the new politeness

I’m only sharing bits and pieces of all of what I have with all of you—in fact, I’m only sharing bits and pieces of all of what I have in the book itself, picking and choosing and sorting and analyzing from a vast amount of material I’ve accumulated over the past few years. I just accumulated this 1990 article, though — David Lang mentioned it when we spoke over the summer, I tracked down a citation, and the UMD library generously found and scanned it. And I’d like to share it with you, because it’s fascinating. Here it is:

Apologies if it’s a little bit small (I blame Substack); you should be able to click to pop it out and zoom in a bit. This is Lang writing in 1990 in Symphony Magazine — well, it’s actually a reprint of an article he wrote for the American Composers Orchestra’s newsletter in October 1989. Lang is writing in the midst of the Culture Wars, as controversy swirls around Piss Christ and The Perfect Moment, as Congressional Republicans and the religious right try to destroy the NEA. I have a whole chapter about this in my book, but I didn’t know about this article until a month ago. In fact, part of the point of the chapter is to say, basically, “Though the Culture Wars were not aimed at contemporary music, which largely escaped controversy, contemporary music still faced collateral damage.” As it turns out, now I have Lang, in print, saying “It is disturbing that so little of this controversy is aimed at composers.” It’s great when the people I’m writing about can make my points for me, thirty years before I want to make them. It’s now in the intro to the chapter.

There’s so, so, so much here — do read the whole thing. The thoughts on Babbitt are definitely going into the book, the theorizing of the marketplace, the clear stance that Lang (and implicitly Bang on a Can) is taking on the idea that composers might capitulate to audiences and write “polite music.” His arguments around musical style are the kind of perennial ones that have been taking place for years — indeed, they could fit neatly within this Twitter conversation I was following yesterday. I’ll have to find places to carefully situate some of these ideas in other chapters. The tone is also, well, very “young David Lang” — irreverent, strident, perhaps a bit impetuous. The kind of composer who wrote music like this:


Large-scale revisions are now complete for Chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, and 7. Chapter 5, on the All-Stars, is next on the docket. Chapter 6, on Lincoln Center, comes after that. Then it’s on to writing the big epilogue.