The source of the title is a story told in 18th-century Europe about the Chinese Imperial family. It was said, among the colonial powers, that the Chinese ate the brains out of living monkeys. Actually, this is but one example of the many rumors, lies, and insults which preceded armed conflict between East and West. Some of these now seem funny, and most are quite brutal.
David Lang says, "In my piece, it is not important to hear how families of instruments act out this cultural friction, although that is, in fact, how the work is made. One lesson of the story is that, in history, horror and humor are often joined. My work tries to find the line that separates the two, and perhaps even crosses it."
Eating Living Monkeys is dedicated to Hans Werner Henze and The Cleveland Orchestra, who gave its premiere in a slightly different version. Parts of this work appeared in the earlier Flaming Youth, the first work commissioned by the New York Youth Symphony for its award-winning First Music program.