“My whole life is a delicate cycle,” sang Kimya Dawson and Aesop Rock on Thursday night at Carnegie's Zankel Hall. This clever song, about growing up with a father who works at a laundromat, was one of many in their series of sweet yet sharp-witted tunes. Their hip-hop duo “The Uncluded” was joined by multi-instrumentalist James Lynch on Thursday night’s concert, the third night of David Lang’s collected stories. The first two nights of the series consisted of long stories: a recitation of Beowulf, an opera with a full cast of hobo characters, a 75-minute Passion. The Uncluded brought variety to the series with what Dr. Lang refers to as “micro-stories”: short pop songs that still managed to convey emotion, character, and of course humor.

Nico Muhly © Matthew Murphy
Nico Muhly
© Matthew Murphy

Kimya Dawson’s lovely, quavering voice was accompanied by her guitar-playing and xylophone-pinging. Aesop Rock, whose spoken word brought  introspection and profanity to the table, never missed a beat. Backing them up was James Lynch on keyboard, melodica, electronics, bass guitar, and ukulele. The combination of vocal and instrumental textures was unique and somehow charming. Even the songs about loss or regret managed to stay upbeat, and the lyrics were never dull. From Edward Scissorhands to Jolly Ranchers to boobs to bats, their micro-stories were full of random references and unexpected moments that continually brought a smile to my face.

In contrast to the humorous first half of the program, the second half was dark and disturbing. Iarla Ó Lionáird presented the theme – the Celtic traditional song The Two Sisters – and Julia Wolfe and Nico Muhly provided variations via two separate compositions based on the folk song. The Two Sisters, about a woman whose bones and hair are strung into a harp after her jealous sister tosses her into the sea, exists in many versions, and the variant sung by Mr Ó Lionáird was titled Cruel Sister. Mr Ó Lionáird’s rendition was hypnotic and solemn. Using sean-nós, a “highly ornamented style of unaccompanied traditional Irish singing”, Mr Ó Lionáird brought the grisly tale to life with the repetitive rise and fall of the central melody. The gruesome lyrics – “They made a harp of her breastbone / Whose sound would melt a heart of stone” – were somberly delivered from beginning to end.

Julia Wolfe’s Cruel Sister, composed in 2004, was the first piece in the concert series to tell a story without words. Instead, Ensemble Signal migrated through the macabre tale with stunning musicality. Conducted by Brad Lubman, the all-string ensemble conveyed the tale so brilliantly that I felt as if I was watching a silent film of the two sisters. Again, elements of repetition mimicked the rise and fall of the waves sweeping the light-haired sister out to sea, such as the tremolos and rapidly repeated notes in the cellos and bass. The violins' high held tones melted perfectly into even higher notes, and during some passages their fingers were so far up the necks of their instruments that I heard somebody comment that “I thought they might saw their hands off!” These extreme violin notes were at times matched by low bass notes, at the opposite end of the spectrum. At another point, the violin section was breathing, inhaling and exhaling and overlapping with each other, while the movement shifted to the other sections. The gradual build-up of sound was barely noticeable as the instruments welded notes onto notes, until I realized that the music had gotten quite loud. The tension continued through the sister’s drowning and the subsequent construction of her bones and hair into a harp. When the heart-wrenching music finally cut off, I was left more than impressed.

Although Ms Wolfe’s work was the high point for me, the audience seemed most enthusiastic about the piece after hers. The evening ended with Nico Muhly’s 2007 composition The Only Tune, whose text consists of the complete song The Two Sisters, spliced up and transformed into a beautiful reworking: “There / there were / there were two / there were two sis” and so on. This was sung by folk musician Sam Amidon, paired with his banjo playing as well as Nadia Sirota on viola and Mr Muhly himself on piano and electronics. Through the fascinating and grotesque opening to the cluttered mélange of looped noises and chords to the more peaceful closing tune, Mr Amidon’s voice mumbled and belted out the story with which we were by now familiar. The climbing and clustering sounds eventually settled out and continued through a final rendering of the folk song, in complete sentences this time. The final recitation, “oh the dreadful wind and rain”, was infused with a sense of loss, of being unsettled, but of underlying love.