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David Lang: Living in pain with great beauty

“There’s enough beauty in the world,” declared David Lang in a recklessly unguarded moment prior to the New York premiere of his new, hour-long work love fail,  written for the vocal quartet Anonymous 4.

But what does the world need if not beauty? What this singular composer is ready to supply, though, seems to be something for which the right words haven’t been invented. How appropriate to an artist who is constantly challenging conventional vocabularies to the breaking point.

This new work, premiered in June in New Haven and with a Brooklyn Academy of Music performance on Dec. 6, riffs on the legend of Tristan and Isolde – the soaring love that contains the seeds of its own demise – and musically consolidates the breakthrough represented by the little match girl passion, which won Lang the 2008 Pulitzer Prize and thrust him beyond the downtown new-music ghetto.

What consolidation means in Lang’s world of un-beauty is this: In his treatment of the Tristan and Isolde legend, Lang once again set lists to music, though ones with greater poetic precision and relevance to the piece as a whole. The music had bits of his trademark bumper-cars counterpoint in which notes and ideas bounce off and sometimes echo each other but never ricochet very far.

Anonymous 4 can handle just about anything a composer can dream of. But Lang never abused that privilege, often creating solid textures based on two of the voices holding long notes while a third voice sang an animated, intuitively-inflected vocal setting of the text, leaving the fourth voice to pointillistically highlight what sometimes seemed like words randomly plucked from the verse. Knowing how Lang’s music works – and knowing that while you’re listening to it – in no way decreases its mystique.

The piece is divided into 12 sections – you’ll notice I didn’t say “songs” because they’re not that formal – that draw freely from Tristan and Isolde-related texts through the ages, as well as modern prose-poems by Lydia Davis that could be about most any relationship. Rather than trying to encompass the elemental, undefinable magnetism between two human beings (as did Wagner in Tristan und Isolde), Lang took more of a mosaic approach, with flashes of revelation, some direct and others oblique, that penetrate the heart of the matter perhaps better than Wagner. After all, Lang isn’t preoccupied with any duty to exterior beauty. The strength of his compositional personality is such that he ended his piece with Wagner’s text for the “Liebestod,” yet his music that didn’t sound or feel remotely Wagnerian.

Chosen and partly written by Lang, the texts jump between all sorts of periods, writing styles and philosophical viewpoints. He began with a list of descriptive characteristics of Tristan and Isolde, going on to give alternate versions of the legend, describing them weeping for joy when together, weeping in sorrow when not, as well as acknowledging the cooling process as lovers begin tiptoeing around each other, thinking that they can maintain the magic if they just don’t upset the apple cart. “I live in pain,” originally written for the Philadelphia choir The Crossing and an unflinching portrait of romantic grief, is reprised here and slots in perfectly.

You might wonder how such a melange could be a narrative. Well, linear logic isn’t a high priority. Instead, Lang commands one’s attention if only by leaving you gobsmacked by what comes next.

The long-term musical arc is a journey into simplicity, though without any decline in musical sophistication. Besides directing the singers to use percussion instruments (mostly quietly, even the bass drum and high-hat), the voices are colored by subtle electronic reverberation, often making a line ripple as if in quiet pond.

The singing was up to Anonymous 4’s customary standard; I hope that doesn’t intimidate other groups who might consider performing this splendid work. However, the A4 presence alone guaranteed that the composer would, on at least one level, fail himself. Beyond the vocal luster of the singers, there’s great beauty in the poetic distillation of words and music. So he added to the beauty of the world. Despite himself?



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