death speaks performed by: Shara Worden (vocals), Bryce Dessner (guitar), Owen Pallett (violin), Nico Muhly (piano)
depart performed by: Maya Beiser (multi-tracked cello), Elizabeth Farnum, Katie Geissinger, Alexandra Montano, and Alex Sweeton (voice)
For my ears, one of most striking features of David Lang’s music is its austerity. I have heard interviews with Lang where he speaks about eschewing a specific emotional context for his music and writing music in which the listener provides their own unique emotional response to the work. In other words, Lang tries not to manipulate the listener directly but rather create an aural space in which the listener affects themselves via the music. How well does that tactic work with such an emotionally charged idea as “death speaks?” Quite well, indeed.
The text for the five movements are all drawn from Schubert lieder in which Death speaks to the living. Lang translated the text and worked it to meet his needs as he did with Little Match Girl Passion a few years back. Shara Worden’s voice rides the edge of emotional detachment by giving just the slightest hints of tenderness. Worden’s voice is a testament to “complexity through simplicity.” She does not sing overtly virtuosic melodies; the overall shape of her lines is fairly static but she embues each phrase with subtle power and resonance. Lang’s sparse but constant instrumental textures are extremely colorful and provide a great balance between stasis and activity. The second movement, “I hear you” has vigorous bass accents but otherwise the music simply floats and drifts in consistent yet irregular clouds.
depart achieves the same affectless-affect as death speaks but adds a wonderful edge of tension via the sustained harmonies. Beiser’s cello is omnipresent through the veil of detached voices and as the harmonies build, tension mounts. At times, Lang sits on dominant-functioning harmonies but not once is such a chord resolved in a conventional manner. Lang holds your hand through the build-up of harmonic tension and walks you to the Precipice of Expected Resolution. Once staring over the cliff, though, Lang backs slowly away through a different route and leaves you (or me, anyway) feeling bewildered. But the music keeps going and I’m following him towards the precipice again…