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David Lang

this was written by hand

Cantaloupe Music, 2011


Emboldened by my first contact with Julia Wolfe, I made my way to New York and the Bang on a Can Marathon – a whole-day free concert event for new music. I had ready, in my bag, sketches for a cover for David Lang’s release this was written by hand. In the middle of the chaos of the World Financial Center Winter Garden, where the marathon was in full progress and David was in high demand, I made my little pitch of the cover idea and he approved it. I was very happy; I was still very conscious of my embarrassment from the first time I showed David my cover artwork.

He wrote the piano piece this was written by hand with a simple idea. He wanted to write it with a pencil (instead of a computer), as he did back when he was taught to write music, to see if the physical act of writing would have any effect on the music. The other work on this release, memory pieces, consists of 8 short piano pieces, each written for a friend who had passed away.

In his notes for memory pieces, David Lang writes ‘The true horror is that after a while your memories begin to fade. How long can you hold on to the sound of a voice, the memory of a strange event, a bitter-sweet feeling, a silly story?’ It was important for me that the graphic was sensitive to the sadness inherent in these works. The other thing was – with the release being titled this was written by hand – the title on the cover would surely need to be handwritten.

I started out by writing the title text out on sheets of paper with different kinds of pencils. I was going through my many attempts when I noticed the marks the writing made on the unused sheets underneath. The physical act of pressing a pencil to paper left indentations, like memories. I used my fingers to rub charcoal onto the paper around the traces of the words so that they became visible again, now reversed as white text on a smudged black background.

The process was messy and I ended up covering many surfaces with my black fingerprints. These too, I ended up incorporating into the final design.

I had thought the charcoal black would be an appropriate colour but David, wary of the CD looking too mournful, requested some colour variation. It was his idea to add a little blue into the black so that it resembled the colour of carbon paper – another kind of imprinting process: ‘since the whole disc is about memory what better thing to represent it than a once ubiquitous and now forgotten technology?’

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