This piece was originally published in Classical Post.
David Lang’s concert-length work for treble vocal quartet love fail tells universal stories. They are about trust, interconnectivity, disappointment and of course love. Before speaking to Quince Ensemble about their recent recording of love fail, I had a hunch that there would be some overlap between the subject matter and their experience of working on this as an ensemble. The subject matter of interconnectedness, communication, compassion, faith and love are mirrored in Quince’s experience of bringing love fail to life. Quince Ensemble, composed of Kayleigh Butcher, Amanda DeBoer Bartlett, Liz Pearse, and Carrie Henneman Shaw, joins Classical Post to discuss.
EXCLUSIVITY: HE WAS AND SHE WAS
The work love fail was written by Bang On A Can composer David Lang for the esteemed traditional female vocal quartet Anonymous 4 back in 2012. In what can now be seen as quite on the nose, the experimental Quince Ensemble has been hailed by Opera News as “the Anonymous 4 of new music". There has been no overlap between these ensembles, until love fail. The work was under exclusivity until Anonymous 4 didn’t want to perform it anymore, which happened when they retired in 2016. The moment that the work was no longer under exclusivity, Quince was on the phone with publishers Red Poppy. They had performed Lang’s music before, specifically his trios, and were eager for a concert-length work for their instrumentation as they love Lang’s writing. Quince director and mezzo-soprano Kayleigh Butcher shared, “I feel like as a group we have lists in our brains and somewhere on our google drive of dates the exclusivity is done for certain pieces; love fail was one of those.”
As an aside, Quince Ensemble wasn’t alone in noticing that love fail’s exclusivity was up in 2020, the women’s chorus Lorelei Ensemble also released a 2020 recording of the work. However, Lorelei’s recording is a different version; it’s for chorus instead of the original instrumentation of four treble voices.
A DIFFERENT ENSEMBLE: A DIFFERENT MAN
When deciding to take on love fail, Quince naturally had Anonymous 4 in the back of their minds. “I think we’re just a totally different group. Our sensibilities are different because we mainly sing contemporary music and since it is a new recording we wanted to put our interpretation in the world in our way,” says Quince soprano Amanda DeBoer Bartlett. “We couldn’t sound like Anonymous 4 if we tried because they’re just totally different bodies and people. But we were always interested in starting from scratch in our own way.”
THE OLD AND THE NEW: DURETH
love fail combines the old and the new in its musical language and stories referenced. It uses a lot of perfect intervals and sonically draws upon the Renaissance and Baroque music that has historically been written for female vocal quartet. It’s therefore logical that this work is where a vocal quartet celebrating traditional repertoire and a contemporary vocal quartet would encounter an unprecedented overlap in repertoire. “David Lang seems historically interested in taking a big swab of time and looking at how one idea is interpreted over time over and over again through literature, music, and stories,” says Quince soprano Liz Pearse. “His trio evening, morning, day personifies that. The entire song is built on these words from Genesis. It’s taking these big overviews of one idea - looking at all of these poisoned love stories over time.” Kayleigh Butcher chimed in, “Yeah he really does like to combine the old with the new in a lot of the vocal pieces that I think we’re familiar with.” Just as the work love fail combines the old and the new, ensembles specializing in old and new music feel equally at home singing the work.
HE AND SHE: THE WOOD AND THE VINE
The pervasive use of gendered pronouns is a noticeable aspect of the work; so I asked Quince about their relationship to that component of this piece. “It’s very gendered language. I guess we should have a conversation with him about that. It’s something that’s unique in that way and stands out from our other repertoire,” says Amanda DeBoer Bartlett. Quince doesn’t typically sing love songs and gender is normally only a pervasive aspect if the piece is overtly political. Amorphous spacious works about science are more on brand for the group.
But just as Lang draws upon traditional vocal writing and stories, this use of gender recalls the traditional. “It’s always been part of the vocal tradition, we’ve always had love songs that were clearly written for women but written from the perspective of a man. It’s only a modern phenomenon where it’s very clear that it’s a soprano song for example written from a female perspective,” says Carrie Henneman Shaw. “So it’s an interesting thing. I think we take for granted that as a female voice we can switch on and off from recognizing the pronouns as being problematic for our sense of identity as a performer or what we’re trying to convey.”
VOWEL PRONUNCIATIONS: RIGHT AND WRONG
In a continuation on the theme of combining old and new, Lang combines moments of the Tristan und Isolde story with moments featuring the work of Lydia Davis (among an extensive web of varying source material). These moments include the tracks Right and Wrong, Forbidden Subjects and Head, Heart. There is a logical connection between Lydia Davis and Tristan und Isolde that’s worth pointing out - Davis has translated Proust’s Swann's Way: In Search of Lost Time, which was heavily influenced by Tristan und Isolde. She points out these references in her translation.
Liz Pearse finds that these glimmers of Lydia Davis make the work more relatable. “It’s something that I love about all of the Lydia Davis moments of this piece,” says Liz. “Having read a lot of her short stories, they’re all so very human and very vulnerable in a way that I don’t think the Tristan story by itself is.”
Right and Wrong emerges out of the heaviness of The Wood and the Vine. The Wood and the Vine is likely inspired by Tristan und Isolde and most definitely nods to Ezekiel 15:2. Just like in Evening, Morning, Day, the old and the new converge resulting in the sensation of timelessness.
The track length of Right and Wrong is a third of its predecessor and the tempo picks up. It effectively snaps the listener into the modern era with a dose of biting humor.
Understandably, it’s a track that Quince finds immediately relevant. “We’re all human,” says Liz Pearse. “We’ve all had disagreements about is it going to be this pronunciation of this word or this one? Little silly stupid things that in the moment seem like a big deal and five minutes later we’re out getting ice cream wondering if we really just fought about a vowel shape.”
LONG-DISTANCE & COMMUNICATION: YOU WILL LOVE ME
Performing together as a chamber ensemble is an active decision; it’s a musical commitment requiring active communication. “I think every ensemble has to learn the balance of each person’s communication style,” says Amanda DeBoer Bartlett. “It’s especially tough because we’re a long distance ensemble; 90% of our communication happens through email, calls or texting. In these situations when you’re not in the same room as the person you can’t make eye contact and see their intentions.” The long-distance communication challenges that Quince has been facing for years are those now facing many ensembles in the face of COVID-19.
Quince’s weekly calls are an important part of their working process. “A lot of times something that may have become contentious in a long and dwindling sad email chain is taken care of in 30 seconds,” says Liz Pearse. “Like oh this isn’t an issue at all, Kayleigh’s not mad at me she just had 15 seconds to write that text so it’s not full of emojis.”
Kayleigh Butcher points out that the group is composed of friends. “The fact that we communicate about things that are not business helps. I send the ladies memes all the time on Instagram. So even if something is contentious at first, or even seemingly contentious, I’m sending them memes,” says Kayleigh. “There are so many groups that need to have those online or phone check-ins, even if they're in the same place. It feels normal at this point, maybe it’s because we’ve been doing this for 10+ years.”
Even with meme sending and regular calls, essential work happens in person. Residencies are key. “There’s always a learning process; we’re always trying to be sensitive to each other. When we were in Avaloch learning this piece it was particularly stressful because it’s so much music to learn,” says Amanda. “It’s kind of funny to think about the fact, and I’m only thinking of this now, that we were working on this piece about interpersonal communication while we were so stressed out and having to learn about interpersonal communication with each other. That was 2015, it feels like a lifetime ago.”
A theme throughout love fail as a work is the balance, or lack thereof, of head and heart. Performing the piece requires concentration as it is challenging and it also engages the performers on an emotional level. “Every time I come back to love fail I find something new in it because reason and emotion are trying to find this beautiful balance,” says Liz Pearse. “Sometimes my head is more in it, sometimes my heart is more in it and in both cases it feels satisfying for me to perform.”
For Amanda, singing Break No.3 was impossible to get through alone without crying. She shared this with David Lang and he made the movement a duo. Amanda and Liz sang it together on the album; the lyrics include “If I have to drown, I know, You will drown.” Hearing the interconnectedness of the two voices is more powerful to my ears than one.
Amanda and Liz are linked, if one suffers then the other does too. “I don’t think I ever told Amanda this but I got really emotional singing Break No.3 in the recording sessions knowing how much it affected Amanda, who at that point was 7 months pregnant,” says Liz. “She was bringing a new life into this world and has a partner who loves her so much. If we had to shoulder all of that emotion ourselves, we couldn’t get through it. If we went completely over to say emotion over singing, I’d be a sobbing mess. This is so affecting. I have to keep the head part of remembering that I’m in a performance and still have to sing what’s on the page and keep counting.”
Love songs aren’t on the forefront of many people’s minds at the current moment. So what does an album about love mean in 2020? “I think singing a love song and telling the story of love is an act of faith. You are saying that loving matters, that putting love out and externalizing it matters, and wanting to share that with the world,” says Amanda. “In general singing the piece is an act of faith in some ways. Just witnessing the idea of love in general. Maybe that feels cheesy, but right now that feels meaningful to me.”
The final track Mild, Light opens with a steady soothing electronic-like heartbeat. The quartet enters in unison, indistinguishable. Oh yes I see it, the vowel work certainly paid off. It feels so intimate, personal, and vulnerable. There’s an infusion of hopeful melancholy knowing Quince’s story behind the finished product that adds layers of depth to the music.
“I got pregnant and when it came time for this recording I felt very physically tired and it was emotional for me. We were all really stressed out during the recording session and I was really struggling. The group held me up,” says Amanda. “When I was on maternity leave they continued with the mission of the group even though I couldn’t physically be there. I have faith in this group that if any of us are struggling, we help support them. There’s unconditional love, faith and all of those things in the form of an ensemble.”
Singing with the precision and flexibility of modern chamber musicians, Quince Ensemble is changing the paradigm of contemporary vocal music. Described as "the Anonymous 4 of new music" by Opera News, Quince continually pushes the boundaries of vocal ensemble literature.
As dedicated advocates of new music, Quince regularly commissions new works, providing wider exposure for the music of living composers. They recently launched the Quince New Music Commissioning Fund, a fund to grow the repertoire for women and treble voices. Quince has released four studio albums, Realign the Time, Hushers, Motherland, and David Lang's love fail, all available on iTunes, CD Baby, Spotify, Bandcamp, and Amazon.