Pew Center for Arts and Heritage

Get our monthly newsletter in your inbox for the latest on cultural events, ideas, conversations, and grantmaking news in Philadelphia and beyond.

Main page contents
David Lang, Symphony for a Broken Orchestra, 2017, presented by Temple Contemporary. Photo by Betsy Manning.

Questions of Practice: Composer David Lang on Classical Music, Education, Composing, and Virtuosity

Composer David Lang on classical music. Filmed on November 30, 2017 at Temple Contemporary.

In December 2017, Temple Contemporary premiered Symphony for a Broken Orchestra, a new composition by Pulitzer Prize- and Grammy Award-winning composer David Lang for 400 musicians using broken instruments gathered from Philadelphia public schools. Embracing new possibilities for sound making, the work was performed by an unusual ensemble: “The youngest performer was a 9-year-old cellist; the oldest, an 82-year-old oboist. It looked like the most diverse orchestra in America,” The New York Times reported.

We sat down with David Lang to discuss the ambitious project, music education, and how he thinks about classical music today. Below, we present excerpts from our conversation.

On music education: “It’s only because of music programs in the public schools in Los Angeles, where I grew up, that I became a musician.”

Composer David Lang on music education. Filmed on November 30, 2017 at Temple Contemporary.

On composing Symphony for a Broken Orchestra: “I wanted to design a project that would have a range of musicians from across the city—professionals, amateurs, folk players, jazz players, improvisers, students…I want the people playing the instruments to look exactly like the audience.”

Composer David Lang on composing "Symphony for a Broken Orchestra." Filmed on November 30, 2017 at Temple Contemporary.

On virtuosity: “If we look at virtuosity as being given a task that is hard to accomplish, and then making the thing that the audience notices how you struggle to accomplish that goal, that seems like a great virtuosity definition to me.”

Composer David Lang on virtuosity. Filmed on November 30, 2017 at Temple Contemporary.

On classical music: “Classical music is a really good model for looking at some of the other problems that we have in the world that are larger than musical problems.”

Composer David Lang on classical music. Filmed on November 30, 2017 at Temple Contemporary.

David Lang is one of America's most performed composers, with an extensive catalog that includes opera, orchestra, chamber and solo works. Lang is co-founder and co-artistic director of New York's legendary music collective Bang on a Can. He joined fellow Bang on a Can founders Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe to curate the first Philadelphia iteration of the Bang on a Can marathon, funded by the Center and presented by FringeArts in September 2010.