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David Lang: "Are You Experienced?"

Are You Experienced?

  1. On Being Hit on the Head

  2. Dance

  3. On Being Hit on the Head (reprise)

  4. On Hearing the Voice of God

  5. Drop

  6. On Hearing the Siren’s Song

David Lang

Born: January 8, 1957, Los Angeles, CA

Instrumentation: Narrator, Electric Tuba and 13 players

Duration: 27 minutes

Composed: 1988

Are You Experienced? is the title of a Jimi Hendrix song that became one of the anthems of the 1960s counterculture. It became the title, as well, of the late guitarist's first album, a strikingly original work of its time and now a pop classic. Described as a "psychedelic symphony,” the recording combines backwards and forward recorded guitars and drums, and in the lyrics, Hendrix invites the listener to go on a journey:

“If you can just get your mind together

Then come on across to me

We'll hold hands and then we'll watch the sunrise

From the bottom of the sea

But first, are you experienced?

Have you ever been experienced?

Well, I have…

I know, I know you probably scream and cry

That your little world won't let you go

But who in your measly little world

Are you trying to prove that

You're made out of gold and can't be sold?

So, are you experienced?

Have you ever been experienced?

Well, I have.

Let me prove it to you...

Trumpets and violins I can hear in distance

I think they're calling our names

Maybe now you can't hear them, but you will

If you just take hold of my hand

Oh, but are you experienced?

Have you ever been experienced?

Not necessarily stoned, but beautiful...”

Are you experienced? is also the title of the work by David Lang that we hear tonight. As titles for Lang pieces go, this is relatively tame: he has other works called Eating Living Monkeys, International Business Machine, and Aliens Kidnapped Me and Stole My Blood.

There is surely an element of whimsy in these titles, but more importantly the titles, like the works themselves, question modern experience in a way that is new—even for “new music.” Lang’s work is deeply invested in our immediate world and feelings, and the music that results has both formal integrity and stylish hip-ness. There is no name yet for this kind of music—a style that blends the discipline of modernism and the relevance of postmodernism.

Born in 1957 in Los Angeles, Lang “experienced” musical education at leading institutions and with central figures in musical modernism, Jacob Druckman and Hans Werner Henze. He has received the recognition of the musical establishment, most importantly, the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Music. He is also a co-founder of Bang On A Can, the imaginative annual New York new music festival.

Lang's restlessness and his vast scope can be heard in Are You Experienced? The piece begins humorously, then provides a parody of Hendrix's psychedelically fluid electric guitar through its absurd antithesis, the electric tuba. Lang's dramatic score for narrator, solo tuba and ensemble is a reaction to, rather than an version of, the original song, and it explores the darker sides of Hendrix's hedonistic “experience” with sex and drugs. Hendrix's song is about losing your mind to pleasure; Lang's is about, well, just losing your mind.

Comprised of six sections (“On being hit on the head,” `Dance,” “On being hit on the head”(reprise), “On hearing the voice of God,” “Drop,” “On hearing the siren's song”), the narrator's text, a fantasy on images from Hendrix's song, goes from what first seems a Three-Stooges skit following a knock on the head (“Am I dressed right? I’ve never been unconscious before”), to disturbing mystical delusions, to scary returns to childhood (here “Drop” is the command school children in the 1950s practiced in case of nuclear attack), to utter confusion and death.

Musically, Lang's score depicts this downward spiral with dissolution of order. The jarring hit on the head (groups of repeated notes alternating on and off the beat) leads to a raucous, rocking dance of fast, repeated 16th-notes in rapid short crescendos culminating in a riotous electric tuba solo encased in trademark Hendrix feedback. Following the reprise of the first section, where it becomes apparent the hit on the head was serious, not funny (though we dare you not to giggle), the music becomes more rhythmically fragmented, and long notes dominate. The tuba wails and breaths heavily, while drums beat in the fourth section; the fifth ends in a nuclear explosion that leaves the scattered music of the ending in its wake.

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