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11 October 2016

Meet the artist: David John Lang

David John Lang Image: David John Lang  

David John Lang sees himself as a musical storyteller. The young Adelaide-based composer, now an Associate artist with the AMC, writes concert music that often has a strong narrative element. Nursery rhymes, wilderness adventures and even recipes have found their way into his music, and while audiences may be unsure what to expect stylistically (recent compositions have explored atonality, pastiche and minimalist processes), they know that there will be a story embedded in the music, probably hinted at in a carefully crafted program note.

This love of stories comes from a desire to communicate, Lang explains. 'The feedback I most like getting after a performance is from people who aren't musicians trying to describe the story they heard in the music. That really excites me, and so now I try and do as much as I can as a composer to encourage that kind of listening, to suggest stories for people to enter into and explore as they listen.'

Titles such as Novella, The Regent Arcade Teddy Bear Makes His Getaway and The Three Little Pigs reflect Lang's long-standing (and still growing) fascination with music's ability to tell a story. It is now the topic of the PhD he is undertaking at the Elder Conservatorium of Music with Graeme Koehne.

The stories come in all shapes and sizes. Sorry I missed you (text message fails), commissioned by the Adelaide Chamber Singers, charts the ups and downs of a relationship via anonymous embarrassing text messages. Tiramisu, for narrator and string orchestra, is a recipe in musical form.

On the surface, many of Lang's compositions are quite playful, even funny, but there are often deeper levels of meaning to be found as well. Going on a Lion Hunt (which was premiered by the Adelaide Wind Orchestra in July) is inspired by the popular children's chant-along story of the same name, but its raw and relentless determination, driven by three bass drums, suggests something darker under the surface. The composer's program note points out the perseverance exhibited in the story, and then describes the piece as 'a prayer for a friend who was in one of life's dark places.'

Lang is keen to highlight the spiritual side of his practice. Although only a handful of his works are explicitly sacred, he says that his Christian faith is integral to his activities as a composer: 'I find composing so joyful and rewarding, and that's because I feel it's not something I do alone.' This is illustrated in his his largest work to date, a twenty-minute celebration of inspiration for wind orchestra, Surprised by Joy. After the mysterious spaciousness of its first movement ('Come, Holy Spirit'), its final movement ('Fire') includes a surprise marching quintet, a melodica, a large number of wind chimes and an exhilarating accelerando - rarely has sacred music sounded like so much fun. Written as an Honours composition project in 2011, the work is getting another hearing this year thanks to the Adelaide Wind Orchestra.

Lang has now composed six pieces for wind ensemble. As a founding member, trumpet player and associate conductor of the Adelaide Wind Orchestra, he has had many opportunities to hone his craft in writing for winds. On Further Reflection: A Day in the Life of the Rundle Mall Spheres (commissioned by the Adelaide Youth Orchestra) was a junior test piece at the National Band Championship earlier this year, and his latest addition to the repertoire, Yukon Sunrise, has just been premiered at the Elder Conservatorium.

The story behind this most recent work took place in July, when Lang was one of nine composers from around the world to participate in Composing in the Wilderness, a two-week 'field seminar' of hiking and composing in central Alaska. This program, led by American adventurer-composer Stephen Lias, is now in its fifth year and has attracted several Australian composers previously (such as Krissie Karpinski and Scott McIntyre). This year, David John Lang and Sydney composer Cassie To made up the Australian contingent.

To date, Lang has worked almost exclusively with acoustic instruments and voices, in addition to which he as written some music for film, dance and theatre. 'They're certainly areas I see myself moving into a bit more', he says, 'but it's all about finding a good collaborator, and so far I've been happy to keep exploring storytelling simply through music on its own'.

Words also have an important role to play in much of this composer's work, and it is perhaps not surprising that David John Lang enjoys writing words himself. He won the Australian Youth Orchestra's Music Presentation Fellowship in 2010 and does freelance work writing copy and program notes for organisations such as the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. 'It's definitely affected the way I approach composition, and the things I choose to write about my music', he says. 'Many composers hate having to write program notes, but I love it, because I've seen the difference a good program note can make to how an audience listens to a piece of music.'

And what can we expect next? 'I have so many ideas! I'm a bit of a cricket tragic, and I think that's partly because test cricket has this narrative quality to it, so I'm keen to try and work that into a piece. I'd also love to do some more vocal music - I've never set any of my own text before, but seeing as I write [words] quite a bit, it's something I'd like to try. And Alaska has inspired me to write more music about adventures and journeys in the outdoors. I love hiking, so I'm keen to compose something about that.'

AMC resources

David John Lang - AMC profile

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