Eighth Blackbird + David Lang + Anne Bogart
composition as explanation

Eighth Blackbird + David Lang + Anne Bogart

composition as explanation


In February 2022, Eighth Blackbird will perform the world premiere of composition as explanation, an evening-length staged work by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang and celebrated director Anne Bogart, in Duke’s von der Heyden Studio Theater. Written for Eighth Blackbird on the occasion of its 25th anniversary, composition as explanation is a genre-bending exploration of the principles of plainspokenness, repetition, and performativity central to Gertrude Stein’s literary modernism.

composition as explanation pushes Eighth Blackbird beyond traditional musical performance into the realm of theater, challenging artists and audience alike to become active participants in the creation of the work. Like Stein’s modernism, it invites us to examine the inseparability of form and content, art and everyday life. The piece is the outgrowth of a long history of collaboration between the ensemble and Lang, whose 2008 composition these broken wings, remains, as pianist Lisa Kaplan explains, “Eighth Blackbird’s calling card — showcasing the obsessive, powerful, and mesmerizing rhythmic component of his compositions, while demanding the clarity in performance that has become the ensemble’s hallmark.”

In October 2016, Eighth Blackbird presented a 45-minute work-in-progress performance of an early sketch of composition as explanation at the Arts Club of Chicago — the site of Stein’s 1923 lecture of the same name. They have since been performing occasional excerpted movements in recital programming. While in residence at Duke, Eighth Blackbird, Bogart, and Lang will engage with students across a variety of disciplines, including Music, Theater, English, and Literature, as well as a public conversation featuring Bogart and Eighth Blackbird executive director Lisa Kaplan and artistic director Matthew Duvall on multimedia project collaboration.


In my recent work I have been trying to expand the notion of who the participants in a piece of music are, and what they get out of participating. The normal idea of composition has been that the parts of the equation are separated—composer makes music, musicians play music, audience receives music. I have been trying to blur these distinctions by asking questions about things that are possible in the world that we haven’t yet explored. Can a piece be so quiet that every audience member’s experience is unique? Can a piece be made out of the struggle of performers to play something impossible? Can a piece be made that has no audience, in which all the participants become performers?

Several years ago I was part of a piece for Eighth Blackbird that required them to move, and for this piece we engaged choreographer Susan Marshall. Eighth Blackbird pride themselves on their ability to rise to every task, and they frequently employ staging, movement, speaking, and theater. Our piece was very successful, but during the process I started noticing that the choreographer was giving them gestures and movements that she thought the ensemble could do. What I wondered at that time was if a piece of music could actually have at its core the notion that learning how to perform it might transform the performers, and that transformation would not be a byproduct of the performance but its very intention.

When Eighth Blackbird asked me to propose a new project I thought of other kinds of actions that they might concentrate on, that would transform them. I began to think of what it would be like to make a piece that required them not just to act, but to become actors—in order to perform it they would take acting lessons, study diction, study the art of theater. In other words, my piece would not just ask them to move and to speak, but it would require them to commit themselves to a rigorous education that would transform them as performers.

After some thought about what the text could be for this I settled on Gertrude Stein’s 1923 lecture ‘Composition as Explanation,’ in which a yet-to-be-famous Stein explains to her audience what she is doing in her writing, in the same repetitive and plainspoken and circular language as her writing. In other words, she has blurred the relationship between her content, her form, and her performance, in much the same way that I propose to do for Eighth Blackbird.

— David Lang


composition as explanation was co-commissioned for Eighth Blackbird by the Arts Club of Chicago on the occasion of its centennial, and by Duke Performances at Duke University, with additional commissioning support from Richard Replin and Elissa Stein, the Modlin Center for the Arts at the University of Richmond, and the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation. Support for the upcoming recording provided by Cedille Records.