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love fail by David Lang (review)

From: Arthuriana
Volume 23, Number 2, Summer 2013
pp. 74-75 | 10.1353/art.2013.0016

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The following review is based on the November 28, 2012 performance in Washington, D.C. sponsored by the Kennedy Center Fortas Chamber Music Concerts.

This composition, inspired by the story of Tristan and Iseult, who are never actually named, is a collaboration between the Pulitzer Prize winning music composer David Lang and the female vocal group Anonymous 4 (Ruth Cunningham, Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, and Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek), celebrated for their a cappella renditions of medieval music. When the group asked Lang to compose a piece to mark their twenty-fifth anniversary, he designed a project for them that would be ‘a collision between modern things and the old world where they normally live’ (National Public Radio, Morning Edition [Dec. 7, 2012]).

One way of understanding Lang’s project is to compare it with the one conceived of by Joel Cohen for his Boston Camarata in 1987 (Tristan & Iseult), which retells the legend using excerpts from the various medieval versions set to music, along with courtly lyrics from the works of Jean Bodel, the Contessa de Dia, Guiraut de Borneilh, and Conan de Béthune. Although Cohen uses only medieval sources, Wagner’s influence is felt in the fact that the story begins with the consumption of the potion and underscores how the love passion so ignited holds the lovers in its thrall until their death.

Lang, in contrast, although he includes Isolde’s final aria from Wagner’s opera, seeks to downplay the dramatic, ‘mythical’ element of the legend and begins his retelling by juxtaposing the birth of the passion with its dissipation just three years later when the effects of the potion wane. (Lang ignores the fact that the lovers continue to be bound by their passion right up until their death, if not beyond.) The idea of ‘LOVE ETERNAL’ is thus replaced by the decidedly lower-case ‘love fail.’ But Lang claims that he is not so interested in failed love, per se, as in ‘how we surround ourselves with things that distract us from seeing ourselves clearly. We wallow in the gaudy, hyperbolic, unbelievable story of the doomed love of Tristan and Isolde because it distracts us from seeing our own much more ordinary suffering—that our own loves are doomed, that we are our own tragic heroes. The confrontation between the gigantic, hyper-real suffering of mythic characters and the much more humble, plainspoken suffering of real people is the core of the piece’ (Carroll Tobias, ‘The Thrilling Multimedia Collaborations of “love fail” Composer David Lang’ [Dec. 6, 2012] http://www.flavorwire.com/353489/the-thrilling-multimedia-collaborations-of-love-fail-composer-david-lang; accessed May 1, 2013).

The idea of alluding to the lovers without naming them came to Lang when he noticed that the heroine is not named in Marie de France’s Chevrefoil, but referred to only as ‘she.’ (Actually, Marie calls her ‘the Queen’ as well.) When the composer decided to extend this ‘unnaming’ to everything—persons, places, eras—he was reminded of Lydia Davis’ stories. The tone is set with the initial segment, called ‘he was and she was,’ which, though, supposedly adapted from Gottfried, might as well have come from Davis.

The result of this collaboration involving ancient and contemporary sources and their modern interpreters is, as Lang notes, ‘less a narrative than a series of musings on how mythology and our own relationships today mirror one another’ (NPR interview). If it works, it is because the performance by Anonymous 4 is what Donald Brown calls ‘a stunning exercise in vocal precision, polyphony, overlapping voices, and hypnotic variations on simple lyrics’ (Donald Brown, ‘Remote Happiness: David Lang’s “love fail” is a meditation on love,’ http://www.newhavenreview.com/index.php/2012/06/remote-happiness-david-langs-love-fail-is-a-meditation-on-love/; accessed May 1, 2013). To his credit, Lang appreciates not only the quartet’s exquisite vocal blend but also the quite different voices of the individual singers, which he seeks to highlight at various points through solos and duos. Commenting on the power of their performance style, he says ‘…they look at each other while they sing, they smile at each other, they breathe together...

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