What is intimacy in music? How can we promote live performance in a world of limitless streaming? Who controls entrance into a work of art? Composer David Lang, who won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Music for The Little Match Girl Passion, talks about how these questions have shaped his new 1,000-voice choral work, the public domain, which was commissioned by Lincoln Center and has its world premiere on August 13 as part of the Mostly Mozart Festival.

Amanda MacBlane: Your first piece for a 1,000-voice choir was crowd out and you’ve said that the spark for it came from attending an Arsenal soccer match and the sounds around you as people cheered, chanted, and sang. At the premiere of crowd out, what did it feel like to be surrounded by your own work?

David Lang: It actually felt very much like what I remember from the football match. You have all of these different sources coming at you from different sides. Sometimes they’re doing different things, sometimes they’re doing exactly the same thing but they’re out of sync with each other because they’re so far apart. What I enjoyed most about it was the idea that the sound was deep. The distance between voices made it seem like you were in the middle of something vast.

AMB: Was there anything that popped up during the performance that you weren’t expecting?

DL: One thing that was really surprising for me about crowd out was that we had people from the crowd joining in when they knew what was supposed to happen. That was also very much like the football match. There’s not a high bar for participation at a football match. It’s not like you have to go to music school for years to learn all of those nasty songs and I think that’s part of the excitement of the public domain as well. It’s not made of fancy materials. You don’t need to be a professional singer. It’s made for people to participate at whatever level they feel comfortable with.

AMB: Why is it important to the public domain to include such a wide range of abilities?

DL: The beauty of things that happen with the voice is that they create a community of people. There’s no instrument, no violin, no trumpet. There’s no mediation. It’s just something that comes straight from within a person and is shared with other people. It’s really easy for people who are making these beautiful sounds together to feel like they’re building some sort of utopian society. I really want to take advantage of that.

"People who are making beautiful sounds together feel like they’re building a utopian society."

AMB: What did you learn from crowd out that helped inform your writing of the public domain

DL: In order to make a beautiful a convincing shape out of the piece which I initially conceived of as “1,000 people yelling,” I also had whispering, clapping, talking, and singing. In crowd out the singing really jumped out as holding the emotion, the humanity. People singing together is a really beautiful thing and I felt like I could shift the proportions and go deeper with the singing part of the piece. the public domain is going to have talking and other things, too, but it’s primarily going to be singing and I imagine that this will change the emotional landscape of the piece.

AMB: Where are you sourcing your texts?

Because this is about a crowd, a mass idea, the Internet is very helpful. To generate the text, I did endless Internet searches of things that we share. As you know, you ask one question of the Internet and you get 10 million answers. Most of them are pornographic or say terrible things about other people and you can’t use them. So I had to sift through all the answers to say this one is actually something I can build a piece around. 

AMB: You did crowd out in Europe and now you’re bringing the public domain to your hometown. What do you think New Yorkers will bring to this piece?
DL: I’m not totally sure what I’m going to find here. I do think that every city for crowd out really different. The character of each city gets into the performance because you’re working with ordinary people. People come straight from work to rehearsal and you see them how they are. I actually don’t have a prediction for what I expect to see in New York. I feel like I’m going to be as much a participant as a spectator and I have no idea what parts of myself are going to come out when I sing, but I’m looking forward to finding out! 

AMB: It’s funny because when I first moved to New York City it really struck me that people just walk down the street singing. 

DL: Everybody does everything on the street! That’s a part of life that we share and that’s in the piece. The street life of New York includes the kind of interactions that will be in the public domain.

AMB: The last piece of yours that I saw was Whisper Opera, which was performed for an audience of a few dozen people. When I first learned of the public domain, I couldn’t think of two things more far removed from each other. But as I started thinking about it, what they share is that they both have to be experienced live and I know that you’ve said things about making live performances essential again. Was that idea part of the idea behind the public domain?

DL: I think it’s partly that. You’re not going to get it by checking it out on YouTube or by buying the recording. It’s one of those things where you’ll get a good story out of it to tell your friends. But it’s part of another thing which I am very curious about. I think music is capable of doing lots of really powerful things and in classical music we ask it to do a very small amount of what it can do. It’s a very important, very necessary part of what it can do but I want to figure out the other things that music is capable of doing that we don’t know yet because we’ve never asked ourselves to do them. 
"As a composer I get to decide how big the doorway is to each of the experiences."
The whole point of Whisper Opera, which was also done at Mostly Mozart, was to ask how intimate an experience be. It turns out that that’s a very provocative question. And the same with this piece: How open can it be? I love the idea that as a composer I get to decide how big the doorway is to each of the experiences. I can make a piece that has a doorway to just ten people, but I can also make another piece that has the widest doorway possible so anyone can hear it and be moved by it. That’s very exciting to me.
  • Experience the public domain

    Saturday, August 13 at 5:00

    Josie Robertson Plaza, Lincoln Center



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    Photo: David Lang | © Haghi Suka