David Longstreth

5 questions to Dave Longstreth

»I know that mankind can –and must – change things! The lead singer of Dirty Projectors talks about his first orchestral work and our responsibility towards nature.

A new »Song of the Earth« – more than 100 years after Gustav Mahler's famous song cycle, Dave Longstreth presents his »Song of the Earth in Crisis« as part of the Elbphilharmonie Summer. Composed for experiment-loving Berlin orchestral collective Stargaze, this is the first full-length orchestral work by the Dirty Projectors lead singer.

»Our relationship to the Earth has altered dramatically since Mahler's ›Lied von der Erde‹ was first performed. So I thought it was time to give new expression to the idea« – thus the American musician. Just before the first performance, Longstreth talks about his connection to Mahler, about the unique expressive potential of music and his hope that man and nature will manage to coexist in greater harmony.


You took inspiration for your own composition from Mahler's famous song cycle »Das Lied von der Erde«. The music of Mahler's time obviously sounded very different. What kind of connection do you nonetheless feel to composers like Gustav Mahler?

Music is extraordinary because writing and playing it is sort of like being able to share the fabric of a dream. And I think dreams have longevity because they’re rarely from their own time to begin with – they come straight from the deepest, oldest circuitry in the human operating system. Getting airdropped into Mahler’s dreams is quite intense because of how vivid they are, how profuse the activity on the ground, how wildly sophisticated the language. I love that time in an unfamiliar-familiar place – it’s a gift that reacquaints me with my own world.


»Song of the Earth in Crisis« is your first large-scale work for a »classical« orchestra. What special challenges or chances did this present you with?

Without even realizing it, my internal voice had begun speaking in a very regionally-specific dialect. Having the opportunity to write for the chamber orchestra popped open a compositional larynx which had been ever so slightly constricting.  

The experience has allowed me to reimagine the way I write in every way!  I’m so grateful to André de Ridder for his years of conversation and encouragement around making this happen – and to the Elbphilharmonie for premiering the work! 


Should we understand your music as an appeal?

I have a deep love of nature and a reverence for the idea of wilderness. I have a sense of the sanctity of wild places, and a hope for a more harmonious relationship between the planet and the humans who trample its surface and lord over its myriad species. I love the endless inventiveness of humanity and the boundless plasticity of our culture-making minds. And I hate the destructive and avoidable dead-end path we currently find ourselves on. I know we can and must change.  

These are personal convictions, but they do have political implications, because the stakes are collective. We’re in it together whether we accept that or not.  

David Longstreth David Longstreth © Jason Frank Rothenberg

»Hope will allow us to persevere and meet the crisis.«


How do you depict in music the crisis the earth is in?

I’ve really tried to follow Mahler’s example. His »Lied von der Erde« is suffused with duality.  Its musical features – the agnostic stance toward diatonicism, the constant major/minor modal mixture, the generally kaleidoscopic tone and texture – have the feeling of one long Liebestod: is this a state of crisis or a state of bliss?  

The libretto gives us, on the one hand, the young people in their fine silks writing poetry and drinking tea in the pavilion; on the other, the pungent decay of autumn leaves at the water’s edge, the hoarfrost on the branch tips. Impermanence is everything; growth and decay exist simultaneously – brightness, fertility, delight, hope, spiritual reflection, emptiness, nothingness, urgent inevitability of death! That all feels very familiar to me.

How else can one aestheticize the anthropocene – its unprecedented species and habitat loss, its transformation of the planet’s surface into a self-similar grid of parking lots, shopping centers and shipping lanes, the unavoidable immiseration of most human and animal life – than with fraught dissonance and relentless deconstruction?

And yet, that’s not the music I wrote. I don’t understand why. But toward the end of my process, I realized it wasn’t a song of the earth in crisis – but a song of the earth: a paean to the planet and the people – a prayer of hope that we can get our shit together!

Five weeks of concerts from classical to pop!


Does your music still contain some hope?

Yes! It seems like remaking human society, culture and economics at a global scale in a way that’s sustainable for eight to ten billion of us will require absolutely everything humanity is capable of. But hope, like dreams and the proclivity to make music, is a quirk of evolutionary hardwiring. Hope will allow us to persevere and meet the crisis – it’s our only option.

Interview: Julika von Werder

last updated: 12.07.2021

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