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David LANG (b 1957)
writing on water
writing on water (2005) [29:21]
forced march (2008) [10:33]
increase (2002) [10:15]
pierced (version for eight players – 2008) [14:33]
Synergy Vocals
London Sinfonietta/Jurjen Hempel
Crash Ensemble
Alarm Will Sound/Alan Pierson
Real Quiet, Flux Quartet. Logan Cole, bass
rec BBC Studios, Maida Vale, London; Windmill Lane Studios, Dublin, Ireland; Spin Studios, New York; dates not given
Text of writing on water is included
CANTALOUPE CA21139 [64:42]

Often astringent and uncompromising, David Lang’s collisions of neo-minimalist and heavy-rock-style gestures have long been staples among releases from Cantaloupe Records. While he originally made his name as one of the founding members of the New York based Bang on a Can Ensemble, in the last three decades his name has become increasingly familiar to contemporary audiences. In recording terms, the piece for which he is probably most celebrated is the little match girl passion; Paul Hillier’s Harmonia Mundi disc of this graceful and intricate work garnered deservedly fulsome reviews (although it seems to be no longer available on CD – an alternative version is however available on Cantaloupe).

This particular collection is dominated by the sprawling title track, originally commissioned in 2005 by Lloyds of London to mark the bicentenary of Nelson’s death at the Battle of Trafalgar. Scored for three male voices and large ensemble, it consists of texts curated by the film maker Peter Greenaway from Melville’s Moby Dick, Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Shakespeare’s The Tempest. (Greenaway also provided film for live performance). The text is riddled with references to the anxieties the old seafarers would have faced; running aground, bad weather, drowning: Lang’s music reflects this and as one might imagine this is not easy listening, although there are occasionally beautiful moments. These provide respite from the relentlessly hostile elements Lang’s imaginative settings strive to evoke – an example is the delicate music provided for Coleridge’s “Without a breeze, without a tide” (section 6), and the shimmering textures that surround Robert Kearley’s trembling high baritone in “Circling surface creamed like new milk”(from Moby Dick – section 8). The spare and desolate closing section “My body lay afloat” (Coleridge again) evolves seamlessly from this. Much of the remaining music is aggressive and hectoring, with evocative use of electric guitar, bass and percussion. Given the context of the commission, Lang’s piece is the antithesis of celebratory; it is strident, hectoring, occasionally mournful and always disturbing. It’s brilliantly put together and wonderfully performed by Synergy Voices and the London Sinfonietta under Jurjan Hempel. But beware: it’s music that’s more likely to engender admiration than love.

The Dublin-based Crash Ensemble then give us forced march, a ten-minute work which sets a rock guitar riff within the rhythmic straitjacket of a rather militaristic snare-drum figure. While the riff is fleshed out by the rest of the ensemble, the material ultimately reflects an interesting and not too hard-edged confrontation between seemingly immovable forces. There is some let-up during two contrasting central episodes when firstly flute and then viola take up the guitar tune and reveal its quasi-Reichian provenance. When the guitar departs the scene in the final minute of the piece the effect is not unlike that of pipes leading a marching band, which given the home of the performers (and commissioners) of the piece here may (or may not) be deliberate. Either way forced march is gritty, compelling and actually likeable.

increase comes from 2002 and was written as a wedding gift for friends as well as for the debut concert of the Alarm Will Sound Ensemble who perform it here. This is lighter – opening with gentle flute figures placed against vibes before the textures are filled out by woodwind and electric harpsichord. increase is mellow and smooth in the main – a pleasing halo of synth sound sporadically envelops the melodic action as the piece proceeds. The rhythms become more pointed and aggressive in the middle of the work while long breathed wind notes expand the melody. The musical material is ambiguous rather than projecting unalloyed joy, but this piece, the most obviously minimalistic of all the works on this disc is none the worse for that.

The disc concludes with a pared-down version of pierced, a piece which was recorded on a 2009 Naxos disc (8.559615) with a larger ensemble which included the Real Quiet trio who are involved again here, this time joined by just five string players. My colleague Bob Briggs loved the original (review). It seems to have two sections – the first is clunky and brittle, the second is longer, string-led, with textures that are extended by piano towards the end; pierced is slightly more lyrical by this point. I find this piece a tad too awkward and claustrophobic, alas.

Lang is without question a talented and skilful if somewhat confrontational composer but I have to say that for my part liking each new piece I hear is never a given. There is something stubborn, uncompromising and unyielding about his style which is as likely to hinder ones’ appreciation of his work as to help it. Maybe that’s the point. This disc certainly offers a representative selection of his oeuvre and includes three premiere recordings (as far as I can establish). Performances and recordings are exemplary. Some readers will doubtless love every note; I take each new piece as I find it. I found these examples pretty tough going.

Note that references to the titles of Lang’s works in this review are in the lower case script he prefers.

Richard Hanlon



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