrows