This Thursday, 7:30pm at the Austrian Cultural Forum, I’ll have the considerable pleasure and honor of stepping out from behind the glowing screen and appearing in a minor role at a major event: the world premiere of Bernhard Lang’s “Monodologies XVIII,” performed by the Argento Ensemble and dancer Silke Grabinger. I will be interviewing Lang briefly on the stage, and the pleasure and honor is in how deeply fascinating and exciting his music has been to me since I first heard it in 2009.
There is a group of middle-aged European composer who are making music that has a connected aesthetic in how it goes beyond both Post-Minimalism and Post-Modernism in a way that combines experimental concepts with the practice of craft and a Romantic feeling for expression and the sublime beauty that can be found in something unsettling, even absurd. Some of the prominent names in my mind are Olga Neuwirth, Salvatore Sciarrino and George Friedrich Haas. My informal survey of musicians, critics and audiences tells me that Lang is far less well known, although I think they would find Lang immediately appealing; more abstract and with a darker aesthetic than Haas, but more physically expressive than Neuwirth, rooted in the practice of playing pop music and jazz, and with an excellent intuitive ear and a gleefully subversive sense of humor.
The ten or fifteen minutes we will be speaking can’t do much more than open up a doorway into his work, and so Lang graciously took time amidst a demanding rehearsal schedule to talk about his methods, his ideas and his personal values. We found a quiet spot, accidentally but absolutely appropriately, in front of a fragment of the Berlin Wall, where we talked about Coltrane, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Bruckner and history.
In subtle ways, Lang is closer to the legacy of American music than European music, with one immensely important difference. To follow Robert Ashley’s useful generalization, “American composers want to tell their stories, the (European) structural ideas have never been a priority.” Lang wants to tell his own story as well, although it may seem to be disguised by structural priorities. But Lang is also deeply sensitive to history, musical and otherwise, and his personal story is intrinsically connected to the scarred physical and psychological landscape of Europe: fascism, war, genocide, totalitarianism.
The structural idea at the core of his work is simple and powerful: the loop. It’s connected to the tape experiments of Steve Reich, and also to film running through sprockets and hands spinning turntables forward and back. It’s a repetitive element that works as a ground bass, a tonal center and a unit of time above and beyond the beat. It’s the fundamental repetitive element in his repetitive style, but repetition for Lang is like atonality to Berg, core material to be adapted to the imperative of expression. Lang drops in ghostly fragments of phrases, finely crafted vocal melodies, spoken text, invigorating and completely idiomatic bits of rock and jazz.
Lang’s loops are imperfect, uneven, and that makes his music sound earthy and hand-made. They go against the grain of process music and pervasive technology that turns making music into constructing something out of the pre-recorded equivalent of Lego. You can hear the physical craft of composition and his intuitive ear in Lang’s results, and I can hear how it comes out of his background as a keyboard player and working jazz musician, transcribing solos. Taking a sound and turning it into notation and then playing it yourself is a highly physical activity, making the immaterial solid so you can work with it, and you can hear him pushing the loops around in his pieces.
If electric Miles appeals to you, Lang will excite you. The loops have the effect of a deep groove, on top of which the music is free to reach for limits. And like electric Miles, the sound combines fragments of familiar elements in a fascinating abstract context that is full of disturbing beauty. The methods may be unusual, but the goal is to communicate human experience, just as it was for the Romantics, and Lang builds a fundamental instability into his material, just as the Romantics did. Time may move on a line, but human and social history moves in cycles. The cycle of birth to death offers both extraordinary opportunities and extraordinary limits, the loop marks the beginning and the end, the alpha and omega in which chaos and order balance. As he likes to say, “the sleep of historical reason creates repetition.”