David Lang Sets Many Subtle Heartbreaks in 'love fail'

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Thanks to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, the story of Tristan and Iseult, a pair of unrequited lovers from medieval romances, is in the contemporary imagination largely synonymous with the larger-than-life, breast-beating passions of the operatic stage, of a woman devoured whole by agonizing loss.

But what about the little losses, the subtle heartbreaks that eat us up just a little at a time? That subtle heartbreak is what David Lang describes in his love fail, a sort of Tristan micro-opera less about devouring passions than it is about passive-aggressions, letdowns and all the other tiny deaths a love affair dies before it ends once and for all.

The sung texts, compiled by Lang, borrow from different retellings of the Tristan story, but with the specifics drained out—even the text of Wagner's "Mild und leise," the famous Love-Death of his Tristan und Isolde, appears here in a strange paraphrase, loosely translated from the German and re-set to Lang's wearily sorrowful music.

To these, Lang has added brief fictions by Lydia Davis, short-short stories by a writer whose aesthetic is an exquisite match for his own sensibility. One of the finest prose-smiths in contemporary English letters, her writing is clean, tends towards lists and other simple rhetorical structures, with powerful narrative and emotional undercurrents hidden deep beneath the glassy surface. The aching repetitions of Lang's equally pared-down musical language perfectly capture the deep, numb sorrow of watching someone you love drift away.

The musical forces themselves are the bare minimum, as well. The women's a cappella vocal quartet Anonymous 4, specialists in medieval repertoire about to retire, here punctuate their singing with simple percussion parts, cunningly deployed by the composer. But these sparse textures gesture toward an immense emotional desolation. Lang, a superior composer, has written one of the most affecting scores of his career. Listen to the entire album below. 

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