Alumni Profile: David Lang, Pulitzer Prize Winning Composer

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Alumnus composer David Lang speaks to a string quartet during a rehearsal

David Lang’s experiences in the School of Music helped launch a career that has made him one of America’s most acclaimed and performed composers. His works for opera, orchestra, chamber, film, ballet, and solo artists challenge listeners, bend genres, and resist easy categorization.

A native of Los Angeles who earned an undergraduate degree in music from Stanford University, Lang came to the UI in 1978 to study with composer Donald Martin Jenni. “He’d come to Stanford to teach for a semester, and his class was one of the most amazing courses I’d taken,” recalls Lang. “Martin was the reason I came to Iowa.”

Lang’s time in Iowa City included his first experience of snow, many hours spent browsing the shelves at Prairie Lights Bookstore and the bins at downtown record stores, and an immersion in new music. He remembers his years in Iowa City as a kind of retreat experience—an intense immersion that allowed him to focus on writing music.

“We didn’t have a lot of distractions, which helped us work harder as students,” he says. “I was impressed by the quality of the classes and how the professors tried to be provocative and challenging. They taught me how to listen better and how to think more clearly about making music.”

After receiving his MM in composition in 1980, Lang earned his doctorate in composition at Yale University. During the ensuing decades he’s written works for many of the world’s leading musical and cultural institutions, including the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Berlin Philharmonic, Kronos Quartet, and John F. Kennedy Center. His music is used regularly by ballet and modern dance choreographers around the world, from Twyla Tharp to the Paris Opera Ballet. He is particularly proud of being co-founder and co-artistic director of Bang on a Can, a New York-based collective that has been making innovative music since 1987.

A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Lang currently serves as a professor of composition at the Yale School of Music. Among his most prestigious awards is a Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for the little match girl passion, lauded by The New Yorker as one of the most original and moving scores of recent years, and France’s Chevalier des l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres in 2015. More recently, this year his score for Paolo Sorrentino’s film YOUTH received both Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations.

While Lang’s career puts him in the upper echelons of the music world, he treasures his connections to the School of Music. He’s returned multiple times to teach master classes and for works commissioned by Hancher, including a 2012 performance of love fail, which he wrote for the a capella musical group Anonymous Four. In the fall of 2015, Lang was named a CLAS Alumni Fellow, which brought him back to campus to speak to classes, meet with faculty and students, and give a presentation on his experiences since leaving the UI.

Lang’s connections to Iowa are personal as well as professional. He made one of his closest friends during his time in the School of Music: Steven Schick, the famed percussionist and conductor who is also a passionate advocate for contemporary music.

An even closer connection is Lang’s son, Ike, who’s studying history and creative writing at the UI. “I like the university so much that I encouraged a member of my family to go there,” he says.

Lang admits to some nostalgia for the old music building ruined by the flood of 2008. “I thought it had a beautiful location by the river and I liked how it was part of an entire ecosystem of music, with beginning students on one side and professionals performing on the Hancher stage on the other,” he says. “At the same time, I’m delighted that the School of Music is going to have a wonderful new home. I’m impressed by its design and am eager to see what will happen in the next chapter of music at Iowa.”