New-music scene gets a wink and nod
Contemporary classical composer David Lang didn’t exactly chronicle his life in music when writing the score to Jonathan Parker’s new film “(Untitled),” a satire opening Friday that skewers the New York gallery and new-music scenes. But his first film score did contain certain elements that were nearly autobiographical.
For one thing, the composer was initially approached by Parker because the director/co-writer wanted to license “Wed,” a short solo-piano piece by Lang. “I told Jonathan that I can write the silly music, too,” said Lang. “I sort of tricked him into letting me do the rest of the score.”
His chicanery paid off, because “(Untitled)” depicts the new-music scene with unusual precision, even as much of it is done in jest. And Parker could never have accomplished that without someone like Lang, who as a founding member of the multifaceted Bang on a Can org, as well as the composer of last year’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Little Match Girl Passion,” is very much a part of that scene.
“It’s not like I identified with everything in the movie,” Lang said, “but rather that it was so great to see music as a main character. And I wanted it to be done right. I wanted there to be believable characters and respectable music.”
Pic divides its time between the lives of two brothers, Adrian and Josh Jacobs. Adrian (Adam Goldberg) is a struggling, morose composer who finds himself entangled with the gallery owner who reps Josh (Eion Bailey), a painter of mass appeal but minuscule scope.
Lang’s challenge was making Adrian’s music show growth as the film progressed. “Adrian has to believe that his music is legitimate,” said Lang. “He has to convey that he believes in it. The arc of the music in the film is not that he’s an idiot and then not an idiot, but rather that he experiments until he finds his voice.”
Accomplishing that without tipping over the edge wasn’t always easy, especially with Adrian employing, to noisome effect, such unconventional instruments as crushed paper, broken glassware, dropped chains and, most memorably, a kicked bucket.
“It was a hard line to walk,” Lang maintained. “I would say to the musicians, ‘Hey, remember that thing George Crumb did?’ Or, ‘Hey, pretend it’s 1963, and go from there.’ These musicians had this in their lives. They’ve had to take ridiculous things and make them believable. How do you take an instruction which could be stupid or poetic, depending on whether you believe it yourself, and make something of it?”
Just as important, Lang didn’t want to savage fellow members of his profession. “I love composers and have huge respect for them, whether or not I like their music,” he said. “I didn’t want to be involved in a project that made composers look bad. I wanted Adrian’s progress to appear completely legitimate. That way, when he starts writing good music, you understand what it means for him. You can measure how good the good music is because you can see the journey.”