France Honors David Lang and Tim Griffin

October 19, 2015 | By French Culture

On Friday, October 16, 2015, Cultural Counselor Bénédicte de Montlaur honored David Lang, the acclaimed composer, and Tim Griffin, Director and Chief Curator of The Kitchen, the with the insignia of Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. The award was presented in an intimate ceremony at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York City.

Dear friends,

As Cultural Counselor of the French Embassy it is my pleasure to welcome you here tonight as we celebrate two outstanding cultural figures, composer David Lang and curator Tim Griffin.

David and Tim, through your work you bring artists, artistic traditions, and communities together. You each distill diverse artistic influences and define a new creative space that is all your own.

As a composer, David investigates sound and its environment in the broadest sense. He brings together traditions as diverse as minimalism, jazz and opera, challenging our notions of what music can be.

As a curator, Tim watches and listens closely. He gathers disparate artists and artworks together opening them to new interpretations and contexts. Tim is dedicated to a notion of art as a way to build communities and to act in the social world. 

___

I turn first to David, but before I begin I would like to welcome your wife, Suzanne Bocanegra, herself a renowned visual artist, and your children, Theodora and Judah who are here today

David, I know this is not your first time at the French Embassy. You gave a memorable performance here once in tandem with the Sö Percussion quartet. So we welcome you back tonight, this time in celebration of the many such performances, collaborations, and recordings that amount to a rich and complex musical career.

 As a composer, you convey impeccable technique but you are not simply a virtuoso. Your pieces are part of an ongoing experiment in music. You originally went to university with the intention of studying science. Well, your music reflects many scientific instincts: curiosity, and a craving for new discoveries that will fundamentally change our modes of thinking. 

About a century ago in Paris, composers like Erik Satie were asking themselves, “What can we bring to music that’s different, that hasn’t been done before?” Satie answered this question with his avant-garde compositions, producing the bewildering Gymnopedies, a precursor to minimalist music.  

Like Satie, and many of your musical predecessors, your intense engagement with the craft has fueled your innovation. Your inquisitive, disruptive tendencies culminated in founding the Bang on a Can music collective in 1987, with fellow composers Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon.

With Bang on a Can, you broke down the barriers between different musical genres. You created a space where classical, rock, jazz, modernist and experimental music could clash and harmonize. As composer Steve Reich puts it, you and your friends “became leaders of the next generation  drawing more and more listeners world-wide into this new music.”

Your unique conception of music earned you a Pulitzer Prize in 2008, for your album little match girl passion inspired by a Danish fairy tale, performed in the style of Catholic religious music. Your work immersed the listener in a world of darkness, death and hope. Your approach challenges and changes the forms music can take in the 21st century.

France has served as a studio for some of your most ingenious projects. It was in France where you first took on a classic subject of artistic inspiration, death, and channeled it in an entirely new way.  One of the first composers to participate in a French public arts initiative called Nouveaux Commanditaires de la Fondation de France, you faced a challenge that was bizarre, macabre and unique: to transform the morgue of the Raymond Poincaré hospital in France into a more soothing space for people to bid goodbye to their loved ones. Your composition, Depart, made the morgue a place of greater comfort, while still respecting the somber quality of its function.

By the way, David has graciously brought us CDs of this which will be distributed on your way out. 

Your original work has graced musical pantheons from all around the world, from the New York Philharmonic to the concert halls of Munich. But what’s fascinating is how your compositions challenge the very idea of such a musical establishment. You’ve composed entire operas to be played in a room of 10 people. You’ve written choral music to be shouted outside by thousands. You understand that music is not merely a series of notes on a page, but rather part of a greater context. And thus, you’ve created a radical reworking of the musical experience.

Given your pioneering artistic spirit and endless vision, it’s no surprise that you’ve had a great impact on many artists around the world. Several French choreographers have been fortunate to work with you, a fusion of artistic energies leading to brilliant outcomes. You have frequently composed for dancer and choreographer Benjamin Millepied and together you created an original ballet called Plainspoken in 2010 for the New York City Ballet. 

Meanwhile, you’re an icon for a young generation of composers in France such as Sebastian Roux, who similarly have an open spirit for music, with an eagerness to try everything, and the determination to settle for nothing.

Surprising juxtapositions and daring collaborations are an integral part of the history of music in France. David, you embody this spirit of openness and creativity. Perhaps one of the most telling signs of this spirit is your relationship to your audience. And—in a manner that is rare for an avant-garde musician—you make an effort to speak with your audiences. You help audiences understand and engage with your work with intelligence, generosity, and, I hear, a great sense of humor! 

A sometimes rebel, a tireless talent, you breathe new life into music in s 21st century. For all of these reasons and more, it is my honor to present you with this award.

Cher David Lang, au nom du gouvernement français, je vous fais Chevalier dans l’Ordre des arts et des lettres.  

___

 

And now, we turn our attention to someone who actively seeks out and showcases talents like David, someone who discovers and defines the groundbreaking artists, performers, filmmakers, writers, art historians of our generation. That someone is, of course, Tim Griffin.

A warm welcome to your wife, Johanna Burton, Director and Curator of Education and Public Engagement at the New Museum. And welcome to your son, Sid, who is here to support his Dad and to bring down the average age in the room tonight!

Before I begin, I would like to take a moment to say a few words about the late Chantal Akerman. Tim , I know she was both a dear friend and a colleague, you presented her work on several occasions at The Kitchen, you also wrote about her work during your time at Artforum. In a tribute, Nicola Mazzanti, director of the Royal Belgian Film Archive, beautifully and concisely captured her spirit when he said “she breathed through her films. She was cinema.” And this is undoubtedly how she will be remembered.

Tim, many of you may know Tim as Director and Chief Curator of The Kitchen, one of New York’s oldest and most celebrated non-profit performance and gallery spaces.

What you may not know is that Tim has played the trumpet and produced for theatre. He has degrees in literature, and also writes poetry. He is a true Renaissance Man! This impressive array of talents and interests should come as no surprise to those who know him well. Tim is a man of tireless curiosity whose wide-ranging interests and expertise is integral to all of the work that he does, from his days at ArtForum to his current position at The Kitchen. Since the 1970’s, The Kitchen has been haven for experimental art, a space that has welcomed everyone from Yoko Ono to Robert Mapplethorpe. And not surprisingly, David Lang!

Tim, since your arrival at The Kitchen in 2011 you have initiated some the venue’s most dynamic programming to date. You transformed the space into a brilliant art hub, an incubator of ideas. You opened it up and made multidisciplinary shows erupt, combining music, installation, and performance. You broad knowledge and critical edge breathed fire into the Kitchen and lit it up on New York’s cultural landscape.

Throughout your career, you developed many connections with French culture. Tim, you make no secret of your intellectual roots extending back to your days as an undergraduate at Columbia University. There, you encountered French philosopher Sylvère Lotringer, a thinker who has written extensively on art and aesthetics. I think that philosophical spirit has remained present in all of your endeavors since then.

Lotringer raves about your supernatural foresight in the art world. In 2008 you presented a talk at SVA that focused on art and money. You showed how the mediums interact and are influencing one another in new ways.

Eerily, just two months later, the financial crisis ravaged our economy. It was as if you could see our cloudy skies in this crystal globe.

Your vision—otherworldly and brilliant as it is—was certainly apparent in through your tenure at ArtForum, the prestigious art and art criticism magazine. You were appointed Editor-in-Chief in 2003, at just 33 years old, but your precociousness and intellectual maturity must have shone through. You transformed ArtForum into more of an ideas-based publication, a space where art criticism expanded to include social, political and intellectual movements.

I’m told that during your time at Artforum, that your coverage of French culture was really quite impressive. Some of the more prominent subjects addressed during your tenure include, a feature on Philippe Parreno and Douglas Gordon’s Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, another on French artist Guy de Cointet, to name a few.

 In 2008, you created an entire issue dedicated to the upheavals of May 1968 in France.  It was a rare and insightful approach to one of the most transformative political events in French history, and its artistic ramifications.  It was also a fine example of that blend of creativity and restraint that makes you so good at what you do.

Under your leadership, Artforum also became a space where you turned art criticism on it its head. Imbued with the spirit of Roland Barthes, you reflected on the theory of criticism itself, and the philosophical significance of assessing a work of art or an artistic movement. And your love of philosophy, especially French philosophy, permeated throughout. ArtForum helped introduce American audiences to a new wave of French theorists, such as Alain Badiou and Jacques Rancière, with sometimes entire issues devoted to these thinkers. So on behalf of the French government, I really need to thank you, for putting the spotlight on these figures in such a unique and compelling way!

Tim, this is not your first time at the French Embassy either!  Through the Kitchen, you have collaborated with us at  the Cultural Services a number of times. First, for a co-exhibition of the works of Swiss artist Olivier Mosset. And we remember that very well, not only because it was a great success, but also because the exhibition featured Harley Davidson motor cycles. In this very ballroom, four spectacular motorcycles were lined up for over a month!

You also arranged The Kitchen’s participation in two programs initiated by the French Embassy in 2014 called DANSE: A French-American Festival of Performance and Ideas and Art2 : An International Platform on Contemporary Art. In doing so, you allowed French and American artists and audiences to continue the cross-cultural conversation.

Of course, your philosophical ways have filtered into your work everywhere you go. As part of French Embassy’s Art2 festival last spring, you held a symposium on “The New Existentialism”, in which you created an opportunity to examine the ideas of French thinkers such as Patricia Falguières, Patrice Maniglier, Emily Apter, and Tristan Garcia. And you have a book coming out soon on the same subject, which will be co-published by us at the French Cultural Services, and Les presses du réel. And it’s wonderful to see this latest expression of your deeply reflective and inquisitive mind.

There is one more thing I’d like to mention about the Kitchen, though. And that is, The Kitchen was very badly damaged by the floods of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. And while you were a newcomer to your role then, you displayed incredible leadership in seeking the funds to repair the damage. And because you are so humble, you are unlikely to say it yourself, but you have played a crucial role in keeping this unique space alive.

I’d like to quote a line from one of your poems, entitled “Cointet”, in reference to the artist. You write, "But it's hard to say when a conversation starts or is finished; you realize only when you get on to another one.” Well I don’t know if what you’re bringing to The Kitchen represents a single conversation or many, but what I do know is that you’re enhancing the cultural dialogue every day with your work there.

 Tim, you have brought French art and philosophy to new audiences and new frontiers. You keep the global artistic community thriving. You touch all of those around with your generosity of spirit. So it is my great honor to present you with this award tonight. Sartre didn’t like to accept awards, but Camus did, so I’m happy you’re taking the cue from the latter Existentialist tonight.

 Cher Tim Griffin, au nom du gouvernement français, je vous fais Chevalier dans l’Ordre des arts et des lettres. 

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