"I don't even like vocal music. I'm far more interested in words than I am with music." - David Lang
David Lang has long been one of our most haunting, mesmerizing composers. He writes slow-moving music that burrows under your skin and stays there, for days or even weeks. Still, for most of his adult life, Lang has been best known as one of the founders of Bang on a Can: the down-to-earth collective of new music troublemakers that celebrated their 25th anniversary this year.
Things changed for David in 2007, when he won the Pulitzer Prize for the little match girl passion, a 30-minute retelling of the Hans Christian Anderson story about a girl who freezes to death while trying to sell matches on the street. The work, written for for Paul Hillier's Theater of Voices, combined a vocal quartet with occasional percussion, notably a deeply resonating bass drum that struck an ominous, atavistic tone.
Lang returned to the sound world of match girl last week at BAM's Harvey Theater with the New York Premiere of love fail: an evening-length song cycle based on the star-crossed love story of Tristan and Isolde. Commissioned by Anonymous 4—the celebrated female quartet best known for their performances of ancient music—Lang strung together obscure takes on Tristan by everyone from the 12th-century poet Gottfried von Strassburg to Richard Wagner, whose well-known opera served less as role model for love fail than as something to assiduously avoid.
In an attempt to modernize the 1,000-year-old Tristan legend, Lang alternates the historical texts (which Lang himself translated) with verse by Lydia Davis, who also provided the text to his earlier song cycle, this condition (2000). At the center of love fail is the devastating "Head/Heart," which rings all-too-true for anyone who's been in the throes of a bad breakup.
“Heart weeps. Head tries to help heart. Head tells heart how it is, again: You will lose the ones you love. They will all go. But even the earth will go, someday. Heart feels better, then. But the words of head do not remain long in the ears of heart...”
Vocally, the veteran singers of Anonymous 4 (Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, Ruth Cunningham, and Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek) were stunning, their voices blending like a finely woven tapestry. As with match girl, the singers each doubled on a variety of percussion instruments, including xylophone, wood blocks, and that same foreboding bass drum. Less successful were their house-frau costumes (designed by Suzanne Bocanegra), which looked like leftovers from a Mormon rummage sale.
Lang himself directed the staging - his directing debut - which projected the text on a scrim behind the singers while live-action footage of mute performers in pseudo-Egyptian costume were projected overhead. (Jim Findlay designed both the set and video.) In a post-performance conversation with John Schaefer, Lang insisted that despite how much he enjoyed the process, he has no ambitions to become a regular director.
"I just felt that this piece was so fragile," Lang said, "I needed to speak directly to the artists, rather than though someone else."
I suppose, then, it's just a coincidence that Wagner decided to direct his own production of Tristan after several earlier attempts. Not to mention write his own libretto.