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David Lang

Death Speaks

[Cantaloupe ; 2013]

By ; September 10, 2013 

Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOG

In David Lang’s world less is definitely more. On his 2009 release, The Little Match Girl Passion, he reinvented a Hans Christian Andersen short story and modelled it around Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, using just four voices and some occasional percussion. It hit hard, and still does; much like the composer and author whose work he reinvented, it’s a timeless piece of music. Carnegie Hall and Stanford Lively Arts commissioned another piece to go with performances of The Little Match Girl Passion, and inspired by the unclear emotional place the listener is left at the end of his 2009 work (“We are all weeping at the end and yet she is happily transfigured, in the welcoming arms of her grandmother in heaven,” Lang explains), and Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” which came to mind when thinking about all this, he decided to explore the role and character of death.

“What makes the Schubert [track] interesting is that Death is personified. It isn’t a state of being or a place or a metaphor, but a person, a character in a drama who can tell us in our own language what to expect in the World to Come.” Lang decided to find the real character of Death in Schubert’s work, going through each song text and translating the instances where Death speaks. Like he did when creating The Little Match Girl Passion from Bach’s work, Lang worked these found words into new forms, specifically for a vocal arrangement which he invited My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden to perform. Alongside Worden, he brought in Bryce Dessner of The National, Owen Pallett, and popular indie/classical crossover musician/composer Nico Muhly to play delicate, stripped arrangements on piano, guitar, and violin. The end result is plainly titled Death Speaks and is a beautiful, chilling collection of tracks that glide through the air in a way that would make it seem like they were floating if were they real figures.

But Death is the figure here, and similarly like in Ingmar Bergman The Seventh Seal, there is a grace about the main character. Death is almost human, full of emotions, troubles, and personal traits; we can relate to her. And Death is female here, which isn’t a completely original concept (Slavic and Romance linguistic traditions list Death as female, and many Symbolist painters capture death in the female form, like in Carlos Schwabe’s La mort du fossoyeur), but it is still striking. Worden is to thank for that, as her voice is more elegant than has ever been captured before on record, reaching operatic peaks and, again, still embedded in a pure human tone. “I am full of joy for you/ and am I full of grief,” Worden sings on “Mist is Rising.” Death’s emotional face has her coming off sounding like God, again playing to unclear place we as listeners are meant to be at as death and transcendence happen simultaneously.

As full of emotion as Death is, she must stay true to her purpose. “Nothing escapes me/ Not the Lawyer/ Not the Hunter,” she sings on “Pain Changes,” refusing bargains like Bergman’s Death. But at the same time she doesn’t want to grab her victims by the scruff of the neck and drag their bodies away: “Please don’t make me make you follow me,” she pleads on “Mist Is Rising.” It’s enchanting, if not heartfelt how much we come to sympathize with Death, cast in the dark gown she is.

Dessner, Pallett, and Muhly work in between and behind Worden for the part. On opening track “You Will Return” the piano and guitar are played together in a way that makes them sound like a harp being plucked; Pallett’s violin wavers lightly on “Mist Is Rising,” capturing the effect of a figure moving through foggy streets; and the melodies on “I Hear You” sound almost confused, like the companion Death has approached taken aback by how pleasant and caring she is (“I am your friend/ I am not cruel,” Worden sings, without the slightest hint of deception). On “I Am Walking” Pallett contributes some backing vocals, and they add a ghostly echo, like a victim of Death entranced by her, following her gliding presence.

Lang’s compositions are largely sparse here, and they are easy to put out of focus, allowing you to focus solely on Worden’s voice, but they calmly push the tracks forward. On “Pain Changes” an occasional deep chord on the low end of the piano is played, as the higher end exchanges notes with Dessner’s guitar. “I Am Walking” treads carefully as Pallett’s violin once again wavers, this time like a leaf falling gently to the ground. They don’t take the focus away from the main character, but still act as the perfect companion to Death. The closest you get to bombast is the disconcerting thud on “I Hear You,” but otherwise it is Death’s own theme music, gently coming into focus around you until it surrounds you and you are fully in her presence.

This cast of “indie” musicians doesn’t make this distinctly more accessible than any of Schubert’s work, but it’s certainly a good entry point should you be after classical music making the most of a voice and not verging into the neo-classical dissonance. Preferences aside, it should still have an effect on most listeners. Worden’s voice is beautiful on its own, and Lang is clever and correct not to have the music behind her wringing out any emotion sung. It would be futile anyway; Worden’s pain, joy, grief, and love is clear, making it the most effective thing on display here.

Coupled with these five tracks another of Lang’s pieces entitled “Depart.” It sits separate at the end, wordless, and acts as a perfect continuation/cadence to the preceding tracks’ emotions. Composed for four voices and multi-tracked cello, the eighteen minute piece (which currently plays as part of a permanent installation at a hospital morgue just outside of Paris) echoes tones from The Little Match Girl Passion, but otherwise is graceful exercise that sounds like a soul being torn between heaven and hell. Death has done her work, and she’s nowhere to be seen or heard; it’s lonely, but at the same time it’s strangely comforting in the same way Brain Eno’s not too dissimilar sounding Music For Airports is. It’s an exquisite send off for Death Speaks, and it doesn’t need a single word to be spoken.


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