LONDON (Reuters) - Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang thinks classical music needs to get out more - so he’s blowing the lid off on Sunday with the premiere of “Crowd Out”, inspired by a soccer match and written for 1,000 non-professional voices.
The premiere will take place in the English city of Birmingham in the gigantic Millennium Point conference hall, the very kind of place where Lang thinks classical music must be heard if it is not to become completely irrelevant.
“I feel like there’s something that’s so powerful about this music and this legacy and this idea of people coming together and doing something important with sound,” Lang, 57, told Reuters during a visit to London to plan for the premiere.
“But the world we’ve built for classical music is very narrow, we’ve built this place where you have to know a lot, you have to go to special places, you have to experience it with a certain kind of reverence.”
“For my entire life, I’ve been involved in trying to figure out ways to open up new doorways to new audiences and new listeners, to bring different kinds of music together so they’ll have a wider impact,” said Lang, one of the founders in 1987 of the “Bang on a Can” ensemble that has become famous for its marathon concerts of new music.
As a Los Angeles native attending an Arsenal match more than 20 years ago in London, Lang said he felt lost in a crowd where he realized that everyone knew the sometimes rude songs the fans were singing, but he did not.
“I was watching everybody and I felt a little terrified because it’s scary to hear all these people doing this - it’s a big sound,” he said.
“And I started thinking, ‘Well, in order to be in this crowd you gain something, you gain the power of your comrades and the people around you, and you also lose something - you lose control of your environment and, to express yourself, you lose your individuality’.”
“Crowd Out” is intended to capture that ambivalence.
The text comes in part from using Google searches to find out what people say in response to the phrase “When I’m in a crowd I feel...”.
“So it’s descriptions of how people answer that - ‘I feel I lose control, I feel my loss of power, I feel connected with everyone around me, I feel in a river...’
The piece will be conducted by professional choral director Simon Halsey, but apart from him no one else needs to be able to read music or have had any vocal training. Section directors have been specially trained, and organizers say many of the participants come from amateur choirs, but otherwise all any of the participants, ranging from lawyers to manual laborers, need is written out on a sheet of paper each one has.
The piece involves talking, shouting, whispering, clapping and singing set lines of simple text.
“It’s just a thousand people talking, and the most chutzpah-filled moment in the score is where it says you can have a thousand more, which is really great. And it gives instructions on the title page of how it can easily scale up to 50,000 - so hopefully it can be done with more,” Lang said.
The Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, as one of the co-commissioners, is giving the premiere. Next it will be performed in Berlin under the aegis of the Berlin Philharmonic and after that in Tower Hamlets, one of the poorest boroughs of London, as part of the Spitalfields Summer Music Festival.
Lang won the Pulitzer in 2008 for his “Little Matchgirl Passion”, which sets Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of a girl who sells matches freezing to death on New Year’s Eve to music inspired in part by Bach’s “St Matthew Passion”.
The prize changed his life overnight. Orchestras can program his music without raising too many eyebrows, and he gets more commissions, but Lang says he still feels like an outsider to the classical music world.
“There’s nothing wrong with erudition, there’s nothing wrong with specialized knowledge, but a field has to offer lots of things in order to be robust and to survive,” he said.
“So a lot of my pieces are about trying to identify different kinds of audiences, or different ways of giving them the experience of how great a musical message can be.”
Writing by Michael Roddy; Editing by Kevin Liffey