CD pick of the week: David Lang’s ‘This was written by hand’

Contemporary composer David Lang, best known for his groundbreaking work with New York’s multifaceted new music organization Bang on a Can, has been making inroads into Nashville of late. Last season, the Portara New Music Quartet performed Lang’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Little Match Girl Passion at Zeitgeist as part of the gallery’s Indeterminacies new music series. This November, Nashville Opera and ALIAS Chamber Ensemble will present Lang’s The Difficulty of Crossing a Field (a sort of improbable cross between Gone With the Wind and the Twilight Zone) at the Noah Liff Opera Center.

lang2Nashville classical fans can get a sense of Lang’s instrumental style from This was written by hand, a new disc of Lang’s piano solos recently released on Bang on the Can’s label Cantaloupe. Pianist Andrew Zolinsky is the performer. The title refers to the opening track, a piece that the composer wrote the old-fashioned way – with pencil and manuscript paper. The piece has a minimalist flavor. It’s full of bright, consonant harmonies and repetitive rhythmic motifs. The work unfolds slowly and seems to defy a definite tonal center until the last measure, which has the piece ending solidly on F. Zolinsky performed every note with spontaneity and feeling.

My favorite works on the album are a collection of eight miniatures called Memory Pieces. These are tributes that the composer wrote for friends and colleagues who had recently passed away. The opener, “Cage,” a homage to the great avant-garde master John Cage, features fast repeated notes that are played across the full length of the keyboard. The distribution of these notes seems random, as if the composer had consulted the I Ching to decide on the placement. That said, nothing was left to chance in “Wed,” a deeply felt tribute to the visual artist Kate Ericson, who died way too soon at age 39.

Zolinsky gave all of this music its due, playing bravura pieces, such as “Wiggle,” in memory of Frank Wigglesworth, with unrelenting energy, and “Cello,” a tribute to Anna Cholakian, with immediacy and sensitivity.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.