Composer David Lang on Writing ‘Simple Song #3’ for Paolo Sorrentino’s ‘Youth’

Throughout Paolo Sorrentino’s “Youth,” composer Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) is asked to conduct a performance of his most famous work, “Simple Song #3.” It’s a deeply personal work that the audience hears in full only at the end of the film, when it’s performed by celebrated soprano Sumi Jo. To come up with a song that would have such a powerful effect, Sorrentino turned to composer David Lang, winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Music for choral work “The Little Match Girl Passion.”

How did this collaboration with Sorrentino come about?

Paolo had used my music in “The Great Beauty,” and so when he wanted to make a movie about a composer, he thought, “I know a composer, I should ask him.” I probably answered the question before he even finished asking it. I was very excited.

How did you go about writing the song? Was it a matter of reading the script or conversations with Paolo?

I did both. The script wasn’t finished, and there were a lot of details that ended up being quite different. Basically, the idea was a rough outline of a movie about a composer. Plot points and characters changed, but that central idea that there would be a song that tells this story was there. I had philosophical conversations with Paolo about what it could and couldn’t do. I would ask him, “Do you want it to be a particular emotion at the end? Regret? Triumph?” He said, “No, you figure it out.” He just wanted it to be emotional and to elicit a reaction, but he didn’t have a specific reaction in mind. I answered a lot of questions about what composers think about themselves, for better or worse. And that was one of the things that was empowering for me. I was able to make something that was complicated.

At what point did you learn Sumi Jo would be performing your song? 

Her name was actually in the script, and I didn’t know if it was going to be her or it was just a placeholder. But they got her. It was an incredible honor. She’s an opera legend, and it was fantastic to work with her.

Where were you when you learned of the Oscar nomination? 

I was watching the broadcast at five in the morning. The ridiculous thing is, they announced my category first. I was completely groggy and drinking coffee. They announced my name, and I just spilled coffee everywhere.

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