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David Lang

The Little Match Girl Passion

[Harmonia Mundi; 2009]

By ; January 29, 2010 

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

I’ve always had a great fascination with the way the human voice is used as an instrument in itself and with those who take the idea a step further. From any passionate recital of words in great pop songs to Jón Þór Birgisson and his invented Hopelandic language to Karin Dreijer Andersson’s manipulation of her already stunningly ineffable voice on Silent Shout and Fever Ray to Justin Vernon’s auto-tuned “Woods,” it all absorbs and enthrals me. It’s being able to look beyond using the voice as a means to an end but rather use it as an end itself.

And perhaps it is this reason I find The Little Match Girl Passion so enamouring: a Hans Christian Andersen short story arranged for four voices (bass, alto, tenor, and soprano). But as much as the voice is the focus here, the principle is different, because as great and stunning as the performances from Hillier & Theatre Of voices is, it was David Lang who made this possible. His composition is both delicate and unnerving, both beautiful and harrowing. It wears its influence from Bach’s St Matthew Passion right on the sleeve, but this is hardly a bad thing. St Matthew Passion was the orchestration of suffering and though not the same large scale, Lang dwindles the style down to the four voices and a couple of instruments and still manages to make it sound as aching as it likely did centuries ago.

Andersen’s tale told here is not a distinctly mainstream one. It carries the darker side of literature from the man who brought us childhood wonders like The Little Mermaid and The Ugly Duckling. The Little Match Girl tells the story of a young girl cast out into the freezing streets by her father on New Year’s Eve to sell matches. She daren’t return to her father without any money in fear of being beaten, but sadly does not sell a single match. Retreating into a small nook and on the verge of freezing to death, she lights a match in an attempt to warm herself. She hallucinates and has visions of her beloved grandmother come before her and in the morning is found frozen to death with a smile on her face, clutching several burnt out matches.

It’s not uplifting in any real way other than the redemption the little girl’s soul receives as it is being carried up to Heaven by her grandmother. Thus, as you may well expect, The Little Match Girl Passion doesn’t translate into a joyful recitation, which is perhaps it’s only real flaw. You won’t find yourself listening to this to lift your spirits but rather to delve into the sad beauty it holds. After you become familiar with it you will need to adopt the correct frame of mind before entering into the cold world of this desperate little girl.

But like reading a short story itself, it’s best taken all as one so as to be able to hear the story through from the start to the end. When you’re reading a book you don’t pick a few pages in the middle and read them and later go read a few more from another part. Each track needs its context, needs the preceding events to be told for it to make sense and have its fullest effect. That said though, you could take the best moments here and listen to them on their own and they would still likely overwhelm you. Opener “Come, Daughter” has the qualities already described throughout here, but when the voices swell, singing “Help me” repeatedly, you can’t help but be overcome to point of nearly shedding tears. “Have Mercy, My God” spirals the song title around and around until you feel as desolate as the little girl does but still retaining an outsiders view, begging that her life be spared from this tormenting situation. Even the stuttering “When It Is Time For Me To Go” creates a sense of unnerve as you try to penetrate the vocals and hear the words being sung (listen for the devastatingly subtle change from “time to go” to “time to die”). But as effective as they may seem as individual offerings, they really do deserve the context they are presented in.

The instrumental touches are minimal but superbly effective. The bass drum adds so much from such a simple gesture in “Come, Daughter,” while the twinkling bells that pepper the album act in interesting ways – at one moment they will sound like warming representations of the tiny flames while other times they will sound as icy cold as the snow in the story. On the final track “We Sit And Cry,” both are used to create a something which sounds like a whip cracking.

The voices can be somewhat overbearing at times, especially when they all come at you, like ghosts of the past haunting you, but it makes for appropriate effect. Sometimes they even sound alien; on “We Sit And Cry” you might well mistake one of the voices for being the likes a theremin on first listen. But there are hundreds of nuances in the voices which I could spend paragraphs describing and analysing, but admittedly I cannot help but feel it would drain some of the magic of the story by doing so. Music and literature are each as subjective and interpretative as the other and how we take them in and understand them will be vary for each person. There will be those who don’t like the setup or cast it aside as some classical nonsense to be sung in a church somewhere that they don’t have time for. But as much as I stand by my subjectivity principle, that line of thought really is utter bullshit. You would have to be as cruel and careless as the abusive father to not have this raise the hairs on your arms.

This really is an enchanting composition, beautifully and articulately performed. And even if going through the whole story seems somewhat like a chore, the album has four tracks of Hillier & Ars Nova Copenhagen added at the end. These tracks do boast greater lengths, but when the chanting repetition begins on “For Love is Strong” you become ignorant to elapsing time. David Lang has created compositions that occupy space beyond their expected spheres. Like Andersen’s tales, it’s music that will last for centuries.


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