In 2008, David Lang won the Pulitzer Prize for a work called The Little Match Girl Passion, which paired four singers with some small hand bells. That was it: the rest was ringing silence, Lang's careful, mazelike vocal writing, and a quiet mournfulness that troubled and changed anyone who heard it. Love Fail feels like a revisiting, or extension, of that work—it's also scored for four voices, this time the vocal group Anonymous 4, and it also features hand bells. The source water, the English madrigal, is the same. But the temperature is a degree or two warmer, more hospitable to cellular life; the 15 pieces, spread across 50 minutes, touch on emotions closer to mundane existence—the difficulty of communication, the impossibility of remaining in the right.
As with much of Lang's recent work, Love Fail exists in a purposeful, elegant stasis—things change, but barely. His music is, in a sense, process music; you can hear, or feel, the motor that Lang feeds his ideas into whirring beneath the surface. He talks openly in interviews about being an ideas-first composer, one for whom sounds and notes come afterward. But his music always comes out sounding luminous, gorgeous, a reminder that processes are what people make of them. The material David Lang feeds into his processes contains his doubts, fears, bleak thoughts—his, or someone else's—that he is empathetic enough to channel directly into his music. They come out scrambled, but they quickly reassemble themselves in our perception, in much the same way our minds flip the upside down image our retina captures.
It is this empathy that lifts his music into an exalted, secular realm -- a place where we're forced to understand each other. On Death Speaks, he turned the figure of Death into someone beautiful, someone worth loving. On The Little Match Girl Passion, he rendered the slow death of the titular figure, alone on the street, into a gentle transfiguration, like a time-lapse video of a flower blooming. On "Forbidden Subjects," Lang examines a couple rendered slowly mute by an unnamed tragedy: "Soon most every subject they might want to talk about/ Is associated with your tongue, now they're unpleasant, see/ And becomes a subject they can't talk about/So that as time goes by there is less and less they can safely talk about." The mood is grave, but quiet, and tender—there are dark forces in his pieces, but they don't necessarily hold anything against you.
The complex emotions at the center of "He was and she was" circle around regret and loss: "She was so charming/ She was so lovely"; "He was an admirable man/ He was so admirable." Lang's scoring of the text draws the ear to the only word that matter to him in this construction: "was." The "he was" and "she was" are broken up into bits, one simply a repeating interval while another washes whispers of "hewashewashewashewashewas" around the feet of the piece. The specifics of what these people were aren't important; Lang wants us to meditate on the fact that they were, and no longer are.
"Right and Wrong," meanwhile, parses a series of mesmerizing, unnavigable rules about the divide in its title: "She knows she is right/ But to say she is right is wrong/ In this case, to be correct and say so is wrong/ In certain cases she may be correct, and may say so in certain cases/but if she insists too much, she becomes wrong/ So wrong that even her correctness becomes wrong by association." Read those lines on paper, and they drone like stereo instructions. But listen to Lang's setting of this text—two lower voices intoning like intercom beeps, the other two fluttering up like birds scared from a tree—and feel the grace of his animating touch. His mind can turn even the sharpest mental scrutiny into something resembling a loving caress. – Jayson Greene, Pitchfork