David Lang’s love fail, an incredible interpretation of the timeless Tristan and Isolde tale, graced the ears of all those present last night at the recently-renovated BAM Harvey Theater (remember those agonizing seats? Yikes!). Mr Lang’s non-narrative non-opera, composed for the all-female a cappella quartet Anonymous 4, miraculously limns nearly 1,000 years of tortured human relationships – with a minimum of means. The twelve sections are drawn from various historical tellings of the Tristan and Isolde story as well as contemporary stories unrelated to the legend. The four singers were accompanied sporadically by sparse percussion effects, and amplified only by mics hidden beneath their music stands. Suzanne Bocanegra’s costumes were fittingly unostentatious and Jennifer Tipton’s lighting was subtle and careful. The only problematic aspect of the experience was the video projection towering behind the stage, which felt tacky and overbearing in combination with such pure sounds and words. The floating, blinking faces of the disjointed video clips unnecessarily assigned cheesy depictions to texts that were better left to each individual’s wandering imagination.

Anonymous 4 in love fail © Rahav Segev
Anonymous 4 in love fail
© Rahav Segev

The texts, taken from Gottfried von Strassburg, Marie de France, Richard Wagner, Lydia Davis, and others, varied from heartbreaking to hilarious. The section “forbidden subjects” (from Lydia Davis’ Varieties of Disturbance), enumerates the many topics a struggling couple cannot approach in conversation with each other: his working hours, her working hours, rabbits, mice, dogs, certain foods, certain universities, and so on. Though seemingly lighthearted, the text actually does correlate with the mythical figures of Tristan and Isolde within the context of the work. Mr Lang’s interpretation is more of a mosaic than a linear story, avoiding the use of proper names and any details that might anchor his work to a specific era or setting. As he recently explained in an interview with fellow composer Nico Muhly, “... our [modern] lives can be pretty miserable too, so let’s pay attention to that.” With “forbidden subjects”, “head, heart”, and others of Ms Davis’ words, the audience was reminded that we don’t have to live vicariously through the tragic characters of a 1000-year-old legend to be woeful in love: we can manage dissatisfaction and heartbreak perfectly well on our own, even so many centuries later.

Mr Lang’s music was as brilliant as the unconventional manner in which he told (or rather, retold) the story. Mr Lang is well-known in the contemporary music world for his Pulitzer Prize-winning Little Match Girl Passion, as well as for being a co-founder, along with Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe, of Bang on a Can (arguably the coolest classical music organization to emerge from New York City). He has been labelled a “post-minimalist” but his output is mostly conceptual, dodging any specific genre or category. Mr Lang has a dexterity for realizing the spatial and acoustical possibilities of live performance; he is currently working on a “whisper opera”. love fail offers a warmly glowing, sometimes flickering experience: the four voices and occasional percussion resounded through the Harvey Theater like candlelight illuminating a hallowed ancient space.

Writing about a group of vocalists is, for me, somewhat akin to attempting to critique a group of acrobats. Despite the best efforts of my Harmony & Counterpoint instructors, singing remains a struggle, so it wasn’t a surprise that I was absolutely floored by the stunningly talented members of Anonymous 4: Ruth Cunningham, Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, and Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek. Their elegant layering of harmonies, syncopated and then in rhythmic unison, in the opening segment (“he was and she was”) gave me chills. Mr Lang’s score required them to merge a unique range of soundworlds, creating an atmosphere simultaneously modern and reminiscent of ancient medieval song, neatly packaged as an outlandish yet unassuming four-part chorale. Throughout the hour-long work, the four singers colored the music with emotion and conviction in a performance that was remarkable, if not acrobatic.