David Lang, Death Speaks

John Schaefer

By John Schaefer

on 04.30.13 in Reviews

First, I feel it’s important to say that, as of this writing, David Lang is nowhere near death. I see him walking through the neighborhood from time to time and he is his usual cheery, deadpan self. And yet the Bang on A Can co-founder has produced an incandescent string of pieces in recent years focused exclusively on death and dying. His Pulitzer Prize-winning Little Match Girl Passion gravely watches a poor young girl freeze to death as passersby ignore her. His yet-to-be-recorded Love Fail takes an oblique look at the fatal love affair between Tristan and Isolde. His haunting, drifting Salle des Departs (recorded here under the title “Depart”) was written for a hospital morgue. And then there’s Death Speaks, a five-movement work which takes up most of this recording. Here, death is not an event, but a figure, like something out of an engraving by Albrecht Dürer. But unlike the American folk song “O Death,” in which Death is a scary, implacable foe — the singer asks, “oh Death, won’t you pass me over another year” — Lang has assembled a text in which Death is addressing us, with a message that is ultimately reassuring, and comforting.

A reassuring and comforting text, played by a remarkable ensemble

The text is built around the many and varied instances in the songs of Franz Schubert in which the figure of Death speaks. The music, as in the other death-themed works named above, has a transparent texture that sets off and subtly colors those texts, and the voice delivering it. That voice belongs to Shara Worden, one of the current breed of musicians who move fluidly between the worlds of classical music and indie rock. While still leading her own band, My Brightest Diamond, Worden has become the go-to voice for the so-called “indie classical” crowd. The rest of the ensemble here is equally remarkable: Bryce Dessner, one of the twin electric guitarists from the popular rock band The National, and a fine composer himself; Owen Pallett, the violinist, vocalist and composer who formerly recorded as Final Fantasy; and Nico Muhly, the in-demand composer and keyboardist whose works range from choral to electronic. With essentially an all-star band, Lang has chosen to write music which is not conventionally virtuosic, relying instead of the quartet’s musicality and precision. The results are quietly stunning. Highlights include the gentle, chiming minimalism of part 1, “You Will Return”; the resonant percussive use of the piano’s bass end in part 2, “I Hear You”; the deft, rhythmic use of the violin in part 3, “Mist Is Rising”; and the lovely duet that blossoms in part 5, “I Am Walking.”

After Death Speaks, the album invites you to relax in the dark-hued but warm ambience of “Depart,” for chorus and strings. Probably best not to think too much of the French morgue for which it was written.