Anonymous 4 Marks A Milestone Year, Together And Alone

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To mark the group's 25th anniversary, Anonymous 4 commissioned the new piece love fail from Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang. (Brooklyn Academy of Music)
To mark the group's 25th anniversary, Anonymous 4 commissioned the new piece love fail from Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang. (Brooklyn Academy of Music)

As of this year, the vocal group Anonymous 4 has been introducing modern audiences to medieval music for a quarter century. When the all-female quartet asked David Lang to help mark the occasion by writing them some music, he didn't need any convincing. The Pulitzer Prize-winning composer was already a big fan.

"I really like the fact that they had dedicated themselves to keeping alive this music from 800 years ago," Lang says. "This music is really at the core of a lot of things that we think of and believe still, as musicians today. And I wondered what it would be like to design a project for them that would be about the collision between modern things and the old world where they normally live."

The resulting work, love fail, has its New York premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this evening. Lang drew his inspiration for the piece from the medieval story of the doomed lovers Tristan and Isolde. Their tale has been the subject of music and literature for centuries. Lang has looked at different versions, stripped them to their essence, and juxtaposed them with some writings by contemporary poet Lydia Davis. The result is less a narrative than a series of musings on how mythology and our own relationships today mirror one another.

"The things in our life that cause us to fight with our loved ones, the things that really upset us, the things that really make us miserable, are not dragons and love potions and, you know, betrayed honor and sorcery," Lang says. "They really are things that are much more ordinary and much more normal. And yet because they're ours, they actually have much more power to do damage to us."

As beautiful as Anonymous 4's vocal blend is, Lang says he wanted to find ways to highlight each of the singers over the course of this hourlong piece.

"One of the things that I really wanted to take advantage of was the fact that they're so different individually than they are together," he says. "So there are moments of this piece that have this kind of intense homophony, where they're called upon to blend the way [vocalists] have been blending for 800 years. There are solos and duos and things that really shine lights on them as individual characters. I wrote those specifically for them, not only just as voice types, but also as people."

One of the solos, sung by Anonymous 4 member Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek, comes right before the final moments of the piece. It's called "If I Have to Drown."

"If you're in a relationship with somebody — in a committed relationship with somebody — whatever happens to you happens to them," Horner-Kwiatek explains. "If I have to drown, then you have to drown. If I have to starve, then you have to starve, if God wills it. It's just me — there's no percussion, there's nobody else singing. It's just one of those very direct statements."

While love fail is, at its heart, a concert, Lang has brought several theatrical levels to it. There's a video with medieval imagery, the text is projected, the singers wear costumes and occasionally play percussion instruments, and the light shifts with the musical mood.

"You know, Anonymous 4, they're not actors," Lang says. "They don't want to walk around. You don't want them to talk or play with props ... To me, the things that are most powerful about them are they look at each other while they sing, they smile at each other, they breathe together. Those things should be magnified; those things should be meaningful, you know? And we should see that. We shouldn't do anything, theatrically, that would take away from that."

Ultimately, Lang hopes that audiences will be moved by the universal themes in love fail, whether joyous or sad.

"My love will end, my life will end," he says. "And all the lives and loves of the people around us will. And why shouldn't our art reflect the world we live in and not the world that we remember through mythology?"

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Anonymous 4 is an all-female vocal quartet. They're known for bringing medieval music to modern audiences. But on their 25th anniversary, they've commissioned Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang to write a new piece for them. The piece is called "Love Fail," and it has its New York premiere this evening at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: When Anonymous 4 approached David Lang to write some music for them, he didn't need any convincing. He was already a big fan.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVID LANG: I really like the fact that they had dedicated themselves to keeping alive this music from 800 years ago. And that this music is really at the core of a lot of things that we think of and believe, still, as musicians today. And I wondered what it would be like to design a project for them that would be about the collision between modern things and the old world where they normally live.

ANONYMOUS 4: (Singing) He was a blessed man. He was. He was. He was. He was an (unintelligible) upstanding man. He was...

LUNDEN: Lang has drawn his inspiration for "Love Fail" from the medieval story of the doomed lovers, Tristan and Isolde. Their tale has been subject of music and literature for centuries. Lang has looked at different versions, stripped them to their essence, and juxtaposed them with some writings by contemporary poet Lydia Davis. The result is less a narrative than a series of musings on how mythology and our own relationships today mirror one another.

LANG: The things in our life that cause us to fight with our loved ones, the things that really upset us, the things that really make us miserable are not dragons and love potions and, you know, betrayed honor and sorcery, you know. They really are things that are much more ordinary and much more normal. And yet, because they're ours, they actually have much more power to do damage to us.

4: (Singing) Let us talk about certain men who (unintelligible) family. His working hours are working hours; rabbits, mice, dogs, certain foods, certain universities. Hot weather, hot and cold room temperatures at night and in the day lights on and lights off...

LUNDEN: Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek, a member of Anonymous 4, says she admires David Lang's juxtaposition of the ancient and contemporary in the piece.

JACQUELINE HORNER-KWIATEK: I think that he just got very inspired by this idea, of the fact that whether it was then or whether it's now, some things are universal.

(LAUGHTER)

HORNER-KWIATEK: Something never changes.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Right.

4: (Singing) Will love me, me alone above all else, above all other things...

LUNDEN: As beautiful as Anonymous 4's vocal blend is, Lang wanted to find ways to highlight each of the singers, over the course of this hour-long piece.

LANG: One of the things that I really wanted to take advantage of was the fact that they're so different, individually, than they are together. So there are moments of this piece that have this kind of intense homophony, where they're called upon to blend the way they have been blending for 800 years. There are solos and duos and things that really shine lights on them as individual characters, and I wrote those specifically for them, not only just as voice types, but also as people.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF I HAVE TO DROWN")

HORNER-KWIATEK: (Singing) If I have to drown, I know...

LUNDEN: One of the solos, for Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek, comes right before the final moments of the piece. It's called "If I Have to Drown."

HORNER-KWIATEK: If you're in a relationship with somebody - in a committed relationship with somebody, whatever happens to you, happens to them. If I have to drown then you have to drown. If I have to starve then you have to starve, if God wills it. It's just me, there's nothing. There's no percussion, there's nobody else singing. And it's just one of those very direct, just for its statement - it's not maybe that happens, maybe that should happen, it's that's the way it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF I HAVE TO DROWN")

HORNER-KWIATEK: (Singing) If I have to be devoured, I know that you will be devoured if God wills it.

LUNDEN: While "Love Fail" is, at its heart, a concert, David Lang has brought several theatrical levels to it. There's a video with medieval imagery, the text is projected, the singers wear costumes and occasionally play percussion instruments, and the light shifts with the musical mood.

LANG: You know, Anonymous 4, they're not actors, they don't want to walk around, you don't want them to talk or play with props. You know, what do they do? They sing beautifully. And, you know, to me, the things that they do together, to me the things that are most powerful about them are they look at each other while they sing. They smile at each other, they breathe together.

Those things should be magnified. Those things should be meaningful, you know. And we should see that. We shouldn't do anything, theatrically, that would take away from that.

4: (Singing) (unintelligible)

LUNDEN: And, ultimately, Lang hopes that audiences will be moved by the universal themes in "Love Fail" - whether joyous or sad.

LANG: My love will end. My life will end. And all the lives and loves of the people around us will. And why shouldn't our art reflect the world we live in and not the world that we remember through mythology?

LUNDEN: "Love Fail" opens tonight at the BAM Harvey Theatre in Brooklyn.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

4: (Singing) Yes, I do...

GREENE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Renee Montagne is back with me tomorrow. I'm David Greene.

4: (Singing) (unintelligible) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.