Ah, love… it burns, it falters, it fizzles. But it rarely does so with the ethereality of Love Fail, by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang, now released on CD, and featuring the out-of-this-world female voices of Anonymous 4, the acclaimed a cappella quartet so responsible for raising awareness of medieval music to new levels.
Inspired by the tale of the mythical star-crossed lovers Tristan and Isolde, the madrigal-like sounds of Love Fail are devoid of instrumentation (with the exception of hand bells used sporadically to good effect, as well as some scant percussion). It’s constructed of passages both arcane and modern that Lang fashions into a libretto of emotion that explores the theme of love in all its complexity – from desire to obsession, sorrow to irony. (The album’s cover photo, left, is ironic in itself; dating from 1908, its title is “Love’s Reward.”)
Originally conceived for the stage, Love Fail had its premiere at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas in New Haven, Connecticut in 2012, followed by subsequent performances in venues from New York to Los Angeles. Its appearance at UCLA’s Royce Hall was unique for the fact that concertgoers were separated by empty seats, in order to ensure a “rich personal acoustic space,” according to the presenters.
Lang, whose The Little Match Girl Passion composition won the 2008 Pulitzer for music, is well-known for experimentation, and he’s been labeled everything from a minimalist to post-minimalist to conceptualist. His Whisper Opera, which debuted last year, is typical of his unorthodoxy. “What if a piece is just so quiet, it can’t be recorded?” he asked in one interview.
Here, Lang adapts obscure text selections, distilled from the Tristan and Isolde legend, alongside vignettes by the short-story writer Lydia Davis, whom The New Yorker recently called “one of the most original minds in American fiction today.” Davis provides the contemporary sensibility in striking micro-narratives like “The Outing” and especially the wry “Forbidden Subjects,” with its rendering of some of the more quotidian aspects of modern love.
Ultimately, it’s the heavenly voices of the members of Anonymous 4 (Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, Ruth Cunningham, and Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek), that make Love Fail an enveloping experience. I expect the hypnotic repetitions and overlapping harmonics of “He Was and She Was,” which sets the stage as the work’s opening piece, will linger long for many.
Lang ends with “Mild, Light,” a variation on lyrics from the dramatic “Liebestod” aria that concludes Richard Wagner’s opera of Tristan and Isolde, as the heroine faces eternity with her beloved:
Will we just fade?
Buried in the raging storm?
Buried beneath the ringing sound?
Just maybe, love isn’t such a fail after all.