That quality extends to the collaborative pieces that make up the rest of the program. For lend/lease, an angular 2008 duo for piccolo and percussion commissioned by the London Sinfonietta, Lang drew inspiration from a World War II-era program through which the U.S. funneled weapons to the U.K. The 2000 quartet short fall, written for Swedish ensemble the Pearls Before Swine Experience, demands a considerable expenditure of energy to negotiate a relatively trivial musical gesture.
Recalling with irony a famous “Trumpet Voluntary” never intended for actual trumpets, Lang deploys two of those brass instruments along with two piccolos and percussion in involuntary (2011), a fidgeting fanfare. The composer’s website provides no clues as to hidden meanings in the flute/piano duet vent (1990), but it’s not hard to imagine, in the work’s agitated flutters and whorls, some concatenation of the French word for wind, the term for an opening for the release of built-up fumes, and the act of figuratively letting off steam.
The most involved production here also counts as the least likely: in the trio burn notice (1988), Lang redeploys Reagan-era spy terminology referring to unreliable assets as a means by which to establish jittery relations among flute, cello, and piano, who together form an edifice of feathery, seemingly unstable chromatic figurations. The closing work, frag (1984) – short for “fragmentation bomb,” according to Lang’s website, but presumably also intentionally redolent of military jargon for killing a superior officer – finds anxious flute, oboe, and cello working in near-identical registers, trying to piece together shards of a melody that coheres only effortfully and, ultimately, indecisively.
What emerges is a varied yet consistent overview of Lang’s chamber-music activities, a vital part of his output that deserves continued attention even as he moves into larger forms and more expansive concepts. The performances, by Barth and a small host of excellent associates (including fellow former blackbird Matt Albert on violin), strike just the right balance between nervous tension and technical security. Recorded in Oregon and mastered in New Haven, thorn is a welcome addition to Lang’s discography and a happy opportunity for reacquaintance with Barth.
Molly Barth performs music by David Lang with Jeffrey Zeigler, Matt Albert, David Riley, and Stuart Gerber at National Sawdust on May 13 at 7pm; www.nationalsawdust.org