As of this year, the vocal group Anonymous 4 has been introducing modern audiences to medieval music for a quarter century. When the all-female quartet asked David Lang to help mark the occasion by writing them some music, he didn't need any convincing. The Pulitzer Prize-winning composer was already a big fan.
"I really like the fact that they had dedicated themselves to keeping alive this music from 800 years ago," Lang says. "This music is really at the core of a lot of things that we think of and believe still, as musicians today. And I wondered what it would be like to design a project for them that would be about the collision between modern things and the old world where they normally live."
The resulting work, love fail, has its New York premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this evening. Lang drew his inspiration for the piece from the medieval story of the doomed lovers Tristan and Isolde. Their tale has been the subject of music and literature for centuries. Lang has looked at different versions, stripped them to their essence, and juxtaposed them with some writings by contemporary poet Lydia Davis. The result is less a narrative than a series of musings on how mythology and our own relationships today mirror one another.
"The things in our life that cause us to fight with our loved ones, the things that really upset us, the things that really make us miserable, are not dragons and love potions and, you know, betrayed honor and sorcery," Lang says. "They really are things that are much more ordinary and much more normal. And yet because they're ours, they actually have much more power to do damage to us."
As beautiful as Anonymous 4's vocal blend is, Lang says he wanted to find ways to highlight each of the singers over the course of this hourlong piece.
"One of the things that I really wanted to take advantage of was the fact that they're so different individually than they are together," he says. "So there are moments of this piece that have this kind of intense homophony, where they're called upon to blend the way [vocalists] have been blending for 800 years. There are solos and duos and things that really shine lights on them as individual characters. I wrote those specifically for them, not only just as voice types, but also as people."
One of the solos, sung by Anonymous 4 member Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek, comes right before the final moments of the piece. It's called "If I Have to Drown."
"If you're in a relationship with somebody — in a committed relationship with somebody — whatever happens to you happens to them," Horner-Kwiatek explains. "If I have to drown, then you have to drown. If I have to starve, then you have to starve, if God wills it. It's just me — there's no percussion, there's nobody else singing. It's just one of those very direct statements."
While love fail is, at its heart, a concert, Lang has brought several theatrical levels to it. There's a video with medieval imagery, the text is projected, the singers wear costumes and occasionally play percussion instruments, and the light shifts with the musical mood.
"You know, Anonymous 4, they're not actors," Lang says. "They don't want to walk around. You don't want them to talk or play with props ... To me, the things that are most powerful about them are they look at each other while they sing, they smile at each other, they breathe together. Those things should be magnified; those things should be meaningful, you know? And we should see that. We shouldn't do anything, theatrically, that would take away from that."
Ultimately, Lang hopes that audiences will be moved by the universal themes in love fail, whether joyous or sad.
"My love will end, my life will end," he says. "And all the lives and loves of the people around us will. And why shouldn't our art reflect the world we live in and not the world that we remember through mythology?"
that is also the truth –
it is the truth
the wood and the vine
we all know this story
We have heard it before
it was told to us by everyone
and everyone told it to you
a man and a woman
they loved so much
and were so true
and they suffered so much
and on a single day, they died.
their love was forbidden
he went back to the place
where he was born.
but being apart made him
sick with despair.
don't be surprised -
a lover grieves
when love is far away
sadness can make us all
sick with despair
he stayed there for years, until, at last,
he went back,
to get, to try, to hope
to get a message to his love
he hid in the woods
by where she lived
and found a path
where she might walk
he cut a branch and, on it,
he carved a single word -
his name -
and left it on the path
where she might find it.
then she would know the message
and she would know just what the message meant.
later she came along the same path
and saw the piece of wood
she knew exactly what it was
she saw the single word carved upon it
and she knew.
this is what she knew:
this is my message
I send it to you
I have waited for you
I have waited to see you
even now I am waiting for you in the woods
I cannot live without you
I cannot live without you
"you and I -
we are like the vine that winds itself around the branch
it twines and pulls and digs into the flesh,
so tight that the two of them become one
the two become one
if someone pulls the two apart then both will die.
so it is with us, my love, so it is with us.
you cannot live without me.
I cannot live without you.
I cannot live without you.
you cannot live without me."
she went a short way into the woods
and found him
and they wept.
they wept with joy when they were together
and they wept with sadness when they left.
later he remembered the joy and the sadness
and he wrote this song:
"the wood and the vine"
every word is true.