Remote Happiness: David Lang's 'love fail' is a meditation on love

The story of Tristan and Isolde (or Iseult) is one of the greatest love stories in Western literary history, forming not only the basis for Wagner’s opera, but also playing its part in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, and providing inspiration for other tragic tales of love. For his composition/theater piece love fail, Pulitzer-winning composer David Lang searched through various texts that tell the story, particularly Gottfried von Strassburg but also Sir Thomas Malory, Marie de France and others, looking, as he says, for “weird incidents.” Stripped of all reference to Tristan, Isolde/Iseult, King Mark or any other elements that would make the piece seem merely a dramatization of the age-old story, love fail is a fascinating meditation on love’s lyricism, its almost mystic force, and its surprising moods and shifting desires.

Sung by the female vocal group Anonymous 4, noted for their adaptations of medieval compositions, such as plainsong, for female voices, love fail is a stunning exercise in vocal precision, polyphony, overlapping voices, and hypnotic variations on simple lyrics. The piece begins with “he was and she was,” in which descriptive terms for the two lovers are sounded against a backdrop of voices, including percussive whispers. With the stage set for intensive listening, the evening becomes an occasion for marveling at what the four gifted singers—Ruth Cunningham, Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek—are able to do with their voices, creating layered effects that are—no doubt because of the medieval associations of the music—spiritual and meditative.

There are also humorous elements—mostly provided by texts taken from MacArthur fellow Lydia Davis. Wonderful examples of precision and compression in their own right, Davis’ writings add a wry, modern touch to the piece. Perhaps my favorite segment, “right and wrong” (following “the wood and the vine,” adapted from Marie de France, which is also particularly strong), provides convoluted R.D. Laing-like reflections on how being right doesn’t make one right if, “in some cases,” it is wrong to be right. The “right and wrong” instances are in reference to a female, making the piece a subtle comment on sexual politics as well as a general moral consideration. As sung, the interplay between the lead voice and the accompanying voice is riveting: the lead sounds a single note/word at intervals, and in those intervals the accompanying voice must sing through the text to the next interval. Pacing was everything in this unusual form of call-and-response; the call was almost a punctuation of the response while also acting as an introductory note for each sequence.

The texts are projected on a transparency behind the singers, making it easy to follow the words. There are also large projections showing male and female faces, made-up to appear as if they are in a fantasy film, that are more or less moving portraits. Primarily static, the images move slowly, and are more of a distraction than an illustration. Jim Findlay’s set design is simple and elegant, able to look at home in a concert hall, a theater stage, or a church, but his video design was the least inspiring aspect of the piece. The lighting and look of the faces put me in mind of the recent Cindy Sherman retrospective—not an association I would normally bring to this work.

While each segment of love fail has its own significance, the 12 parts, taken together, yield a progression from introduction of the lovers to reflections on love’s durability, and on the heart’s forgetfulness toward the arguments the head furnishes against love. Musically, we might say it moves toward transcendence of the sorrows of love, though—again, due to medieval associations—the idea of true happiness on earth is remote, and so love and sorrow must be inextricably linked.

A vibrant work for voices, love fail does not fail to provide thought about love, evoking love’s higher aspirations as well as some of its darker reaches. The masterful Anonymous 4 are not to be missed.

IF YOU GO: What: love fail by David Lang performed by Anonymous 4 When: 4 p.m. June 30 Where: Yale Repertory Theatre, 1120 Chapel St. Tickets: $35-$45 Info:

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That n+1 piece was mighty good, but needed reporting

Slate has posted what I take to be all of Chad Harbach's n+1 piece about the two worlds of publishing, the MFA world and the New York world (these are his terms). A few comments: First, I admire the gutsiness of making such a big, bold, ridiculous generalization, one that can immediately be torn apart with lots of counter-examples, exceptions, alternative schemas and taxonomies, etc. Such grand generalizations are almost always intellectually flawed, but they can advance how we think about a topic, open up new insights, etc., and I think his does. I mean, I could nitpick him--OF COURSE the MFA students are interested in Gary Shteyngart, and plenty of MFA students are working on novels, and, well, you get the point--but I think his division is an interesting one. And he sure wrote the heck out of it. I mean, the essay is really fun to read, which is odd, since it is a topic with absolutely no consequences for anybody except the people talked about in it.

Second, here is a criticism: The essay does not really deal with nonfiction writing at all, which is a shame, and limits the conceptual reach of the essay. After all, David Foster Wallace's nonfiction was his really great stuff. I think J-Saf Foer's nonfiction boo, Eating Animals, is his best by a lot. And Zadie Smith may yet prove to be a more lasting essayist than novelist. You would not know that any fiction writers even write nonfiction, to read Harbach's essay.

Third, I envy how much Harbach's name is perfect for a Pac-10 quarterback.

Fourth, the piece could have benefited from some reporting. Reporting is when a person, often called a "reporter," makes phone calls, or knocks on people's doors, or sends emails, or even Google searches, so as to find supporting evidence. It would not have been hard, for example, to find actual syllabi of courses taught in MFA programs. Then we would know if in fact all these kiddoes are reading is Joy Williams and Ann Beattie, or if maybe they are reading classic works of literature from the 1880s or 1910s or 1950s. Maybe when these profs teach their classes, they assign "Araby," by Joyce. Maybe they read My Antonia in its entirety. Or early short stories by Philip Roth. Or excerpts from Trollope novels. Who knows? I don't. I don't have an MFA. I don't have an MBA either. But if I were writing an essay about MFA fiction, I would go find out first. I realize Harbach was in an MBA program, but that only makes it more puzzling he didn’t share what particular books he was assigned.

Finally, I wish Harbach had spent more time puzzling over his own assertion here:

And the NYC writer, because she lives in New York, has constant opportunity to intuit and internalize the demands of her industry. It could be objected that just because the NYC writer's editor, publisher, agent, and publicist all live in New York, that doesn't mean that she does, too. After all, it would be cheaper and calmer to live most anywhere else. This objection is sound in theory; in practice, it is false. NYC novelists live in New York—specifically, they live in a small area of west-central Brooklyn bounded by DUMBO and Prospect Heights. They partake of a social world defined by the selection (by agents), evaluation (by editors), purchase (by publishers), production, publication, publicization, and second evaluation (by reviewers) and purchase (by readers) of NYC novels. The NYC novelist gathers her news not from Poets & Writers but from the Observer and Gawker; not from the academic grapevine but from publishing parties, where she drinks with agents and editors and publicists. She writes reviews for Bookforum and the Sunday Times. She also tends to set her work in the city where she and her imagined reader reside: as in the most recent novels of Shteyngart, Ferris, Galchen, and Foer, to name just four prominent members of The New Yorker's 20-under-40 list.

I can't decide if this is anything more than a tautology: young NYC writers are young and live in NYC. Or a truism: a lot of hip young writers will tend to live in hip, young neighborhoods of major cultural centers. Whatever the case, the interesting question to ask is why, in a culture whose great writers have tended not to be New Yorkers — Cather, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Wallace Stevens, Sinclair Lewis, Roth (NJ is not NY, and he lives in CT anyway), Bellow, and I could go on — so many writers now do live in New York. I attempted some musings on that question here.

But look, Harbach (9 TDs and 4 interceptions so far this season) did serious yeoman's labor getting these thoughts down on paper. I was turning his essay over in my head as I fell asleep last night. I think I kicked my dog beneath the covers as I cursed out one of Harbach’s conclusions. Good work, QB.

Also, could I have some money?