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Anonymous 4 sings the legend of Tristan and Isolde according to David Lang

Cover of the recording being discussed
Cover of the recording being discussed
courtesy of ClassicsOnline

At the end of last May, Cantaloupe Music released a recording of love fail, a cantata by David Lang first performed with staging at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas in New Haven on June 29, 2012. The performers were the vocalists of Anonymous 4: Ruth Cunningham, Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, and Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek. The composition is a meditation on the legend of Tristan and Isolde that draws on a wide variety of text sources for this tale, going all the way back to Thomas of Britain and Béroul from the second half of the twelfth century up through the English-language reworking of Richard Wagner’s text for Isolde’s Liebestod (love-death), which concludes his opera Tristan und Isolde. (That English version also concludes love fail.) Within this fabric of sources, Lang then interwove five of the “miniature stories” of Lydia Davis.

This encounter between Lang and Anonymous 4 does not, on the surface, seem like a comfortable fit. Anonymous 4 has a reputation for a quality of musicianship matched only by the seriousness of their approach to scholarship. As I have previously observed, their name may be based on a joke; but it is a joke that will only be recognized by those pursuing the study of source documents concerned with music from the Middle Ages. On the other hand, the three paragraphs that Lang provided for the booklet accompanying the Cantaloupe recording are, to put it as politely as possible, casual. It is sufficient to let one of his sentences speak for itself (case as in the original):

I based my words on scraps of the text I found on the internet—thank you google translate!

To be fair, Wagner’s opera was not exactly a paragon of medieval scholarship, owing far more to Arthur Schopenhauer and his own illicit affair with Mathilde Wesendonck than to any efforts at literary scholarship. We have been willing to accept Tristan und Isolde on its own terms for over 150 years. What are the “terms” of love fail?

One of the things that struck me about Lang’s “The Little Match Girl Passion” the first time I listened to it was that he had a keen ear for narration. He seemed to understand, even if only intuitively, the role that voice plays in the telling of a story; and, in “Little Match Girl,” he had successfully captured that critical “role of voice.” Between the techniques that Lang summoned to set the disparate text sources of love fail and Anonymous 4’s interpretation of those techniques, the music stands as an excellent telling of the Tristan tale in 21st-century terms and language. Within this setting Lang then introduced Davis’ deliberately convoluted texts, trying to untangle them for the ear through some ingenious uses of counterpoint (hocket being by far the most fascinating).

Fortunately, I do not have to worry about whether, 150 years from now, love fail will receive as much attention as Tristan und Isolde does today. (I don’t even have to worry about whether Wagner will still be a major figure in repertoire 150 years from now.) In the “immediate present” there is much to engage the mind of the attentive listener in love fail, perhaps even so much that it matters little to me whether I shall ever have an opportunity to see this work in a staged version.