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A drum. A shell. A cymbal. A wooden block. A ratchet. A Glockenspiel. With those few instruments, minimally used, and their golden voices, the women of Anonymous 4 performed David Lang’s exquisite song-cycle, love fail, to a rapt audience in the sanctuary of the First Presbyterian Church in downtown Durham. The venue was another new one for Duke Performances, and the handsome, intimate room with its soaring arches and wonderful acoustics was perfect for the occasion. That such a concert took place there is another testament to Duke Performances director Aaron Greenwald’s imagination and diplomatic skills.
Anonymous 4 made their very considerable reputation singing medieval sacred music. For love fail, they lend their voices to a contemporary distillation of the great medieval story of Tristan and Iseult. As early as the 12th century, itinerant court singers sang the lover’s sad, convoluted tale, one version or another, as they made their way around France and England. Over the centuries, written versions appeared, including that of Gottfried von Strassburg, from whose romance Richard Wagner drew for his libretto to his Tristan und Isolde (1865). In 1900 French scholar Joseph Bédier, also relying heavily on von Strassburg, collated the existing material into a coherent story in book form, later translated into English. Now comes David Lang — he too, looks to von Strassburg, among others — not to tell us the story, exactly, but to carry us through the lovers’ emotional journey with his plangent music and poignant words.
The music is spare, unornamented. The precise proportion of silence to sound; the deliberate placing of sound against sound, and the engrossing repetitions of sound and line make such a pure composition that any ornamental flourishes would be offensive. The voices are so clear — yet they layer up in colors like tissue silk, overlapping into a chromatic glory, punctuated by sharp percussive marks (and one extended clarion note blown from a conch shell). There’s resignation and tristesse in the sounds, but also the glory of ecstasy remembered, and an urgent longing under the calm pacing. At the end of the 8th of the 12 sections, I found myself leaning forward as into a sea wind, tears streaming, undone and redeemed by the beauty and sorrow of love’s enduring lament.
love fail was commissioned from the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lang by a consortium of six presenters, and he wrote it for Anonymous 4. It premiered June 29, 2012, and this was only its fourth public performance. Lang, who ranks among the finest American composers, was in Durham in conjunction with the concert, and both he and the musicians received round after round of applause indicating the music had worked its ecstatic effects on all present.
Anonymous 4 also appeared with John Darnielle in Reynolds Theater on Oct. 6. See our sidebar for details.