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The New Yorker: Fish Out of Water

Critic Alex Ross details YSM faculty member David Lang's Golden Globe Awards appearance
February 26, 2016

Lang-by-David-Serling-webThe New Yorker | By Alex Ross

On the day of the Golden Globe Awards, in January, the composer David Lang, who teaches at the Yale School of Music and won a Pulitzer Prize for his radiant choral work “The Little Match Girl Passion,” found himself in a Chevy Suburban on a side street in Beverly Hills, creeping toward the Beverly Hilton. He had been nominated, in the Best Original Song category, for a piece called “Simple Song #3,” which appears in Paolo Sorrentino’s film “Youth.” His competitors were Sam Smith, Brian Wilson, Wiz Khalifa, and a team led by Max Martin. Lang was at a far remove from the Manhattan new-music world where he has long been a fixture, notably as a co-founder of the Bang on a Can collective.

Lang, who is fifty-nine and has a droll, sanguine manner, was with his wife, the artist Suzanne Bocanegra. “This tux belonged to my dad,” he said. With his shaved head and his round architect-style glasses, he could be mistaken for a studio big shot. “But, more often, people ask me to park their cars,” he said. He grew up in Los Angeles, the son of a doctor and a librarian, but in his youth he had only glancing contact with movie culture. As a teen-ager, in the nineteen-seventies, he worked as an usher at a theatre in Westwood; one of his duties was to attend to patrons who had thrown up during “The Exorcist.”

[…] Lang spoke about “Youth.” The principal character is an elderly British composer, played by Michael Caine; “Simple Song #3” is his most famous work, one that follows him wherever he goes. In a reversal of the usual procedure, Lang wrote the music in advance of the filming. “I had fun helping Paolo figure out who this composer was,” he said. “I got to step into a different musical identity, a more English elegiac style.” …

Lang formed an ambitious goal: to meet Alejandro Iñárritu, who had just won the Best Director award for “The Revenant.” Iñárritu is the rare director who takes an interest in contemporary concert music. Lang fought his way into a V.I.P. area where Leonardo DiCaprio, the star of “The Revenant,” was holding court. “I can’t have you here!” a woman with a clipboard barked. “I’m a nominee,” Lang protested. Buffeted by the crowd surging toward DiCaprio, he managed to introduce himself to Iñárritu, and also greeted the composer Ryuichi Sakamato, who scored “The Revenant.” …

“Well, I think I’ve reached my limit,” he said. “We still have some per diem left to spend at the hotel. Room service beckons!” It would not be the end of his Hollywood adventure: four days later, he was nominated for an Oscar.

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