Death Speaks, a song cycle composed by David Lang, is a luminous masterpiece. As restrained and melancholy as a Blue Period Picasso, it enchants on first hearing and sticks in the memory for a long time afterwards.
The piece's high-concept premise is to compile, loosely translate, and set to music the words spoken by Death as personified in the songs of Franz Schubert. Lang wrote the piece for, respectively, a trio of indie rock luminaries with classical training, plus one classical musician with indie rock bona fides: electric guitarist Bryce Dessner of the National, My Brightest Diamond vocalist Shara Worden, violinist Owen "Final Fantasy" Pallett, and composer Nico Muhly on piano.
They make up the band on this recording, but none of the instrumentalists is playing rock star here. Muhly and Dessner interlock complicated arpeggios into what sounds like a single instrument, and Pallett is barely audible at all. The star here is Worden, who inhabits each line as if she had written the words and music herself, at once chillingly committed to her role and open to all of the possibilities of the text—though of course it helps that Lang flatters her wistful, sighing voice by penning one wistful, sighing melody after another.
Death Speaks is likely to catch on with listeners from outside the new music/classical world, but not because of the band's pedigree in popular music. Rather, it's because the cycle rises to a purity of musical expression that doesn't need a "classical" context to communicate with the audience.
Appropriately enough, Death Speaks is paired here with Lang's Depart, a long, still movement composed as ambient music for a morgue. One of Lang's most talked-about scores—it was the subject of, among other things, a short episode of the Radiolab podcast—but unreleased on CD for the past decade, Depart is performed here by cello demigoddess Maya Beiser and a quartet of ethereal vocalists. Depart demonstrates that music can offer emotional quietude without being harmonically facile, and like Death Speaks, offers a strange but very real consolation.
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