In Grammy and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang’s new album writing on water, the quality of Lang’s music is as wide-ranging as water itself. Exploring new forms and different combinations of instruments through four ensemble pieces, Lang stretches the limits of what a large ensemble can be, uncovering wildly different textures, colors, and emotions.
The album’s title track, scored for choir and chamber orchestra, was created in 2005 in honor of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, a naval battle during the Napoleonic Wars that resulted in a decisive victory for the British and the loss of 22 ships for the Franco-Spanish forces. For this piece, Lang partnered with film director Peter Greenaway, who wove together a libretto with descriptions of drowning and shipwrecks from Moby Dick, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and The Tempest.
“writing on water” dramatically captures the anguish and fear of catastrophe at sea. Synergy Vocals imbue the choral parts with a broad, grandiose color. The individual vocal lines are largely stagnant throughout the piece, creating an almost demonic sound and empowering slight pitch changes to have an intense emotional impact. The instrumental accompaniment, with its dense texture and dark tone, evokes images of turbulent waves, stormy weather, and the destruction of ships.
The drama overflows into tracks “forced march” and “pierced,” which explore the possibilities that emerge when groups within the ensemble work against each other.
“forced march,” performed by the Crash Ensemble, aligns a boisterous, unwieldy rock melody with steady, militaristic percussion. As the piece unfolds, the restrictive beat changes the melody. The original motif bursts free at times as if rebelling against the structure, but is always absorbed back into the more regulated version of the theme, leaving listeners with the disturbing feeling of being repressed.
“pierced” layers a rhythmically unpredictable melody over a variety of supporting textures, allowing the ensemble—comprised of Logan Paul and FLUX quartet on strings and the electroacoustic group Real Quiet—to color and at times overshadow the melody to inhabit different moods. The result is that sections of the same work with the same melody sound like wildly different pieces, outlining the impact that each instrument has on the overall aesthetic.
Lang wrote “increase,” the third track on the album, in 2002 as a wedding present for friends and a gift for the ensemble Alarm Will Sound’s inaugural performance. While considering old Puritan baby names with his wife, the name Increase struck him as the kind of blessing you’d want for both a marriage and for a new ensemble.
“increase” starts with a mystical, galloping feel. It’s both hopeful and mysterious, as though you don’t know what’s about to come, but believe it may be something good. The mystical motif runs throughout the piece as the suspense builds and the texture intensifies. “increase” develops into a beautifully tempered blessing, one that takes into account both the hope and the uncertainty that comes with a new endeavor.
writing on water is a dramatic and innovative exploration of the possibilities large ensembles present. Lang masterfully layers melodies, harmonies, and textures—allowing them sometimes to work together and other times to clash—to unearth every opportunity for beautiful sound within the ensemble.