Music as Memory: David Lang’s This Was Written by Hand, performed by pianist Andrew Zolinsky

By Daniel Garrett

David Lang, This Was Written By Hand
Andrew Zolinsky, pianist
Produced by Damian Le Gassick
Engineered by Ben Wiffen
Cantaloupe Music, 2011

David Lang has created music of energy, imagination, and intelligence.  It could be said that most music is about memory, but that is the purpose of much of David Lang’s This Was Written By Hand: it is divided into two parts, the first intended as an exercise in composition, a return to the pencil from the computer, and the second is made up of eight short pieces intended to memorialize Lang’s friends.  David Lang, the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for his work “The Little Match Girl Passion,” inspired by both Hans Christian Andersen and Bach, has created work for dance and film as well as concert performance; and Lang is joined for this album recording by the interpretive pianist Andrew Zolinsky, who has performed Lang’s work before and that of other composers, as well as appeared with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Concerto Orchestra.  The single composition “This Was Written by Hand,” which was dedicated to Peter Helm as a birthday gift but written for Andrew Zolinsky to perform, is a sprinkling of musical notes, repeated, like the introducing and circling of an object; and there is a shift, with more space between the notes—interruption and examination; and an apparent return to the original pattern, with increased richness, with darker notes introduced as the pattern changes.  “One of the horrifying things about growing older is that your friends don’t all grow older with you.  People get sick and then they die…The true horror is that after a while your memories begin to fade,” said David Lang in the album’s written notes.  The “Memory Pieces” devoted to those Lang admired or loved are diverse compositions, with differing energies and rhythms.  (If there is a complaint to be made, it may be that this very likable music is too much like jazz and popular music in its forgoing of traditional classical music’s ambition to create large, ponderous structures.)  “Cage” sounds like the playing of one hand balanced against another, with simple repeated notes contrasted with heavy chords; “Spartan Arcs” is made up of fast, pretty runs, without pause; “Wed” is quiet, slow, and somber—meditative; “Grind” bangs, its tumult becoming like ritual; “Diet Coke” is playful, teasing, with a pattern of notes followed by a similar but not exact pattern, with each pattern becoming more distinct; “Cello” is quiet, mid-tempo to slow in its lingering, solitary movements; “Wiggle” creates a texture like intersecting highways, with different but orderly directions; and “Beach” has delicate steps halted by single notes, sometimes light, other times heavy, before a slow end.  It is music full of life.

John Cage, an experimental composer, is one of the persons to whom one of the compositions of memory is dedicated; and, an intimate associate of the great modern artists Merce Cunningham, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage seemed interested in defying predictable narrative and logic and, by emphasizing chance, improvisation, and interpretation, creating a music that might be an alternative to established language.  Cage articulated an appreciation for every sound, no matter how accidental or small, something that seems aesthetic and spiritual (and depending on one’s perspective, either intellectually overwhelming or intellectually nullifying).  Sometimes it seemed as if John Cage wanted to create a music that was free of music; and other times as if he wanted to fulfill the yearning within much of music—to not only describe or evoke the world but to present the whole material world with its spiritual aura.  David Lang, in inscribing a memory of each of his friends, apparently very different friends, in his short musical compositions, is making available to the listener an aesthetic and social world.

David Lang’s longtime musical comrades include the living composers Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe, part of Manhattan’s Bang on a Can group, which began with their move to New York in the late 1980s after studying at Yale.  They have been credited with making classical music more contemporary—attractively creative and eclectic.  Lang is premiering his composition “Reason to Believe” with the Trio Mediaeval and Norwegian Radio Symphony in autumn of 2011, and later in the year premiering his “The Wood and the Vine” with Anonymous 4.  He is busy with other projects; so his work is very much loose in the larger world.  There can be relief and refreshment, rather than artificiality or chore, in sophistication and intellect; and certainly hearing Lang’s “Memory Pieces” one knows that there is more than one attitude or idea with which to face the world.  The sound quality of the entire album, This Was Written by Hand, is alive, bright, and clear.  It is music of contemplation and play, music of leisure and speed, music of frenzy and peace; it is the music of now.  The listener realizes that anything one takes seriously can have a spiritual dimension.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House.  He has written on art, books, business, the environment, film, music, and politics as a member of professional staffs and freelance, with administrative experience as an editorial/production manager dealing with vendors such as photographers and print houses.  “There is nothing quite like art that is beautiful, intelligent, and true, and offers a window into a new or different world.  Other than that, I am curious about what African-American celibate bisexual intellectuals with an omnivorous regard for culture and democratic socialist leanings are up to,” says Daniel Garrett, whose writing has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.  Garrett has an internet log, “The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker,” focused on visual art.  He has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth.