David Lang Q&A: ‘Youth’ composer
Paolo Sorrentino's film "Youth" tells the story of composer Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) and the famous song he must come to terms with when he's offered the opportunity of a lifetime: to perform it for the Queen. The tune is "Simple Song #3," written by David Lang, who earned an Oscar nomination for Best Song. As tells us during our recent webcam chat, the process of writing it was unique.
"I had to be done before they finished the script," Lang explains. Because so much of "Youth" is built around the song, he had to write it long before it began filming, before it was even cast, "so I didn't have anything to go on really."
Even director Sorrentino wasn't sure exactly what he wanted from the composition. "He said he wanted to have an emotional reaction," Lang recalls of his collaboration with the filmmaker. But what emotions should the song elicit? "[The character] could be miserable, he could be happy, he could be proud of playing in front of the Queen, he could feel like his life had been a failure … [Sorrentino] said, 'I don't care, you will figure it out.'"
The composer continues, "I sent him three demos. With one of them he said, 'It has to be more emotional.' With another of them he said, 'I am crying a little, and I need to cry a lot.' And then one he wrote back finally and all he said was, 'Oh David, I am crying!' And then I knew I had it."
Lang wrote "Simple Song #3" as a love song from Ballinger to his wife, but in addition to expressing romantic love, he thought it was "a great opportunity to show the real world how composers actually live, how composers actually think and feel: this whole idea that it's difficult for him to talk to his daughter about his emotions, that his best friend and he have no conversations that have any emotional weight at all but in his music he tells himself the truth. This seems very honest to me."
Now he hopes the film and his Oscar nomination give his music the chance to reach audiences it might not have before. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for his classical composition "The Little Match Girl Passion," but the reach of an Oscar-nominated film has the potential to be far greater. "Classical music is very specific to a certain culture but the potential audience for a film is much larger," he explains, "so to me the exciting thing about this is the possibility of reaching billions, and that's very inspiring to me."