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Out of the Box: Just (After Song of Songs)

Prepare to be mesmerized by this stunningly simple and otherworldly setting of the passionate “Song of Songs.”

ALBUM: Louth Contemporary Music Society: The Song of Songs / Trio Mediæval, et al

MUST LISTEN TRACKS: David Lang's "Just (After Song of Songs)"

WHY I THINK YOU'LL LOVE THIS: The Trio Mediæval's singing is completely captivating - steady, strong, and flawless throughout. So too is Lang's writing, in the way that his minimalist style is frequently captivating: incredibly simple, even meditative, and never stagnant. Together they "just" (pun intended) get right to your bones!

One of the things I was most excited about in starting this Out of the Box project was the opportunity to share works that I have long loved but haven't had an outlet for sharing with you before. David Lang's "Just (After Song of Songs)" falls squarely into this category. In fact, it falls into a broader "music I've hoarded in my car's CD player and selfishly forced anyone to who drives with me to listen" category. And I’m not sorry about that at all.

“Just (After Song of Songs)” is incredibly tender and loving while simultaneously, through the patient repetitiveness so typical of David Lang’s compositions, imbued with this subtle and passionate urgency. And then there is the execution of the music by Anna Maria Friman, Linn Andrea Fuglseth, and Jorunn Lovise Husan of Trio Mediæval.

Now, technically, this recording isn't brand new. The Louth Contemporary Music Society released their album The Song of Songs -- which also includes Betty Olivero's "En la mer hai una torre" and Luciano Berio's "Naturale"-- back in 2015. But while not freshly unwrapped, it very certainly is out-of-the-box.

"For my text I listed everything personal or owned that is attributed to the man and to the woman...every phrase of his with 'just your' and every phrase of hers with 'and my'. It is interesting that in a text about a love that is shared there are only seven instances of 'our.'" - David Lang, on "Just (After Song of Songs)"

The inspiration for David Lang's “Just (After Song of Songs)” is that most sultry of Old Testament passages, the Song of Solomon, a.k.a. the Song of Songs. In it, an incredibly passionate love between two people unfolds. And when I say "passionate," I mean that at some moments you can hardly believe these words are coming from the Bible and not some furtive 18th-century love missive.

Why turn to the Bible for an exploration of love? Precisely because it is a bit unusual. As David Lang explains: "One thing that has always interested me about the text is that the man and the woman in the Song of Songs have attributes, they notice things about each other, they own things, they have features that are desirable. In a love between people this would be no surprise. In a love between Man and God, however, that might mean that in this text are clues to the nature of God’s own attributes, and a record of how they might attract us."

The way that Lang uses this text is really wonderful. He took the two main voices, a man and a woman, and listed everything each individual owns within the Song of Songs. To differentiate between the two characters, since it is three women singing, statements of male ownership are treated with a 'Just your [blank]’ and statements of female ownership with a 'And my [blank].' There are rare instances of shared ownership between the two, at which points he steps away from the repetitive motif given to the individuals and turns instead to a completely new 'Our [Blank]' statement.

For example: The man says, "Just your mouth / Just your love / Just your anointing oils.” The woman follows with "And my mother's sons / And my own vineyard / And my soul.” And a few stanzas later they come together with "Our couch / Our house / Our rafters."

That might seem terribly simple, and it is, but with Lang’s music it’s also terribly compelling.

And that’s really what drew me to the piece, even before I knew anything about the Song of Songs and how Lang set it: the startling and mesmerizing simplicity of the piece. It's why I kept it in my car for so long. It’s just incredible music that you can either lose yourself in completely, or focus on completely.

So! I’m thrilled to finally be able to share this piece with you, and I invite you to give yourself 12 minutes, perhaps with a good cup o' tea and a loved one, and "just" (pun intended again) get in there and enjoy. 

Image of the three singers from the Trio Mediæval, laughing
Credit Ingvil Skeie Ljones
Singers Anna Maria Friman, Linn Andrea Fuglseth, Jorunn Lovise Husan of Trio Mediæval

Chris Voss is the Weekday Afternoon Host and a Producer for CRB.