What is it like to be a professional composer?

Composer David Lang's career in music was born ironically when he was a chemistry student in college. Lang started writing music as a nine-year-old but until college held on to the belief that he was “never going to write music for real.” But the allure of music, his great passion, proved too strong.

“I was supposed to be a doctor,” reflects Lang.  “I remember a very scary moment when I had to fight with my parents and tell them that I wasn’t going to medical school. I said: ‘Look, I will always be curious. I will always think that I could have been a composer if I don’t try – and that will wreck my life,’” Lang says.

It was a risk that has more than paid off in accomplishment. Lang, 59, is now considered one of the world’s great composers, an ‘American master.’ He has more honours that we can list here, among them a prestigious Pulitzer Prize that he won in 2008 for The Little Match Girl Passion.


David Lang composed 'Simple Song' for the film Youth

Lang’s works are performed right around the globe, by The New York Philharmonic, The Netherlands Chamber Choir and The Munich Chamber Orchestra to name but a few. But his most recent masterpiece is something new for him. Lang has written the music for the film Youth.

It’s one of only a few films he has worked on, film being a genre that he says “he doesn’t know much about” but is “excited about pursing".

Lang is philosophical and kind, just like the main character in Youth.  He delivers his answers thoughtfully and it is clear that he has spent a lot of time thinking about music, listening to music and living music.

Youth is a film very close to home for Lang. It’s about a composer who sees the world in a unique way, the way that an artist must after a lifetime of refining their craft. It’s a story that offers audiences a glimpse of the emotional world of an artist – perhaps even a glimpse into Lang’s own emotional life story through music.

“It’s not very often we have a movie about a classical composer,” Lang points out, as he describes his focus for the musical score. “And since I’m a composer, I wanted people to think that we are interesting people,” he says.

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Michael Caine stars in the tender film

Lang has certainly achieved this in helping director Paolo Sorrentino (director of The Great Beauty) to portray the protagonist of Youth. Fred Ballinger, played by Michael Caine, is an intensely interesting, if somewhat complex character, whose life story is slowly revealed to us in a sometimes playful, sometimes confrontational, but ultimately heart-warming way.

Eighty, retired and deemed ‘apathetic’ by his doctors, the famous composer Fred and his filmmaker friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) are on vacation at a luxury resort at the base of the Swiss Alps.

Fred has no interest in taking up music again but is being pursued by Buckingham Palace to perform his famous A Simple Song for a royal audience. Mick is making a film which is to be his great masterpiece, along with his screenwriters.

Together the old mates look on sardonically and comically at the other guests at the resort and at the dramas unfolding around them. But the two friends aren’t spared their share of drama even on their vacation.

Fred and Mick both have children who visit and bring their relationship problems and long-held hang-ups with them. It’s in this environment and in the presence of an array of fascinating resort guests that the pair embark on an inner journey that will see them revisit the highlights and lowlights of their lives.


The sound and music of Youth

Lang wrote the music before the script was finished and before the filming and it shows. Youth is a film that lets the music shine. Music takes centre stage, dominating and adding to the brilliant visual imagery, as if the film was made for it. It is clear that we are meant to focus on the music and it is meant to tell us something profound.

“I was hoping that every time you would hear the music related to Michael Caine’s character that you would get the sense that this is the moment he was communicating with himself, a time when he was being emotionally honest and when he’s paying attention to his own feelings. That’s the role of music for him. It’s the way that he gets in touch with his emotional life,” says Lang.

Youth is a musical feast for fans of classical music. Lang finds ways to convey Fred’s inner self, not simply by creating a musical score that builds and repeats itself like in many films, but by making use of the everyday sounds in and around the resort.

Michael Caine’s Fred is a character that sees the world through an auditory filter, making what would be seemingly mundane sounds part of a personal symphony that is unravelled as the film progresses. 

The genius of Lang’s work is the way he uses these sounds to give the audience insight into the emotional drama unfolding, while also helping to move forward the film’s narrative.

A lolly wrapper swishes between Fred’s fingers suggesting a disagreement during a conversation, cowbells chime at different moments in a meadow turning the herd into an orchestra that Fred feels compelled to conduct. Even the flies buzzing around him become part of the musical composition.

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Harvey Keitel plays Mick in Youth

This carefully placed musical imagery paints a picture of Fred’s life past and present. Fred may not want to take up music again but it is all around him. He needs music and finds it everywhere, permeating every part of his life.

These scenes reflect Lang’s musical philosophy; that music is more than just music but a whole experience of the senses that surrounds and adds to the music itself.

“The interesting thing about music is not just what it sounds like but the whole environment that surrounds it. What we see in scenes such as the cow scene is that Fred is paying attention to the world around him in this really personal way that other characters don’t pay attention to the world,” says Lang.

For Fred, the music he finds takes him on a personal journey – a journey confronting, but also healing. There is a public side to his music but also a personal side and it’s this side that the public doesn’t see. It’s an idea that Lang says is pivotal to the film and one that he most identifies with as a composer.

“I definitely identified with this idea that there are certain things about your emotional life that are personal to you and that music is the way you identify with them,” says Lang.

He continues saying that it is by exploring these emotions that inspires him in his everyday work. “In my normal work I’m constantly paying attention to the kinds of emotions I wish I had or I wish I didn’t have or that I’m thinking about and I try to use music to get there.”

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"It sounds pensive and melancholic and it is, yet it’s also celebratory, baroque and unpredictable, packed with visual and musical gags" - The Observer

“I think one of the things that music does for us is that it opens us up to paying attention to what we are feeling. It gives us the opportunity to make a connection about an emotional truth that can’t be expressed in words, or pictures or actions. It has to be expressed in this visceral way of ideas translated through sound,” adds Lang.

This message stands alongside another beautiful message conveyed by the other stars staying at the resort. There’s a filmmaker, movie star, Miss Universe, a soccer star and others all with their own unique passions that they share with the world.

“Once they share their passion with the world the world interprets it differently,” says Lang. “That seems very real to me about the life of an artist,” he says.

“Music is really about making something and sharing it with someone else. It’s something that makes people unite,” Lang adds. “For me I think the most important thing we need in life is to understand our obligations to each other and when we don’t have music we forget that.” 

Having seen the power music has in Youth, we can believe it.

Youth starring Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel is in cinemas now. Watch the trailer here.

Listen to 'Simple Song' in the video above and let us know what you think.