Morris "Arnie" Lang
by Gordon Gottlieb
Arnie Lang is one of the 'youngest' people I know. Consistently living in the present, possessing a ripe sense of humor, a keen mind, an open fascination and curiosity about so many things, a man who tells you the truth-this is the stuff you want in a best friend.
I love hanging out with Arnie. (One refers to our Hall of Famer as Morris if you've never met, or once familiar, as a term of affection. Arnaldo is also good.) So the prospect of getting together to comb his past for purposes of this article was, of course, a delight, and at the same time, a bit odd. So in between talking about books, movies, jazz, pop, world music, the state of the current New York Philharmonic, and a recent dentist appointment while eating Chinese dumplings and soup, we managed to journey back into an incredibly diverse career.
Arnie grew up in the Bronx, New York, surrounded by many styles of music. He found his way to the drumset, studied with Dan Shilling, and played club dates and shows in the thriving scene in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York, an experience he claims grounded his sense of time and form to this day. A flute player friend suggested the idea of looking into Juilliard, and Arnie's mother called the school, as this was alien territory for Arnie-Charlie Parker, not Charles Ives, concerned him.
Arnie began studying at Juilliard with Morris Goldenberg while still in high school, and one day while playing duets with a fellow student in the hallway, Saul Goodman stepped out of his neighboring room, stood over Arnie, asked who he was, with whom he was studying, and summarily informed him that from the following week forward, Arnie would be studying with him. Thus began a career-making, lifelong relationship.
During his time as a full-time student at Juilliard, Arnie also studied with Billy Gladstone (who'd also loom large in Arnie's career), the infamous instrument inventor and snare drummer at Radio City Music Hall. Arnie's free-lancing at this time included Radio City Music Hall, the New York City Ballet Orchestra, the American Opera Society Orchestra, and many concerts. Eventually he started playing extra percussion with the New York Philharmonic.
There are always great stories about being in the right place at the right time, and serendipity and karma, or just plain luck. But with Arnie, all of the above run together like an art form. (Talent and intelligence obviously play a part as well.) In the summer of 1955, Arnie's ex-wife was performing in summer stock in New Jersey, and anticipating a quiet summer, he offered to babysit their child. So he left his New York apartment (and telephone) behind.
He sent a postcard to Saul Goodman that included his New Jersey phone number, and at the same time took a two-week gig in Washington, D.C., playing Menotti's 'The Saint of Bleecker Street,' an opera he'd already played on Broadway. Meanwhile, Goodman had been trying to contact Arnie about joining the New York Philharmonic on a tour (for which he was too late), and more important, about getting himself back to New York to see the manager of the Philharmonic.
Assuming that this was about auditioning for the orchestra, Arnie began to practice heavily, got back to New York with his case of sticks, and met with the manager, who promptly offered him the position! The 25-year-old was given five dollars over scale and a thirty-week season.
Goodman told Arnie that he was to be assistant timpanist and play primarily cymbals. Arnie had literally never played cymbals. He mentioned this to Goodman, as well as the fact that he owned only a pair of 14-inch hi-hats and a 16- or 18-inch crash/ride. It was clearly time to shop-and learn. He bought some cymbals from his New York Philharmonic predecessor, Art Layfield, went to the Zildjian factory, and started to develop a cymbal collection.
Scene: Arnie's first concert with the New York Philharmonic. Conductor: the legendary Dimitri Mitropoulis, owner of a legendary delayed beat. Music: 'The Star Spangled Banner'-which at this performance featured Arnie in a Bela Lugosi-style set of tails, and a rousing finish to the anthem that went something like this: '...and the home, of the-CRASH!!!-brave.' Things went much better with De Falla's 'The Three Cornered Hat.'
And so, Arnie's 'teachers' were now Mitropoulis and Leonard Bernstein (who were sharing musical directorship), Saul Goodman, and the other members of the New York Philharmonic percussion section: Walter Rosenberger and Eldon 'Buster' Bailey. Lucky guy! Playing inside a section with an impeccable time sense, a collective artistry that was so natural, and a standard that was day-to-day so high, Arnie says now, in retrospect, that he almost took this utopia for granted.
In terms of cymbals, Arnie credits Leopold Stokowski (frequent guest conductor with the New York Philharmonic) with opening his ears and imagination. 'Stoki' offered creative similes, metaphors, and adjectives to describe the sounds he wanted, and Arnie had to practice and find the right sizes, thicknesses, and timbres suggested by the maestro's comments.
For forty years (1955-95) Arnie was part of the New York Philharmonic. He cites Leonard Bernstein as 'the best,' with experiences such as Mahler's 'Second Symphony' with Lenny (Bernstein liked to be addressed informally) positively life-changing. (I can certainly attest to that!) He also enjoyed working with Pierre Boulez, Stokowski, Mitropoulis, and Zubin Mehta. Some favorite tours were a ten-week European tour that included a three-week excursion in Russia (when he was 28), an eight-week tour of South America that included some memorable outdoor concerts in Brazil, and tours of Asia in 1979 and 1984. (We studied tabla together in New Delhi on the '84 tour.)
There are numerous other chapters in the Lang story. As a teacher, he's been associated with the Manhattan School of Music, the New York College of Music, and Kingsborough Community College, but his longest association began in 1971 with a chance encounter with his high school band teacher, Abraham Klotzman, after a Philharmonic concert. Klotzman introduced himself and his wife, Dorothy, who immediately offered Arnie a teaching position at Brooklyn College. (She was chairperson of the music department.) He started a percussion department from scratch, with only the orchestra's four timpani, an old snare drum, and a xylophone with which to work.
Well-he's still teaching there, lots of shopping has taken place since, the percussion ensemble has done four international tours (they were in Ireland this past June), and there have been several high-profile graduates from the program.
At one ensemble concert in Tully Hall, Arnie performed four of the 'Eight Pieces for Kettledrums' of Elliot Carter. After the concert he was approached and asked to record the pieces for Columbia (Sony). One month before the recording, Carter requested that all eight be recorded, so Arnie had a quick month to prepare the remaining four.
Carter has figured throughout Arnie's career. While still a student of Saul Goodman, during a lesson Goodman gave him the then-titled 'Six Pieces for Kettledrums.' Some years later at a contemporary music concert organized by New York Philharmonic players, Arnie performed the 'Recitative' (which is dedicated to Arnie) and 'Improvisation' (only the second performance ever). And Arnie has participated in recordings of Carter's 'Double Concerto' (premiere recording), 'Concerto For Orchestra,' and 'A Symphony for Three Orchestras.'
Then there's Lang the creative entrepreneur, who has the uncanny ability to fill voids. When, for example, around 1976 he took the fresh manuscript of a self-written snare drum book to a mega-publishing company and was asked to scale back his concept, he left the offices and found himself walking down one of New York's larger streets, where he happened upon a store that sold printing presses. He went in, asked how a press works, bought a press, and started the Lang Publishing Company, to not only disseminate his own material, but also compositions by friends. Currently Arnie has eight books on the market, including the seminal Dictionary of Percussion Terms written with Larry Spivack, the ingenious Timpani Tuning, The New Conception (a pivotal book for drumset that was one of the first to codify the notation in use today), 14 Etudes For Mallet Instruments (style studies), and 15 Bach Inventions (transcribed for mallet instruments in duet form). There are some thirty contemporary compositions now distributed by Plymouth Music.
In the 1970s, cane- and rattan-handled mallets became a scarcity, so after seeing a classified ad for cane and rattan, Arnie bought a truckload, had it dumped in his basement, and proceeded to make sure that his students and the rest of the percussion community had such mallets available. (The xylophone-mallet molds were eventually sold to Leigh Stevens and Malletech.)
And then there is Lang Percussion, which maintains improvements upon, and construction of, Goodman timpani (Goodman and Arnie had set up a partnership to do this) and Gladstone snare drums. Arnie has extended the latter to include drumsets, all with the classic look and three-way tuning.
With all these lives, Arnie also enjoys holding his wife Elizabeth's hand and jumping up and down at a Rolling Stones concert; finding incredible restaurants; attending plays, movies, and concerts; spending time with his grandchildren; and being so eternally fresh and present.
Arn: Please forgive me for dwelling a bit on the past; I just thought that folks should know it.
Gordon Gottlieb has had a varied career that has included performing with the New York Philharmonic and Stevie Wonder, recording with Michael Jackson and Steely Dan, playing with an escola de samba in the Carnaval parade in Rio De Janeiro, recording Stravinsky's 'L'Histoire du Soldat' and 'Les Noces' with Robert Craft, and teaching at Juilliard and Yale.