Composer David Lang returns to Stanford with 'Bang on a Can All-Stars'

Born to be a doctor (or so his parents thought), David Lang became a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer instead. Sunray has its West Coast premiere on Friday. His father should be pleased.

Peter Serling David Lang

David Lang

The official story is that Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang was going through a period of "writer's block" four years ago when he saw a neon sign outside his window, blinking "Sun Dry Cleaners."

Voila! The lightbulb moment! He composed Sunray, a musical exploration of sunlight.

"It's ridiculously true," said the Stanford alumnus. But he admitted that there's another story behind the story: "I wanted to do something optimistic as a birthday present for my father," he said.

Sunray will have its West Coast premiere on Friday at 8 p.m. in Dinkelspiel Auditorium, as part of a Lively Arts program offered by "Bang on a Can All-Stars," the group Lang co-founded, which blurs the line between classical and pop ensembles, with a wide range of music and styles. Dutch composer Louis Andriessen (Lang was his student) will have a U.S. premiere for his new composition Life, with a video by Marijke van Warmerdam.

A discussion with Lang and Lively Arts' artistic and executive director Jenny Bilfield will precede the performance.

Lang's father, Daniel Lang, turned 80 four years ago on July 7 – "the same day as Gustav Mahler," his son noted.

"I had to think of something that was not miserable, that was a birthday present for my dad. I like my dad; in fact, I love my dad. I want my dad to be happy," said Lang, who grew up in "a completely education-oriented Jewish immigrant family" and graduated from Stanford in 1978.

An "optimistic" piece? At least that was the initial thought. Lang admitted that Sunray "begins in a gentle place, then puts that place under a microscope."

"It's not a birthday present that's just like a bonbon."

Unique kind of music

If it's anything like his other pieces, however, there's no reason for prospective concertgoers to fear they will be fleeing toward the exits at intermission, despite the formidable number of "isms" that have been attached to his name. Lang is said to be informed by modernism, minimalism and rock. He's been characterized as post-minimalist or totalistic, with elements of conceptualism. Los Angeles Times critic Mark Swed said, "There is no name yet for this kind of music."

Lang is rather glad of that: "It's better that way! The world wants to put you in a box. That way it's easier for them to find you.

"I don't want people to figure out in advance what they're going to get – it's boring for me," he said. "Maybe I can take them someplace farther than they want to go."

He describes his music as "emotionally open, not emotionally dictatorial." Here's what he means: A Verdi opera might come to a place where a woman opens a letter, and "everyone in the audience has the exact moment of discovery at the same time." However, in Lang's oeuvre, "Not everyone is examining the same thing at the same time. It's not to make everyone cry or everyone laugh."

His point: "Do you tell people what emotion to have, or do you tell them that examining an emotion is good?" he asked rhetorically.

He described the impasse before Sunray as "writer's block" – perhaps an odd term for a composer. Nowadays, however, "writing is becoming a big part of what I do."

For example, he is currently rewriting Beethoven's Fidelio – libretto and score – to align it more closely with the composer's original intentions.

Writing libretti and tributes to sunlight is a strange destiny for a man who was born to be a doctor, like his dad. At least, that was his parents' plan. He didn't question it.

His mother was a refugee from Hitler's Germany who came to the United States after a period of abject poverty in Barcelona. His father's family is Lithuanian Jewish.

Lang began writing music at age 9. By the time he was 13, he had already composed "boxes and boxes" of music, and began studying twice a week with the leading composer at UCLA.

Began as chemistry major

His parents hoped it was a phase. He dutifully enrolled at Stanford as a chemistry student. "I wasn't very good," he confessed. "The classes were at 8 a.m. to weed out people like me. Music was at 1 p.m. – so it was no contest."

He joined every musical group available at Stanford – including the wind ensemble, the contemporary music group, even ("believe it or not") the marching band, where he recalled being the only music major. "I'm sure they all went to medical school and made large fortunes," he said wistfully.

But perhaps most influential was the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, which had launched a year or two before he arrived. Although Lang was hardly a tech-oriented composer, he was a match for the center's sense of experimentation, its spirit of "yes."

He praised the entrepreneurial spirit pervasive at Stanford, which he described as, "If you saw something wasn't right in the world, you should build it yourself."

Lang returns to Stanford in triumph, after Grammy and Pulitzer prizes for his 2007 The Little Match Girl Passion, a remarkable a cappella work based on the Hans Christian Andersen story and inspired by Bach's St. Matthew Passion. The Washington Post's Tim Page said, "I don't think I've ever been so moved by a new … composition" and that it was "unlike any music I know" – not bad for a musician who said "I've spent my life trying not to be in a category."

Though the perils of predictability are daunting, the double awards provide relief as well: "Nothing beats those for getting your parents off your back," he said.

This Friday's audiences will be one step ahead of Dr. Lang. The composer's father has never heard the piece performed. Lang did, however, give his father a copy of the score four years ago, for his birthday. Does his father read music? "No!" said Lang, seemingly surprised at the question.

"I know he was really happy to get it. It's like a tie. Or a nice pair of socks," he said. "It's the thought that counts. At least that's what my parents taught me."

For tickets and more information, contact the Stanford Ticket Office at (650) 725-ARTS (2787), or visit Lively Arts online at