David Lang | battle hymns

Lang talks about this composition

“Commissioned by the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia and Leah Stein Dance Company for a performance in an old armory in Philadelphia, it was intended to be something that would both take from and return something to its environment. Because of the connection to an armory, I chose to make a piece out of texts that in some way had something to do with the American Civil War, not to portray the battles or show one side’s feelings about the other but to explore feelings that people of that time might have felt.  I deliberately avoided texts that were too sentimental, or too dogmatic. I didn’t want anyone to get a message about this war, or about war in general. I did however want to see if I could put myself in a position to think contemporaneous thoughts.

“There are five separate pieces. One is a setting of one of the most famous Civil War letters, the Sullivan Ballou letter. It is a heartbreaking letter by an officer to his wife, to be sent home only if he was killed in battle. Of course, it was sent. To keep this text from becoming too overpoweringly emotional I took every phrase from his letter and then alphabetized them, changing the text from a sorrowful narrative to a catalog of hopes and memories and fears. Another text is a simple statement of Abraham Lincoln’s, about why slavery is wrong. Surrounding them are lyrics I have rewritten that are from songs written during the Civil War by Stephen Foster. Two of these Stephen Foster songs know that there’s a war going on; I can’t help but feel that avoidance of the war in the third, Foster’s most famous lyric and song, is a secret attempt by Foster to escape it, acknowledging the importance of the war by avoiding it entirely.”

Leah Stein directs singers and dancers at Kezar Pavilion in April, 2013. Photo by Sidney Chen.


Leah Stein on staging “battle hymns”

“David Lang introduced his idea of using text from war letters and I liked this idea very much, as I am always interested in the personal voice and its place in the historical and collective understandings. I focused on specific lines from the texts at times and the feeling of the music at others. While the texts all come from the Civil War period, it was important to me that the dance was not about a specific war, but more about a confluence of feelings evoked by experiences of war from many perspectives.

“The choreography responded to the rhythm, content, text of the music and the scale of the site. In the early stages of making this work, I worked with ‘commands’ as well as long traveling phrases referencing ongoing, unending, stamina. I called attention to the tension between the force of the ‘military mission’ juxtaposed to the personal experience of those on the battlefield and those left behind.  From the beginning, I knew that I wanted the singers to be integrated into the choreography.  The singers become a metaphor for the ‘officer,’ the public face of the military; the dancers the ‘soldiers’ underneath the uniform, or the people left behind, civilians. One is more restrained, controlled and anonymous and one is more vulnerable, raw, and human. I wanted to include percussionist Toshi Makihara to be part of this work as a voice of the present.

“I am deeply appreciative of the opportunity to work with Robert Geary and his three choruses. The singers have been open to new approaches and I am grateful for their willingness to be part of this process. They have expanded the work in remarkable ways. I hope that we have more than scratched the surface, although I know this is a limitless work that could stand many re-visits. This is not a confession but more an observation that propels me forward to continue working with great respect for all involved and an honoring of the largeness of the subject of war.

“The choreography was developed in collaboration with the dancers and I want to thank each of them for their inspiring contribution. I also want to thank the dancers in the original production:  Makoto Hirano, Jaamil Kosoko, Shavon Norris, Les Rivera, and Josie Smith. Their voices remain alive in the work, as does the collaboration with Alan Harler, to whom I am grateful for his significant role in bringing this work into existence.”

About David Lang

Lang, Musical America’s 2013 Composer of the Year and the recipient of Carnegie Hall’s Debs Composer’s Chair for 2013-2014, is one of America’s most performed composers. Many of his works resemble each other only in the fierce intelligence and clarity of vision that inform their structures. His catalogue is extensive, and his opera, orchestra, chamber and solo works are by turns ominous, ethereal, urgent, hypnotic, unsettling and very emotionally direct. Much of his work seeks to expand the definition of virtuosity in music — even the deceptively simple pieces can be fiendishly difficult to play and require incredible concentration by musicians and audiences alike.

The little match girl passion, commissioned by Carnegie Hall for Paul Hillier’s vocal ensemble, Theater of Voices, was awarded the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for music. “I don’t think I’ve ever been so moved by a new, and largely unheralded, composition as I was by David Lang’s little match girl passion, which is unlike any music I know,” said Pulitzer juror and Washington Post columnist Tim Page.

In the words of The New Yorker, “With his winning of the Pulitzer Prize for the little match girl passion (one of the most original and moving scores of recent years), David Lang, once a postminimalist enfant terrible, has solidified his standing as an American master.”

Lang is the recipient of numerous other honors and awards, including the Rome Prize, the BMW Music-Theater Prize (Munich), and grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The recording of the little match girl passion, released on Harmonia Mundi, received the 2010 Grammy Award for Best Small Ensemble Performance.

Lang is co-founder and co-artistic director of New York’s legendary music collective, “Bang on a Can.” His work has been recorded on the Sony Classical, Harmonia Mundi, Teldec, BMG, Point, Chandos, Argo/Decca, and Cantaloupe labels, among others. You can find more of his music on Amazon.