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Out of the Box: Lorelei Ensemble & David Lang's 'love fail'

The nine women singers of the Lorelei Ensemble stand, dressed in concert gowns, looking right
Allana Taranto
Lorelei Ensemble

This powerfully sung new album from the Boston-based chamber choir invites you to explore a simple question: "Why do we tell the love stories that we do?"

WHAT: Lorelei Ensemble: David Lang love fail

WHY THIS ALBUM: I'm immediately drawn to anything the Lorelei Ensemble releases. They've been singing together for more than a decade, and the resultant quality of their musicianship and the cohesion of their voices is unlike anyone else in the biz making music right now. Add to that David Lang’s beautiful and thoughtful minimalist compositional style in love fail, and that the piece is one that Lorelei have lived with for almost the entirety of the group’s existence, and you get a truly superb listening experience.

Listen to an interview between Chris Voss, founder of the Lorelei Ensemble Beth Willer, and composer David Lang.

It was after David Lang’s wedding to his wife that he saw Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde for the first time, and was struck by a thought: Why do we tell the love stories that we do? Particularly in classical music, what do we deem to be a “Great” love story, and what are the stories of love that are left behind?

Those questions led to David Lang’s 2012 piece love fail, which is presented in a spectacular new album by the Lorelei Ensemble. And to explore them, David Lang turned to several ancient settings of the legend of Tristan and Isolde and interlaced them with modern texts by American author Lydia Davis.

Black and white image of composer David Lang in glasses gazing away from the camera in thought, with his hands crossed behind his head
Credit Suxiao Yang
Composer David Lang

Before I continue, a quick refresher of the Tristan and Isolde tale: Tristan is an English knight who travels to Ireland on behalf of his mentor and adopted father King Mark of Cornwall to retrieve the princess Isolde, who is promised in marriage to the king. On the journey back to England, Tristan and Isolde both accidentally consume a love potion, and fall inseparably in love. And so, when they arrive in England, a classic love triangle ensues with the two lovers helplessly continuing their affair in spite of Isolde’s marriage to, and Tristan’s loyalty to, King Mark. It's an affair which will ultimately cost the entangled lovers their lives.

“[So] I’m watching these cartoon characters in an opera having this story, and we talk about that as love. Why isn’t this other love something art can talk about? Why is it that we need to project onto these cartoonish historic characters these heroic qualities, when we are the heroes for living our lives?”

love fail doesn't seek to answer the question "why do we tell the stories that we do" but instead, invites us to explore for ourselves, both in the simple, driving, straightforward way in which the texts are set, and in the brilliant way they are juxtaposed:

Beth Willer, founder and director of the Lorelei Ensemble, gazing straight ahead against a pastel background
Credit Courtesy of the Artist
Beth Willer, founder and director of the Lorelei Ensemble

Tristan text, after Gottfried von Strassburg: ...he was a delightful man/he was a free man/he was a studious man/he was a masterful man/she was so wise/she was so fair/she was so shining/she was so lovely... 

Lydia Davis text: At night he was a different man. If she knew him as he was in the morning, at night she hardly recognized him: a pale man, a gray man, a man in a brown sweater, a man with dark eyes who kept his distance from her, who took offense, who was not reasonable...

A lot of the power in the piece comes also from the simple fact that it was written for women's voices. As the founder of Lorelei Ensemble, Beth Willer, puts it, "There’s a lot of music for women’s voices that's sort of on the surface, that doesn’t dig too deep, that doesn’t reflect the whole humanity of women and our experience. [In love fail] there's quite a bit in the text, particularly the Lydia Davis texts, that reflect the perspectives that we are interested in sharing as women standing on stage together, singing words and tales and stories that maybe don't tell the story from the perspective that we're used to hearing it, or that are maybe a little bit more honest or a little bit more real."

This album from the Lorelei Ensemble comes to us at a time where we are being asked to reevaluate the stories we tell ourselves or have been told, especially here in the United States. And as such, in addition to being beautifully performed and put together, I hope it will give you an opportunity to meditate on many questions, and give you an avenue by which to experience something familiar from a strikingly new perspective. 

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