As part of our day of music at St Bartholomew’s Hospital on Thursday 28th June, we’re bringing David Lang’s haunting song cycle death speaks to The Pathology Museum (part of Queen Mary University of London). As the title suggests, this piece gives death a human voice, but how did Lang approach bringing this unimaginable character to life? What does death sound like? Do we talk enough about death as a society?
Here to answer all these questions and more is CMF Artist Lotte Betts-Dean (mezzo-soprano), who’ll be performing Lang’s songs as well as works by Schubert, Dowland, and Brett Dean.
The New York Times wrote that “death speaks connects the dots between Romantic morbidity and emo rock.” Can you help us understand what they meant?
The piece is heavily influenced by the massive song catalogue of Franz Schubert. In particular, Lang was fascinated by the omnipresence of death in Schubert’s songs, and perhaps how Schubert grappled with his own mortality through his writing and choice of texts. Lang has drawn on several death-themed texts Schubert used and constructed his own versions of them for this piece, creating, as Pitchfork neatly called the set, “stem cells of Schubert songs”. By weaving the “romantic morbidity” inherent in these 19th century texts into a sound world that is leaning towards what the NYT dubs “emo rock”, a sub-genre characterized by an emphasis on emotional expression, Lang has created an incredibly effective musical fabric using these two unlikely partners. They have a lot more in common than one might think!
What is it that makes David Lang’s music so captivating?
There is a simplicity and directness to David Lang’s music that draws the listener in immediately. He is known as a hip post-minimalist composer, but in a way his more recent vocal writing also has a lot in common with early music and madrigals, which creates this other-worldly space that feels both incredibly current yet also timeless.
This is only the second piece of his I have performed – my first encounter with his music was last October at a brilliant little festival in Port Fairy, Australia, where I was lucky enough to sing his incredible Pulitzer Prize-winning the little match girl passion, a work for four percussion-playing singers. It’s fitting that my next venture with Lang’s music should be death speaks, a work which was originally written to accompany the little match girl passion.
death speaks is written for piano, guitar, violin and voice; are you looking forward to working with this slightly unusual line-up?
Very much so! I’ve never sung anything with this lineup before, which is funny considering how much I have performed with each instrument individually. Of course other pieces on the program involve solo works or works for the voice with individual instruments, but Lang’s death speaks brings us all together. What makes this more exciting is that for the Lang, all instruments are amplified and in the case of the guitar, requires an electric instrument. It’s been a very long time since I have sung with an electric guitar so I am looking forward to getting back to my roots of singing with bands. Speaking of which, I am really excited to include on this program a few covers of songs by my favourite band, Radiohead, whose devastatingly beautiful lyrics and songwriting, particularly surrounding the ideas of transience and death, still leave me breathless.
What have you chosen to perform alongside death speaks and why?
Alongside the aforementioned Radiohead numbers – which shall remain nameless until the evening, but I can promise they are some of the best! – Andrey Lebedev (guitarist) and I have devised a program that spans several centuries of music for guitar, voice, violin and piano, all of which deals with the idea of death in some way. From the 16th-18th centuries, we have two early English perspectives on death with songs by Dowland and Dido’s Lament from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, in which Dido faces her own mortality in the moment of dying, and a solo guitar version Bach’s stunning and funereal Chaconne from the Violin Partita No. 2.
It would be remiss of us not to include Schubert, considering his music was the inspiration behind Lang’s “death speaks”, so Andrey and I will perform guitar arrangements of some of the extraordinary songs Lang drew text from, as well as his quintessential conversation with Death himself, Der Tod und das Mädchen.
From Ravel’s astonishingly challenging solo piano work Gaspard de la nuit, we have the haunting imagery of a hanged man in ‘Le gibet’, based on the incredible Bertrand poem of the same name.
Moving into the modern, we present three strikingly existential excerpts of György Kurtág’s Kafka Fragments for violin and voice, and Brett Dean’s Gertrude Fragments for voice and guitar, which was written for Andrey and myself in 2016 and offers a glimpse into the character of Gertrude in Shakespeare’s Hamlet as she witnesses her son’s demise.
We have a few other surprises up our sleeves too, and we promise it’s not all doom and gloom. We want this program to represent all elements of death – its darkness, its emptiness and sadness – but also the intangible beauty of its inevitability, the odd comfort in the idea of dust returning to dust.
Finally. Do you think we talk enough about death?
I don’t think we do, no. Death can be an uncomfortable thing to talk about, let alone program an entire concert about. We don’t really understand it, it’s impossible to know how it feels or what happens afterwards, and the idea of one’s consciousness being extinguished is strange, if not terrifying. We fear what we don’t know. But it is, after all, the only certain thing we face in this life, so there’s no need to be afraid of talking about it more. I think in talking about it, confronting it and finding the lightness in it, it becomes less uncomfortable to think about.
We have composers on this program who are very much alive, like Lang, Dean, and Kurtág, and composers who died well before their time, like Schubert and Purcell – each of them offers a different perspective on death and transience.
This concert is an attempt for performers and audience alike to look straight at death and not be afraid. If anything, it becomes a celebration of life. As Eric Idle muses from his crucifix at the end of Life Of Brian, “you know, you come from nothing, you’re going back to nothing, what have you lost? Nothing!”
Barts Pathology Museum
Thursday 28th June 8pm
Tickets: £15 (includes refreshments)
Doors from 7.15pm
* denotes CMF Artist