Simple Song #3 in Youth: An Interview With Composer David Lang


In Paolo Sorrentino's movie Youth, Michael Caine plays a retired composer on holiday at a spa in the Swiss Alps. He hears a young student practicing the composition for which he is best known. The precocious boy says his professor finds it easy to learn, and continues, "It's more than that. It is beautiful." Caine's character replies, "I composed it when I loved." The music, "Simple Song #3," is now nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song. Last week the Pulitzer Prize winning composer David Lang, known for his work in classical music, stepped out of the class in music composition he was teaching at Yale to talk to me about making music for movies.

How was it working with Paolo Sorrentino on The Great Beauty and now Youth?

In movies, music often gets used without direct connection. The industry is set up to deal with dead composers. For The Great Beauty, Sorrentino simply licensed my music; the opening choral piece is now on YouTube, and has gone all around the world. I am grateful. The reach of movies is larger than my reach as a classical musician. I met Paolo Sorrentino, finally, at The Great Beauty premiere in Toronto. He told me his next film would be about a classical composer.

How was the work different for the two films?

The way music usually gets used: everybody is done; then, the film is given to the composer to fill in the emotion in x seconds. In Youth, because the character is involved with music, my job came before casting, before everything. I had to answer first about the character's life and emotions. It was terrifying to start from nothing. I kept thinking, if I could make this music feel authentic, I could help drive the story. I loved feeling that the music could be so important. The whole point of the movie is to lead up to a performance of that song.

How would your life change if you won an Oscar for "Simple Song #3?

If I win the Oscar I have no idea how that will change my life. Even though I worked on movies before, for the documentary The Woodmans and the string arrangements for Requiem for a Dream performed by the Kronos Quartet -- I am surprised I'm nominated for an Oscar for the first time now for Youth. I consider myself an opera composer first. For a composer, opera is the most complete form. If I won, maybe people would realize there's not such a real difference. I'm having a blast. On the red carpet at Cannes, my thoughts facing all those photographers were that movies engage so many senses; people get excited about them. I'd love to bring some of that energy back into this other world, to take attention from the film world and plow that back to the opera

A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.