David Lang thorn Molly Barth, flute, piccolo; Matt Albert, violin; Zachariah Galatis, piccolo; Stuart Gerber, percussion; Melissa Peña, oboe; David Riley, piano; Sarah Viens and Joshua Silver, trumpets; Jeffrey Zeigler, cello Cantaloupe Music; CD, DL
For all that his large-scale works like the little match girl passion and anatomy theater have commanded the spotlight over the last decade or so, the composer David Lang initially burst into the public eye and ear with pithy, concise, and clever chamber works, scored for economical if occasionally unconventional mixes of instruments. On thorn, an appealing new CD by flutist Molly Barth issued May 12 on Cantaloupe Music, the Bang on a Can house label, Lang’s puckish instrumental miniatures assume center stage.
Barth, an exemplary performer, traces her bond to Lang’s music back to her days in eighth blackbird, the vivacious, industrious chamber sextet for which she was the foundational focus. Since leaving that celebrated group in 2006, Barth has pursued a quieter path as a working musician and teacher. Presently an assistant professor at the University of Oregon, she performs regularly with three ensembles: Duo Damiana, the Beta Collide New Music Project, and the Oregon Wind Quintet.
Anyone who’s missed regular doses of Barth’s exuberant virtuosity will welcome the fresh burst of activity presented on thorn, which opens with Lang’s 1993 composition of the same title, a 4-minute showpiece for unaccompanied flute. A buoyant perpetual-motion etude, the piece evokes a rose’s dangerous beauty: fluttering, seductive melodic curves, along with unexpected barbs. Lang, with customary wit, explains in a program note that he’d originally meant to hide a single “spike” within a long, slow melody – but then decided that spike was the most interesting part of his piece, and added many more. (No notes are included with the CD, but nearly everything is explained on Lang’s website.)
“If you’ve followed the career of David Lang, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and co-founder of the revolutionary activist new-music collective Bang on a Can, for any significant amount of time, you might…umm…worry just a little bit,” I wrote in a review of his recent opera the loser. Based on the evidence here, I’ll stick with that feigned concern. The compositional gesture central to thorn (the piece) is wholly in keeping with Lang’s sly proclivity for embedding something uneasy, or even vaguely sinister, within even his most amiable conceptions.
That quality extends to the collaborative pieces that make up the rest of the program. For lend/lease, an angular 2008 duo for piccolo and percussion commissioned by the London Sinfonietta, Lang drew inspiration from a World War II-era program through which the U.S. funneled weapons to the U.K. The 2000 quartet short fall, written for Swedish ensemble the Pearls Before Swine Experience, demands a considerable expenditure of energy to negotiate a relatively trivial musical gesture.
Recalling with irony a famous “Trumpet Voluntary” never intended for actual trumpets, Lang deploys two of those brass instruments along with two piccolos and percussion in involuntary (2011), a fidgeting fanfare. The composer’s website provides no clues as to hidden meanings in the flute/piano duet vent (1990), but it’s not hard to imagine, in the work’s agitated flutters and whorls, some concatenation of the French word for wind, the term for an opening for the release of built-up fumes, and the act of figuratively letting off steam.
The most involved production here also counts as the least likely: in the trio burn notice (1988), Lang redeploys Reagan-era spy terminology referring to unreliable assets as a means by which to establish jittery relations among flute, cello, and piano, who together form an edifice of feathery, seemingly unstable chromatic figurations. The closing work, frag (1984) – short for “fragmentation bomb,” according to Lang’s website, but presumably also intentionally redolent of military jargon for killing a superior officer – finds anxious flute, oboe, and cello working in near-identical registers, trying to piece together shards of a melody that coheres only effortfully and, ultimately, indecisively.
What emerges is a varied yet consistent overview of Lang’s chamber-music activities, a vital part of his output that deserves continued attention even as he moves into larger forms and more expansive concepts. The performances, by Barth and a small host of excellent associates (including fellow former blackbird Matt Albert on violin), strike just the right balance between nervous tension and technical security. Recorded in Oregon and mastered in New Haven, thorn is a welcome addition to Lang’s discography and a happy opportunity for reacquaintance with Barth.
Molly Barth performs music by David Lang with Jeffrey Zeigler, Matt Albert, David Riley, and Stuart Gerber at National Sawdust on May 13 at 7pm; www.nationalsawdust.org
On June 12, National Sawdust hosted the culminating event of its inaugural Hildegard Competition, which seeks to encourage inclusivity in the arts through the mentorship of women and non-binary composers.