David Lang is an American composer who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2008. Lang graduated from Stanford University and in 2008 he became a faculty member of the Yale School of Music. He’s earned a grant from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts and was named Composer of the Year in 2013 by Musical America.
Howl: Just as a writer has to decide on what stories are worth telling, what characters are worth telling them, and how the story should be told, a composer must likewise decide on the story to be told, what instruments to tell it, and what composition is ideal. However, we are used to simply “telling” stories through words, either listened to or read. How do you tell a story through music? What is that process?
Lang: As with the answer to question 1, music deals more with the emotions behind the story than with the story itself. A story can tell us the facts of what happened but for a story to be good we have to care about it, we have to have a feeling about what happened. Music can’t tell you exactly what happened but it can tell you how to feel about it. So the most important thing for a composer telling a story is to find something he or she really feels something about, cares deeply about.
Howl: Some writers stand out for their use of diction, their tangential storytelling techniques, their development of character, or devising of unforeseeable twist endings. In music, what particular skills are best honed for effective storytelling?
Lang: There is a lot of impressive storytelling going on in the soundtracks to movies.
Try paying attention the next time you watch a movie to how the music tells you when to get scared, when to be happy, when to believe someone. Or try watching a scary movie with the sound off, and you will see just what music’s special power really is.
Howl: With a book, the story comes from the words on the page. With music, you can have the lyrics, voice, specific instruments…the layers seem infinite. How do you put together a finite story with such infinite possible dimensions at your disposal?
Lang: Emotions are infinite. I am on a never-ending roller-coaster of super subtle emotions – all yelling at me at once. Completely happy but slightly nervous about something I have to do next week! Scared of the conversation I am going to have in 5 minutes but I already know in 10 minutes it will all be over! When you think about it, music is a lot less limited than words.
Howl: Of all possible creative mediums, what drove you to music?
Lang: It was an accident – when I was 9 I saw a movie of Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic and I thought it looked cool.
Howl: One might say that there are particular adjectives or adverbs that are ideal for conveying specific emotions. The cliche example of “it was a dark and stormy night” conveying an ominous introduction to some impending tragedy comes to mind. Are there particular instruments that you find are ideal for certain emotion
Lang: We get those cliches in music too. Mostly from film, where you get used to a certain kind of scary situation with a certain kind of sound, or a love theme coming in when two characters meet, to let us know that these characters will be falling in love. These are shorthand things that make it easier to know where we are. I actually don’t like those things – the paradox is that when we have too strong associations between music and what we all know it means then we aren’t really listening very carefully to the music anymore. I try to make music that people have to listen to very carefully.
Howl: What inspires you to begin a composition and how do you know when it is finished?
Lang: I really love music and I like to think about it all the time, and my favorite thing to think about is all the things that music can do that maybe no one has asked it to do yet. And then I want to do those things.
Howl: Music’s subjectivity is one of its most alluring and personal traits. What do you “see” when you hear a particular piece? Is there a link we can set up to a song of your choosing so our readers can listen to the music while reading your description of its effect on you? It sounds weird, like asking a food critic to describe the meal’s effect on them while someone else eats the meal in question. However, it is kind of a neat interactive experience for the reader/listener.
Lang: Everyone hears music differently, which is great. If everyone heard everything the same way and liked the same things then we wouldn’t need very much music, and I would be out of a job. But because everyone hears music differently it is really important for people to concentrate on what they like or need or want in music for themselves. For me, I love to sit and think about how I feel, and about my life and the lives of the people I love around me, and there isn’t time enough, or quiet enough, to do this during my normal day. When I listen to music my mind can wander, and I can take the time to pay attention to my life.