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Gramophone, October 2010

Real Quiet’s all-Lang disc is a strong jolt of espresso

Laurence Vittes
Gramophone, May 2009

Vibrant contemporary scores from a genre-bending Pulitzer Prize-winner

The world premiere recording of Pierced, a concerto for percussion, cello and piano with orchestra, highlights a disc that showcases the range of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang’s work. Those who are familiar with his consummate, measured handling of modern, minimal and rock elements will welcome this release, performed by rising young leading-edge figures like the three-man band called Real Quiet (percussionist David Cossin, cellist Felix Fan and pianist Andrew Russo), established figures like clarinettist Evan Ziporyn, and the adventurous Boston Modern Orchestra Project.

In each piece there is a possible disconnect between the emotionally intense outward aspects of the music and the “scenario”, for want of a better word, from which Lang is working. Musically, they are more straightforward. Both Pierced and Cheating, Lying, Stealing are marked by haunting repetitions against which lyrical elements rise and fall in a sort of shadow existence. Lou Reed’s Heroin is an exquisite set piece for genre-bending vocalist Theo Bleckmann and cellist Fan, the latter particularly sublime. How to Pray is another mesmerising cantilena, while Wed, taken from pieces Lang wrote for friends who have died, in an enchanting five minutes of earthly delight. If you listen to the five pieces straight through, as I imagine most listeners will do, the effects is of a powerful and eloquent work whose initial discordant violence is increasingly softened by gentle prayer and supplication.

The liner-notes, which feature a discussion between pianist Russo and composer Lang, is the kind of documentary material that makes such releases invaluable. What’s most interesting about the conversation, in addition to facts and reflections about the music, is how modern composers like Lang find value in the notion that their work belongs to the classical tradition, despite its apparent poor fit. “One of the things I like about this disc,” he says, “is that all of the pieces try to take classical music someplace it doesn’t usually go.” Maybe it’s time to come up with a new category in which to put this music.

Bob Briggs
MusicWeb International, April 2009

Mark Swed wrote in the Los Angeles Times, about Lang’s work, that “There is no name yet for this kind of music”, and in some respects he is correct. It isn’t minimal in the Glass/Reich sense of the word. Nor is it New Age, transcendental, experimental, trance, elusive, dance or fusion. Like the wonderful, and equally exciting, John Luther Adams, it’s all of these things and none of them.

Basically, it’s music, pure and simple; raw, energetic, exciting, thoughtful music. Pierced has all of these qualities. It’s a relentless onslaught, in the manner of some of Zappa’s compositions, but with much more interest, better scored and with a real sense of where it’s going. Lang calls it a Concerto, but without the usual confrontation between soloist and orchestra. Certainly there is no give and take, it’s in-yer-face music, and it doesn’t take prisoners. It’s angular, rhythmic, elemental stuff, never letting up for a moment of its short duration. It’s very satisfying, the work making a perfect whole, knowing exactly where it stands in the musical scheme of things. This work is worth the modest price of the disk alone. It’s fabulous.

Lang’s arrangement of Lou Reed’s Heroin is set for voice with a Bach-like accompaniment for solo cello. This is very haunting indeed, a beautiful meditation based on the simplest of material. Bleckmann’s husky vocals are just right for the music he is given and Fann plays easily and blends well with the voice. When it ends we’re left suspended in mid air.

Cheating, Lying, Stealing is a very funky piece, full of the angularity we have come to expect from Lang, which fragments towards the end. There’s a very exciting use of silence which breaks up the flow and disquiets the listener just as one has got used to the forward momentum. How to Pray inhabits a totally different sound-world, using only percussion, keyboards and amplified cello. It has a bluesy feel to it, is loud and hard–edged, unrelenting in its outlook and is quite a difficult listen. This needs some study to get to the heart of the matter but it’s well worth it.

To end, a piano solo—Wed, from a cycle called Memory Pieces—which gently moves between major and minor. The notes in the booklet, which consist of a conversation between the composer and pianist Andrew Russo, call this trance-like. It certainly inhabits a world where time seems to have stood still. It makes a very relaxed, and unexpected, ending to a very stimulating disk of music by a composer who hasn’t really been discovered in the UK, and deserves to be better known.

These performances are totally committed and carry the stamp of authority. The sound is very good, easily capturing the bigness of Pierced yet having an intimate feel in Wed. As always with David Lang, I was left wanting more. I think that his special art will have you on the edge of your seat feeling the same. I hope so, for your sake.

Jayson Greene
Pitchfork, March 2009

David Lang, alongside Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon, founded Bang on a Can in 1987 for the same reason most contemporary composers organize ensembles—to hear someone play their music. Twenty-two years later, “Bang on a Can” has become as much a movement as an organization, having gathered forces and expanded in all directions with a tenacity that would impress the Wu-Tang Clan. Despite their countless offshoots, side projects, collaborations, and a growing number of disciples, Lang, Wolfe, and Gordon remain the beating heart of BoAC, and their shared aesthetic has come to define a wide slice of the American contemporary classical scene.

The three tend to subsume their individual efforts into the collective, so it is enlightening and refreshing to hear when one of them breaks off on their own. Lang’s music, released mostly on the BoAC’s Cantaloupe label, does arguably the clearest job of defining the “Bang on a Can” sound of the three. If we’re sticking with the Wu-Tang analogy, then Lang is the GZA figure, the one who most deftly negotiates all of the quirks and contradictions that make BoAC’s world worthwhile and interesting. Pierced is a further refinement on that world, a place steeped in both the New York rock and the minimalism of the 70s without being overly indebted to either, an ingenious meld of film-score ambience, rock propulsion, and minimalist textures.

Lang’s pieces come in two basic varieties: rippling, liquid, and quietly restless (“My Very Empty Mouth”, “Sweet Air”, both off of 2003’s excellent Child ) and chattering, agitated, and bustling. The works on Pierced fall mostly in the latter category, which can make it a tougher listen. The title track, for example, is a near-exhausting exercise in rhythmic rug-pulling, a hard downbeat switching accents every few bars while strings shudder and groan like a leaky barge and a piano endlessly hammers a low note. The piece lurches in place for almost 14 minutes, an equal parts maddening and absorbing shell game of “where’s-the-beat?” “Cheating, Lying, Stealing”, an older work, has a similarly spiky hide, bristling with nervously stuttering piano, low bass-clarinet blats, and feedback squalls, all scored by the bangs and clunks of scrapyard-metal percussion. It resembles the sort of bracing urban chaos that Industrial Age composers like George Antheil sought to capture in his 1924 Ballet Mécanique, except that here the machinery has rusted and grown creaky with age.

There is a long, mournful moment of repose, though, in Lang’s startling reworking of the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin”. Art-rock legends and classical composers often make dicey bedfellows, but Lang wisely avoids trying to win cool contests against Lou Reed. Maintaining the original’s trancelike quality, he ditches everything else, recasting the song for the hauntingly pure-voiced singer/composer Theo Bleckmann and a single cellist. The result resembles a cross between an English Renaissance ballad and a Chet Baker-style torch song, stripping away the thin veil of bravado and leaving only piercing sadness. The only work that directly references rock music, it’s also the most “traditional”—sounding piece of classical music on the album, a canny switch-up that demonstrates how comfortable Lang is in the cross-genre slipstream. The album isn’t perfect—there are a few dead patches towards the end—but Lang, who won the Pulitzer in 2008 for his Little Match Girl Passion, remains the rare Downtown composer who has managed to enter the Uptown world of big-name commissions and hefty grants with both his spirit and voice intact.

Allen Gimbel
American Record Guide, March 2009

Naxos marks David Lang’s 2008 Pulitzer Prize with this collection. All but the first piece have been previously recorded. Most of the works built around the trio known as Real Quiet (Felix Fan, cello, Andrew Russo, piano and synthesizer, and David Cossin, percussion), who describe themselves as dedicated to “hard-edge acoustic and electric music”. That description is a good one for Lang’s aggressively clangorous post-minimalist style.

The new piece is Pierced (2007) (sounds like a Marc-Anthony Turnage title), a nightmarish ordeal in two connected parts for cello, piano, percussion, and strings. The first part consists of a jerky cyclic pattern for the three soloists in unison while the tremolo string orchestra produces a mysterious, gloomy background. The second part sets mournful “sigh” figures for the soloists against dark, minor-key flailing in the strings (Hitchcock comes to mind); insistent pounding drives the piece along. A drum solo out of Nielsen spins out of control toward the end for emphasis. The overall effect is hypnotic and disturbing and brings up memories of 80s Rave culture.

Moving back to its predecessor in the 60s, Lang pays homage to the Velvet Underground with his arrangement of Lou Reed’s suicide anthem ‘Heroin’ for (processed) voice (a smooth Theo Bleckmann) and arpeggiating cello solo (an overprocessed Felix Fan). The result is spooky and likely to offend the innocent classical music patron, who is unlikely to be wandering around in this grimy territory anyway. Crossover audiences won’t go near it, either.

Cheating, Lying, Stealing (1993–95), for bass clarinet, cello, piano, and percussion, is a title said to reflect characteristics of the composer’s personality. The piece consists of electrified ostinato patterns that are “unreliable” in their repetitions, changing and metamorphosing internally before the piece simply moves on to the next. Long cello lines soar over the metallic pounding. But there is a recap—an uncharacteristic nod to classical norms (Lang is a graduate of Yale).

How to Pray (2002), for cello, electric guitar, piano, and drums, is possibly best known as the soundtrack for Bill Morrison’s 2005 film of the same name (the piece came first). Cantaloupe 21029 (J/F 2006) includes the film on DVD (with other goodies). The piece is expressive—an intense 10-minute ritual examination of the components of a single arpeggiated minor triad…The program ends with Wed (1995 or 96), a brief piano piece oscillating between a single major and minor triad…The booklet contains a helpful interview with the composer by Mr Russo.

Bradley Bambarger, February 2009

Although once a scruffy outsider as a co-founder of Bang on a Can, composer David Lang is part of the establishment now. The 52-year-old teaches at Yale University and won a Pulitzer Prize last year for his “The Little Match Girl Passion.” He still has the outsider attitude, though, saying that what he likes about this new collection of his work is that “all the pieces try to take classical music someplace it doesn’t usually go.”

The disc features the first recording of “Pierced,” a 15-minute triple concerto for piano, cello and percussion with agitated strings hovering over a stuttered rhythm—the performance both bracing and hypnotic. Also here is Lang’s classic “Cheating, Lying, Stealing“ (a piece with rhythmic novelties that Steve Reich said made him envious). The lovely piano piece “Wed” shows Lang’s more reflective side. Then there is his lyrical, Philip Glass-like arrangement of Lou Reed’s Velvet Underground song “Heroin,” with Theo Bleckmann’s detached vocal inhabiting the macabre soul of the song like a wraith.

Michael Kabran
PopMatters, February 2009

He may not be Kanye West but, in the world of contemporary classical and avant-garde music, David Lang’s star is seriously blingin’. It was no surprise to critics when the New York-based composer nabbed 2008’s Pulitzer Prize in music for his Little Match Girl Passion, a powerfully simplistic and surprisingly accessible work, based on a Hans Christian Andersen fable and inspired by a Bach composition, scored only for voice and percussion. Among his musical colleagues—in and out of the classical realm—Lang had already earned major street cred for co-founding the now legendary Bang on a Can musical foundation. Bang on a Can has commissioned works from a wide range of exciting artists, including noise rocker Thurston Moore, jazz drummer John Hollenbeck, and experimental pianist Matthew Shipp. The organization has also served as the catalyst for a variety of touring and recording groups like the similarly named Bang on a Can All-Stars.

What has made Lang particularly appealing as a composer is that, unlike many of his peers, he has never shied away from rock and jazz and never championed classical music’s superiority over pop and folk forms. Pierced, a brilliant new collection featuring four Lang originals and an arrangement of the Velvet Underground classic anti-anthem “Heroin”, is no exception. The album epitomizes Lang’s aesthetic, feeding equally off jazz, pop, and classical experimental music, with the swinging polyrhythms of post-bop, the edginess of metal, and the atonal inflections of horror movie music.

Pierced‘s eponymous and aptly named opening track, which features conductor Gil Rose’s Boston Modern Orchestra Project, is a rhythmic smorgasbord that seems to pull from jazz, rock, and dub-step realms all at once. The song begins with a jazzy repeating staccato passage of chromatic percussion—xylophone, vibraphone, etc.—that pierces the air, creating an uncomfortable, almost maddening feeling in listener. A second section replaces the chromatic percussion with staccato strings that seem to gnarl and fizzle like punk power chords. The entire song is underscored by percussionist David Cossin’s muscular bass drum which steamrolls out of control into an almost dub-step snare and kick drum coda.

Lang’s arrangement of Lou Reed’s “Heroin” proves to be the album’s biggest success. At first listen, even the most ardent critics of the Velvet Underground would be appalled at Lang’s apparent destruction of a punk classic. Gone are the rough-around-the-edges, off-key vocals and sparse, distorted power-chord accompaniment that made the original version such an underground sensation. It’s only after repeated listens that you come to realize that Lang isn’t performing destruction as much as he is performing deconstruction. The song, performed as a duo by cellist Felix Fan and rising star jazz vocalist Theo Bleckmann, is somber, slow, and polished. Like the Zapruder film, Lang has slowed every syllable and every chord, in an effort to expose every blemish. Each word is a series of tones, chanted by Bleckmann like a Gregorian monk. Each chord is a sequence of arpeggiated notes, which Fan infuses with a velvety coolness. The song’s meaning is conveyed not in the meaning of the lyrics but in their sound and the sound of the accompanying chords. As a result, the starkness and accessibility of the original version isn’t lost but simply transmogrified. It is a triumph of music in any genre.

The rest of the songs on Pierced are all also highlights. “Cheating, Lying, Stealing”, a Lang composition from 1993, is a clear predecessor to the album’s title track. It features repeating rhythmic passages augmented by electronic flourishes that give the song a futuristic quality. This music could easily have served as the soundtrack to Bladerunner or Running Man. “How to Pray”, a 2002 work, includes a swinging piano and string riff that is sure fodder for hip-hop producers the world over. “Wed”, featuring Andrew Russo on solo keyboard playing a minimalist work, is delicate and funereal, a perfect theme to HBO’s Six Feet Under.

Pierced is a significant achievement, not only because it sates the appetite of the diehard 21st century classic music aficionado but because it serves as an avant-garde music gateway drug to modern jazz, post-rock, and electronica enthusiasts—fans of William Parker and Anthony Braxton, Sigur Ros and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Madlib and the Bug should take notice, if they haven’t already.

Whether or not Pierced is the future of experimental music or classical music or all music remains to be seen. What is certain is that Lang has seriously laid down the gauntlet for future composers across all genres with a deceptively simple, beautiful, unsettling, and varied work that owes as much to Grandmaster Flash and Brian Eno as it does to Arnold Schoenberg and Morton Feldman. That is a serious accomplishment.

Joshua Kosman
San Francisco Chronicle, February 2009

Dark, mordant and rhythmically relentless, “Pierced” is the most exciting new work in years from Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang. It’s a concerto for trio and string orchestra, but the piece doesn’t bother with any of the usual concerto give-and-take. Instead, Lang sets his forces in quivery, almost hostile juxtaposition; all they can agree on is the recurring downbeat. The results are irresistible, the most forceful thrill of several to be had from this explosive disc. Also in the lineup are “Heroin,” Lang’s chillingly tender remake of the Velvet Underground classic into a postmodern art song, the vivid “Lying, Cheating, Stealing” and the dynamically beautiful “How to Pray.” The spirit that comes through in all these pieces—edgy, aggressive, thoughtful and ironic&,da is Lang’s distinctive addition to the musical landscape.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, January 2009

“One of the things I like about this disc is that all the pieces try to take classical music somewhere it doesn’t usually go”. David Lang’s description could well be countered with the question, ‘but does he know where somewhere is?” Born in the United States in 1957, Jacob Druckman and Hans Werner Henze were among his compositional mentors towards the end of his student days. From the outset his compositions have been provocative and thought stimulating, and included works in many genres from opera to solo instruments, The Little Match Girl Passion, written for the ensemble Theatre of Voices, was awarded the 2008 Pulitzer Prize, and is among a number of scores that have taken high-profile honours. He was a co-founder of the festival, Bang on a Can, and from last year joined the composition faculty of the Yale School of Music. The present disc offers a very diverse group of pieces, Pierced, a hard hitting score for piano, percussion, cello and string orchestra, places the work as an aggressive minimalist creation. It drills home its message with an tenacity that you will either like or hate, but I immediately replayed the track fascinated by its brutality. I became rather unhinged from the disc in the obsessive repetition of Heroin for vocalist and cello, the message no doubt vital, but it turned me off long before it ended and I didn’t turn on again until the final track. There I found the delicate Wed for solo piano written in memory of a young woman who died of cancer. In between Lang crosses many musical boundaries, introducing jazz and heavy rock on the way. I respect his absorption in a new world of sound, and I hope the inquisitive will hear the disc. The performers are obviously dedicated and the engineers have added high impact sound.

James Manheim, January 2009

The highlight for many will be the first work on the program, Pierced, written in 2007. It’s a concerto of sorts, with a trio of cello, piano, and percussion arrayed against a string group. There is no solo-tutti contrast; however, each group conducts its own monologue but subtly influences (or perhaps pierces—the composer gives no explanation for the title) the other. The tonality of each piece tends to set its mood, and the rhythm slowly evolves over the course of the work. The energy level is consistently high, however, and despite a superficial similarity, the effect of Lang’s music is far from that of the minimalist classics, even in the meditative pair of pieces that closes out the program. Cheating, Lying, Stealing (1993–1995) is witty rather than angry; the composer sets himself up as the deceptive figure. Lang fails to make the case for why Lou Reed’s “Heroin” needed the new arrangement he provides here. But with comfortable, enthusiastic performances by a diverse group of East Coast players, this disc could provide a good starting point for buyers wanting to sample post-minimalist developments.

William Yeoman
The West Australian, January 2009

American composer David Lang combines a minimalist sensibility and a muscular classicism that’s wholly his own. This superb release features the totally un-classical concerto Pierced, an evocative arrangement of Lou Reed’s Heroin for voice and cello, Wed, How to Pray and Cheating, Lying, Stealing—which deliberately highlights the composer’s unreliability—performed with relish by Real Quiet, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, vocalist Theo Bleckmann, bass clarinetist Evan Ziporyn and conductor Gil Rose.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group