The Light that Shadows Make: David Lang’s death speaks
In the program notes for the song cycle death speaks (recording released on April 30 via Cantaloupe Music) composer David Lang asks, “What would it be like to put together an ensemble of successful indie composer-performers and invite them back into classical music, the world from which they sprang?” Lang answered this rhetorical question with a score written specifically for an elite coterie—guitarist Bryce Dessner of the rock band The National, violinist/vocalist Owen Pallett, pianist Nico Muhly, and My Brightest Diamond frontwoman Shara Worden.
On paper, the premise of an indie/classical experiment is intriguing—but once the album begins, the music itself (thankfully) derails the train of thought that the premise so easily reinforces. Any vestiges of “indie rock” are so thoroughly obscured within in the musicians’ interpretation that the connection is rendered irrelevant at best and distracting at worst. Instead, I believe it is the players’ respective approaches to interpreting songs with intimacy and immediacy that appealed to the composer.
For death speaks, Lang sought inspiration from Franz Schubert’s lieder, many of which make death a tangible character. This source material provides the listener with insight into the unknown world to which death eventually ushers us all. As at the New York premiere of the 26 minute-long work at Zankel Hall on January 27, 2012, Worden’s performance is the work’s greatest revelation. The mezzo-soprano portrays death as a deeply empathetic and misinterpreted figure that bestows peace and provides respite from the ongoing pain that life’s struggles induce.
“I. you will return” immediately sets the tone for the entire song cycle: insistent pizzicato passages interlock with one another to create a tender yet impenetrable music box motif. Vivid and direct, Worden’s voice is the instantaneous focal point around which the instrumental phrases revolve. Her tone is a flash of somber clarity shining through each note sung: “I am your pale companion / I mirror your pain / I was your shadow all those long nights, all those days long past.” With calm fervency, Death entreats the living to come and find rest. In the final movement, “V. I am walking,” Pallett joins Worden in a duet in which the former seems to represent a soul just now departed for its union with death. The vocalists’ timbres are round and blue: “only you can hear me / only you can see me / only you can hear the music / it never stops.” And suddenly, we can no longer hear their song, and the song cycle ends.
Worden first emerged as a notable interpreter of contemporary vocal compositions in 2010 with critically acclaimed performances on Clogs’ The Creatures in the Garden of Lady Walton and Sarah Kirkland Snider’s song cycle Penelope, based on Homer’s Odyssey. Worden’s strength and clarity in the duskier lower range of her voice is well documented in the music of My Brightest Diamond, but the composer opts to employ the equally rich tone of the singer’s upper register to communicate the melodic purity and other-worldliness that is quintessential Lang.
While much can be made of the assembled quartet’s unassailable indie rock credentials—and it is clear that this angle is a huge selling point for the project—the connection between the previous “non-classical” projects of Dessner, Muhly, Pallett, and Worden and their performances on death speaks is completely overblown. Any assertion to the contrary has more to do with the cross-marketing of the indie and classical genres, and has no bearing on the quality of the music itself.
Rather, Bryce Dessner’s additional role as death speaks producer is far more relevant to the idea of indie/classical interplay. The entire recording emits the kind of dark ambiance and precise, ear-grabbing timbres that have made recent recordings from Dessner’s bands The National and Clogs so engaging. The composer-guitarist also co-wroteThe Long Count, a 2009 multimedia song cycle that featured Worden. Dessner’s predilection for music that slowing unfolds from terse melodic fragments into dense harmonic textures is a perfect fit for Lang’s restrained sense of pacing and emotionally effusive themes. The album officially closes with depart, a meditative 18-minute work composed for cellist Maya Beiser, who is joined by vocalists Elizabeth Farnum, Katie Geissinger, Alexandra Montano, and Alex Sweeton (the track is produced by composer Eve Beglarian).
The album release of death speaks precedes several prominent performances, including a May 12 concert at the Barbican and a Green Umbrella Series concert at the L.A. Phil on April 8, 2014.
Daniel J. Kushner is an arts journalist and opera librettist who swoons anytime he hears the phrase “creative collaboration.” Follow him on Twitter: @danieljkushner.