Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The music of David Lang in Chicago

Posted By on 05.29.13 at 04:26 PM

David_Lang_Death_Speaks.jpg
I wasn't able to make it to either of Eighth Blackbird's recent performances at the Museum of Contemporary Art, where the program featured a couple of pieces from composer David Lang's recent recording Death Speaks (Cantaloupe). Singer Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond), guitarist Bryce Dessner (the National), and pianist Nico Muhly all appear on the new album, a song cycle that imagines death as a character, with compositional inspiration coming from the work of Franz Schubert. But after finally getting a chance to hear the recording, I'm ruing that I missed those MCA events even more.

Lang studied more than 600 Schubert songs and isolated the ones that include text personifying death; he then translated the words and recast certain fragments in his own writing, a five-part movement featuring Worden's gorgeous, tremulous voice—at once ethereal and forceful. She's supported by a gentle chamber trio featuring Muhly, Dessner, and violinist Owen Pallett. The CD concludes with the 18-minute piece "Depart," a kind of soothing afterlife expression featuring the multitracked cello playing of Maya Beiser and four wordless vocalists. As I wrote above, I've heard the music only once, but its haunting beauty connected immediately. Below you can hear the first part of the work.

David Lang
  • Peter Serling
  • David Lang
Another new Lang work makes its world premiere this week when The Whisper Opera is performed by International Contemporary Ensemble four times between Thursday and Sunday at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Unfortunately, all performances are sold out. One reason the tickets went so fast is that the MCA theater has been heavily reconfigured for the performance—allowing for only 60 seats per show. According to ICE's website, "This one-of-a-kind work is performed with the musicians, singers, and audience enclosed in an intimate, onstage set. The music and the environment work to convey themes of secrets, and the tension between what we hide and what we choose to reveal."

Yesterday the Sun-Times ran a good story previewing Lang's new work:

"If a piece could be made that is so intimate, so quiet and so delicate that it couldn't be recorded, and it couldn't be videoed and it couldn't be amplified, if it was so tender and emotional and so quiet that you won't hear the text unless you are a foot away from the singer, then there's no way to actually have the experience on the Internet," Lang said. "There's no way to have that experience unless you're live. You have to come to this environment to hear this piece."

Of course, Lang's desired environment is hard and expensive to achieve, and I can't help but applaud this endeavor. It's no secret that technology has made so much of our culture replicable and common—bravo to someone who's trying to retain an air of the rarefied. According to the same story, Lang has prohibited any recording or videotaping of the event.

ICE, which began in Chicago, is in the midst of celebrating its tenth anniversary. Following Sunday's matinee performance of The Whisper Opera, it will hold its second annual Chicago Spring Gala at Longman & Eagle—a benefit event with fancy cocktails and small plates. Tickets aren't cheap, but neither is staging an event like The Whisper Opera.

Today's playlist:

Dexter Gordon, The Resurgence of Dexter Gordon (Jazzland/OJC)
Claudia Aurora, Silêncio (World Village)
Le Mystère Jazz de Tombouctou, Le Mystère Jazz de Tombouctou (Mali Kunkan/Kindred Spirits)
Baris Manço, Dünden Bugüne (Guerssen)
Teddy Charles Tentet, Teddy Charles Tentet (Atlantic, Japan)

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