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After completing his undergraduate degree at Stanford University, he went to the University of Iowa; he says, "There was a teacher in composition at the University of Iowa named Martin Jenni, and he had come to Stanford as a leave replacement to teach for a semester. And I just thought he was amazing. He knew a lot of stuff that I’d never heard of before. So when I thought about grad school, I went to Iowa. I was happy I did. It was really a kind of golden age. I really loved it.". Lang went on to earn a DMA at Yale University in 1989. In addition to Jenni, his teachers have included Henri Lazarof, Lou Harrison, Richard Hervig, Jacob Druckman, Hans Werner Henze, and Martin Bresnick.
In 2002 he was awarded a grant from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts Grants to Artists Award.
He was named Musical America's 2013 Composer of the Year.
Lang's music is informed by modernism, minimalism, and rock - and can perhaps be best described as post-minimalist or totalist. His music can be in turn comic, abrasive, and soothing, and it usually retains elements of conceptualism. He sometimes gives his concert pieces strange and even iconoclastic titles such as Eating Living Monkeys (1985) and Bonehead (1990).
He was a major contributor to the music performed by the Kronos Quartet in Requiem for a Dream, as he was the arranger in studio. He is also well known for his work with choreographers Shen Wei, Benjamin Millepied, Susan Marshall and Édouard Lock / La La La Human Steps.
In 1999 he collaborated with composers Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon and librettist/illustrator Ben Katchor in the composition of the "comic strip opera" The Carbon Copy Building. The production won an Obie Award for Best New American Production. Lang, Wolfe and Gordon subsequently collaborated on the 'oratorio' Lost Objects, the recording of which was released in summer 2001 (Teldec New Line). Their next collaborative project was Shelter, a multi-media work with librettist Deborah Artman, for the Scandinavian vocal group Trio Mediaeval and the German ensemble musikFabrik, which was performed in Germany and the U.S. in 2005.
Also in 1999, Lang and playwright Mac Wellman based their opera The Difficulty of Crossing a Field on a short story by Ambrose Bierce, about an Alabama planter named Williamson who purportedly vanished while walking across a field in 1854.(Bierce's story reoccurs in urban-legend form, in which, coincidentally, the vanished man is often given the name David Lang.)
A piece with multiple choruses and dance, battle hymns was first performed in Philadelphia in 2009 by the Mendelssohn Club and the Leah Stein Dance Company. Its U.S. west coast premiere was directed by Robert Geary and performed by the San Francisco Choral Society, Volti, the Piedmont Children's Choir, and the Leah Stein Dance Company in April 2013 at the Kezar Pavilion. In May 2014, the Collegiate Chorale and the Manhattan Girls Chorus performed battle hymns at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum.
Lang was awarded the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in music for his piece The Little Match Girl Passion, composed in 2007. The piece, based on Hans Christian Andersen's fable "The Little Match Girl" and inspired by Bach's St. Matthew Passion, was co-commissioned by the Carnegie Hall Corporation and The Perth Theater and Concert Hall and premiered on October 25, 2007 in Zankel Hall in New York City. Tim Page of the Washington Post wrote that "I don't think that I've ever been so moved by a new...composition as I was by David Lang's The Little Match Girl Passion, which is unlike any music I know."
Inspired by the powerful singing he heard from the crowd at an Arsenal F.C. football match, Lang came up with the idea of composing a song for over 1,000 people to sing. The first performance was 9 June 2014 at Birmingham's Millennium Point. Singers were split into groups arranged on the steps of the atrium, each one with a leader with a megaphone. The conductor was Simon Halsey, and a second performance is planned for 21 June. The lyrics came from Lang doing internet searches for the phrase "When I am in a crowd I …" Lang then organised the results into thematic groups.
The composer surveyed all of the national anthems of the world, drew ideas and phrases from them, and translated them into English. Musically, it is very similar to 'the little match girl passion' made up primarily of short, arpeggiated phrases. It is scored for chorus and string quartet. It was premiered on June 7, 2014 at Walt Disney Concert Hall by the Los Angeles Master Chorale.
Lang's music has been released on the Argo/Decca, BMG, Cantaloupe Music, Chandos, CRI, Naxos Records, Point Music, and Sony Classical labels. His solo albums for Cantaloupe include "The Passing Measures" (2001) with the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, "Child" (2003) played by Sentieri Selvaggi, and "Elevated" (2005) featuring performances by Audrey Riley, A Change of Light, and Lisa Moore. His music has also been represented on recordings by Icebreaker, So Percussion, Bang on a Can All Stars and Evan Ziporyn. A version of "Wed" (1996) for string quartet is featured on ETHEL's 2012 album Heavy. His scores are published by Red Poppy Music (available from G. Schirmer, Inc.)