The upside of ‘downtown’ music


When David Lang discovered “ Heroin” in high school he was petrified.

At the time, the 1970s, Lang was a classical music nerd in Los Angeles. Then he slipped into the dark rock thrum of the mournful ode to the seductive drug, written and sung by Lou Reed.

“I just remember being completely terrified,” Lang said of the night he first put the needle down on the debut Velvet Underground album, which included “Heroin.” “It was danger and terror and drugs and sex. It was twisted and relentless. It’s like all my musical experience hadn’t taught me where this music fits. Where does this emotion go?”

Fast-forward 35 years. Lang, now one of classical music’s most renowned contemporary composers, recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, has found where the emotion goes. On a Proustian quest to pierce the memory of first hearing Reed’s song, Lang has rewritten “Heroin” for cello and voice. The result is breathtaking — not a rock tune but a slowly unfolding Bach suite, fragile and endlessly haunting.


“Seriously, it is one of the most incredible things you will ever hear,” said Chad Smith, vice president of artistic planning at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Along with the orchestra’s creative chair, composer John Adams, Smith selected “Heroin” as a showcase piece for Tuesday’s concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall, “Music From Bang on a Can.” The concert, part of the L.A. Phil’s Green Umbrella new music series, also features landmark pieces by Lang’s close friends and fellow Bang on a Can members, Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon.

Bang on a Can is less a musical ensemble than a movement. The three composers are avatars of the “downtown” post-minimalist sound, the New York school of musicians averse to the staid “uptown” music heard at the Lincoln Center, who absorbed the pulsing, ambient sounds of Philip Glass and Steve Reich and transformed them with rock, jazz and a bazaar of world music. Since 1987, the trio has produced the annual Bang on a Can Marathon, a wondrous all-day concert in New York of genre-bending music and performers.

On a recent autumn afternoon, Lang, Wolfe and Gordon sat around a long wooden kitchen table in Lang’s SoHo apartment to discuss their upcoming L.A. concert. At the same time, Lang’s wife, Suzanne Bocanegra, a visual and performance artist, was working on a dance inspired by the polychrome points in a Seurat painting. As the musicians spoke, a stream of dancers, stepping lithely as gazelles, passed through the kitchen to rehearse in the small theater that Lang and Bocanegra had constructed in their apartment.

Critics often lump Lang, Wolfe and Gordon together. But their music is as diverse as their personalities. Solemn photographs of Lang, 53, on his albums belie his natural charm and humor. The amiable Wolfe, 51, is the trio’s absent-minded professor, while Gordon, 54, her husband, can seem the most laconic and serious.

Yet light filled Gordon’s eyes as he described “Weather One,” written for string orchestra, which will open the L.A. concert. The 20-minute piece, the opening movement of a four-part work, sweeps listeners into a rippling ocean of strings that rise into an ominous wave.

Gordon explained that “Weather” was commissioned in 1997 by a talented group of young German string musicians who had played only traditional works and wanted to branch into new music. “I had to ask, ‘How can I push the boundaries of my style with people whose entire reference is Schubert?’” he said.


Gordon loved to transform electronic sounds with acoustic instruments. And the sound that fascinated him was the echo made by phase shifters employed by electric guitarists.

So he poached the baroque style of Vivaldi, with its mirror and counterpoint passages, which the musicians would understand, and fashioned a melody that each discrete violin section would play, but a beat after one another. “So there’s this cascading sound throughout the whole piece,” Gordon said.

Yet what he remembers most fondly about “Weather” was watching the young musicians learn and master the modern work. “It was a kind of wonderment,” Gordon said.

One of the two Wolfe pieces in the program, “Dark Full Ride,” also transforms a staple of rock, the drum solo, into a layered musical experience. The work features four drum kits and opens with six minutes of the drummers striking only hi-hat cymbals, before venturing onto the tom and bass drums. It’s Ginger Baker with Stravinsky dreams.

“ ‘Dark Full Ride’ also relates to things sounding familiar,” Wolfe said. “You hear a rock beat, and then you hear it get blurred. Although the musicians play the same beat, they change the speed of it, so they get out of sync. It’s all about a battle of rhythms. But I don’t want to give too much away.”

Could she describe the emotional tenor of the piece?

She laughed. “It’s … aaahhhhh!”

The program also features the West Coast premiere of Lang’s “Pierced,” a concerto in which percussion, cello and piano dance with the orchestra to Frank Zappa-like offbeats.

“ ‘Pierced’ [has] a Jackson Pollock freedom to it,” said Jeffrey Milarsky, the program’s conductor. “It has this weave of sound in the background of funkydom. It’s kind of awesome.”

The three friends are excited about the L.A. Phil concert because it is the first time their pieces have constituted a major orchestra’s sole program. So how would the longtime new-music promoters sell their Disney Hall concert to listeners?

“As fun,” Wolfe said with a sly grin.

“Totally engaging,” Gordon added.

“Well,” Lang concluded, “I think their ears will be cleaner when they leave.”