COMPOSERS: David Lang
ALBUM TITLE: David Lang: The Difficulty of Crossing a Field
WORKS: The Difficulty of Crossing a Field
PERFORMER: Beverly O’Regan Thiele, Laquita Mitchell, Nicole Mitchell, Isaiah Robinson, Cree Carrico, Jay O Sanders, Daniel Zippi, Christopher Burchett; Harlem String Quartet/Douglas Kinney Frost
CATALOGUE NO: CA 21107
Has there ever been a more American-sounding work than this? Gospel, blue grass, rock music all infuse this setting for string quartet and 13 voices of a one-page story by Ambrose Bierce, written in 1888, which tells of how a slave owner in pre-Civil War American South suddenly vanished as he crossed a field near Selma, Alabama, in 1854. With arias, narration and choruses, the music drama unfolds as neighbours and family offer their conflicting version of events; the African American slaves Mr Williamson ‘owns’ are not considered competent to testify. Like the slaves, then, Williamson is an invisible man, both alive and dead: ‘Is you is, or is you ain’t?’ as Mac Wellman frames it, with pleasing ambiguity in his libretto.
This is the first recording of David Lang’s work, premiered in 2002 with the Kronos Quartet in San Francisco, and it’s long overdue. Lang’s melancholic, sparse motifs are wonderfully haunting and the Harlem Quartet’s dirge-like strings, circling the witnesses’ testimony, heighten the all-pervasive sense of dark mystery. The film-trailer-deep voice of the presiding magistrate (actor Jay O Saunders), punctuated by gospel-infused chorus, makes for clear and compelling storytelling. Elsewhere, the hyped-up delivery of the high-pitched Williamson Girl (Cree Carrico) won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it does reflect the spirited commitment of these singers. Nick Shave