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Monday, October 24, 2005
Evan Johnson On the Record: David Lang's Elevated
David Lang
Lisa Moore, A Change of Light,
European Music Project/Zignorii++,
Mike Svoboda with videos by William Wegman, Bill Morrison, Matt Mullican
Cantaloupe Music CA21029 (CD+DVD)

Although I disagree fundamentally with what I infer to be their philosophy of what music is, can be, and should be, I have a great deal of respect for what music Iíve heard from the founders of Bang on a Can; nothing by Julia Wolfe, but pieces like Michael Gordonís Yo, Shakespeare and David Langís Anvil Chorus, Orpheus Over and Under, The Passing Measures, and The So-Called Laws of Nature have impressed me with their concentration and uncompromising construction.

Unfortunately, this new disc on BOACís young record label, containing three new pieces by Lang presented both as audio and (on an accompanying DVD) with film and video by the above-named collaborators, was a disappointment.

wed, a five-minute piece played with an ideal and elusive combination of delicacy and incisiveness by BOAC piano goddess Lisa Moore, is the best thing about this release. There is a gentle discord in everything here: gentle rhythmic displacements and polyrhythms; notes gently added to otherwise triadic, pop-laced chord progressions; gentle dislocations of register within a restricted frame. wed reminded me strongly of the music of the British minimalist-miniaturist Howard Skempton, without Skemptonís intense devotion to repetition and textural simplicity; there is also something of the rotating-gemstone quality of Langís The Passing Measures and Orpheus Over and Under in the harmonyís combination of local movement and global stasis, a distant memory of Satie.

I was much less taken with the other two pieces on the disc, how to pray and men; with the introduction of larger ensembles and electrified instruments (how to pray is scored for cello, Hammond organ, piano, electric guitar and drums; men is for trombone and ensemble), Lang seems to lose interest in the subtlety and understatedness that consistently marks his best work.

how to pray is ten minutes of electric guitar octaves oscillating at regularly irregular intervals, accompanied at each attack by a bass drum; a cello presents a quasi-repetitive upward-reaching modal figure, cymbals give an occasional gruppetto, and the guitar (overdubbed) quietly arpeggiates the implied harmonies in the background. At first, the oscillation is between F and G; at the five-and-a-half minute mark the G is traded in for an E flat; and at seven minutes a D replaces the F, completing the descending tetrachord of traditional lament as the distortion on the guitar is kicked up a bit and the cymbals become more assertive and constant. I have nothing against repetitiveness or minimalism at all, and I am fanatically in favor of musical single-mindedness, but this piece is weak, and it is weak because of the guitar. There is nothing here of the features of wed that make that piano piece so appealing Ė no subtlety, no gentleness. No harmonic ingenuity, no affecting aimlessness, just a descending minor tetrachord in a mild crescendo with an instrument that comes from somewhere else and seems to want to go back.

Most of the disc is taken up by men, a lengthy work that seeks much of the same aural territory as the masterful The Passing Measures. In fact, men comes across as something like a variation on how to pray Ė the bass drum is still there underscoring the slow change of pitch in the main instrument (here a high trombone, played hauntingly and with supernatural accuracy by Mike Svoboda), and the metallic rustling contributed by the cymbal in how to pray is more constant and less rhythmically defined here as provided by a sampler. And, as in how to pray, much of the slow-moving pitch material in men is oscillations.

Despite these similarities, men is of considerably more interest than its predecessor. The timbral universe is much subtler, smoother, more homogeneous and simultaneously more detailed, and the orchestration is extremely effective; the resonance of the recurrent bass drum, for example, interacts beautifully and unpredictably with a plucked and amplified double bass that follows it along, and beatings and other timbral interferences abound. The structural progress of the piece is also less predictable and more effective than in how to pray, and Langís sense of timing is always exquisite.

But there are still problems here, with the harmony I think: compared to its cousin The Passing Measures, men uses a much simpler, more conventional harmonic vocabulary, and I canít escape the sense that Lang is cashing in on the accumulated history of the minor triad, and the diatonic scale more generally, for relatively superficial atmosphere. A few months ago I wrote, in a review of Michael Jon Finkís A Temperament for Angels, about how ďI constantly felt the urge to squeeze the harmonies just a bit, microtonally, in any direction Ö to create an environment in which slowness could be more of a virtue and less of a pose.Ē I had the same reaction here; I wanted more of what I know Lang can provide in the way of harmonic interest, for the result as it stands is uncomfortably close to a Sigur Růs B-side.

I have yet to mention the visual material (on the accompanying DVD) that was always meant to be experienced alongside the music, and thatís partially because I donít feel terribly qualified to comment upon it. But Iíll try. William Wegmanís Treat Bottle, for which wed was written as a soundtrack (alongside the diegetic sounds of the film), is maybe a little over-freighted with symbolic meaning; itís also slightly uncomfortable watching, especially for dog lovers. The other two videos, How to Pray by Bill Morrison (of Decasia fame) and Matt Mullicanís Elevated, were created to fit with Langís already-composed how to pray and men, respectively. How to Pray, which involves footage on less-than-pristine film stock of choppy waters and ice floes by day and then, apparently, by night, was a fairly neutral backdrop to Langís score; I enjoyed it rather more, actually, when I watched it without sound.

Elevated pairs Langís men with found grainy black-and-white footage from 1935 of New Yorkers window-shopping, of various commercial displays and neon-lit crowd scenes, of burlesque shows and equestrian events, of children playing in the stream of a fire hydrant in summer, of ice on the river in winter; as with Treat Bottle, itís all terribly symbolic (of the retroactive shadow of the impending war, maybe, but certainly that time passes and that all is vanity, that, aside from the children, everyone we see is now dead), although Mullican lacks Wegmanís visual and formal discipline. Of the three visual works, though, Elevated benefits the most from the addition of Langís music.


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