Conversation with David Lang: Creativity, Entrepreneurship and What it Means to be an Artist in the 21st Century

david lang photo1 copyright 2009 peter serling

david lang photo1 copyright 2009 peter serlingLast week, I initiated a new program at the Yale School of Music featuring important thought leaders around Yale to open up a conversation on the arts in the 21st Century.   For our first program, I had the pleasure to interviewing my friend and colleague, composer David Lang, along with 3 students at the Yale School of Music, for a conversation about creativity, entrepreneurship and what it means to be an artist in the 21st century.  

David Lang is an exemplar of the successful artist of our day. His honors and awards include

  • Musical America’s 2013 Composer of the Year 
  • Recipient of Carnegie Hall’s Debs Composer’s Chair for 2013-2014,
  • 2008 Pulitzer Prize and Grammy Award Winner for Little Match Girl Passion
  • Founder of Bang on a Can

David’s work defies categorization and ranges from chamber, orchestral and instrumental music to opera and vocal, multi-media, dance and theatre.  Collaborating not only with musicians but also with artists from the world of opera, art song, theatre, dance, film and the visual arts, David Lang bring a unique perspective on what it means to be an artist in the 21st Century.

Here are the highlights of this thought-provoking and fascinating conversation.  I also encourage you to watch the video of the conversation and hear for yourself the delightful stories and penetrating insights from one of today’s most beloved composers.


Early Days and Bang on a Can

David’s first forays into composition began at age 9 but he felt pressured to be a doctor so he went to Stanford as chemistry major.  However, he found himself drawn to music, both as a composer and a performer playing percussion and brass instruments in high school and college ensembles and eventually settled on composition. He came to Yale for his doctorate, studying with Martin Bresnick, who at the time led an experimental undergraduate ensemble called “Sheep’s Clothing”.  

That idea inspired him, along with his fellow Yale composition students Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe, to found Band on a Can which started in 1987 as a one-day marathon to present works from all different kinds of composers to audiences who did not necessarily know a lot about music but were drawn from all areas of the arts.  The idea behind Bang was to foster innovation and break down barriers between audiences and the music.  The idea clearly hit a nerve and has now expanded to the point that last June’s weekend marathon attracted 10,000 people and the group now tours, owns a successful record label and sponsors a summer school.

Lang’s Creative Process

Lang’s project in being a composer is to create something that has never existed before and to solve problems.  A composer can never become complacent and to put out your ideas with as much commitment and strength as you can:

 “I like the risk, knowing that I have to use my wits, every day will be different, build a structure for myself that doesn’t exist yet.”

He considers composing as a utopian act to create a better world since “the only place where you can live fully is in your art” and people need to know that it is possible to live in that world.  Moreover, the only way to live fully is in the things over which you have control.  Composers must be honest with themselves about what they want to say and why they want to say it.  

With his tremendous intellectual curiosity, he draws on a wide range of influences and sources from literature, music and other art forms and then makes it his own.  He also thrives on collaboration, working with artists across genres. 

Today’s Audiences and the Arts Scene

Lang has tremendous respect for audiences because to him, it is not music until someone hears it. Composers have a tool to open up a conversation and he wants to invite audiences in. Lang believes that it is essential to know yourself because if you do, you will find your audience.  For him, the secret of marketing is to make sure that the people who want to hear the music come and the people who don’t want to hear it don’t!  

There is a lesson to be drawn from the visual arts world where audiences are used to the idea that the art will be difficult and line up for events like the Whitney Biennale so they can be offended and challenged because they like the idea that they are part of the decision-making process about how art moves forward.  

We teach classical music in terms of erudition and tradition of the past and we don’t want audiences to participate in the rawness of the decisions being made in front of them.  Lang feels that it is important to draw in these audiences now that the traditional music institutions like the orchestra are crumbling.  The problem is not the music but the business model.  That means there is a tremendous opportunity to build a new path that does not have an institution to support it!  

Lang feels that we need to tell audiences that when they come to a concert, we appreciate it and that hearing a piece of live music is a vote for the world you want to live in.  A lot of this revolves around the venue and he is excited about all the new “strange” venues for listening to music that are cropping up.  Lang feels that performing music in these venues can help to draw in audiences because it changes the expectation of the music experience.  

Final Words

Lang believes that people are hungry for the emotional connection that music makes possible.  He also believes that we are fooling ourselves if we don’t build the new audience.  Therefore, we need to change the way music is taught.  It is therefore imperative to have everyone in this country know how to play an instrument in order know what music is.   This means that people will have the experience of music, which “transmits something emotional that cannot be transmitted any other way.” And they have to get this message when they are young.   

There are tremendous opportunities in this world of ours. Our job in conservatories is to help everyone find his or her way to open up possibilities and create those opportunities.