ALBUM REVIEW: David Lang’s the national anthems

by Maggie Molloy

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As we near another anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, we’re reminded of just how terrifyingly destructive and divisive those events were, both within our country and beyond it. Nearly 3,000 innocent civilians died that day—along with another 6,000 who were injured—and that was only the beginning of what was to come.

The attacks led our nation’s troops into what has become the longest-running war in U.S. history. Since 9/11, nearly 2 million U.S. soldiers have been deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq. Over 6,000 American troops have been killed, another 44,000 wounded, and the rest of our nation’s lives forever changed in the legislation that has followed.

Nineteen hijackers changed our nation, our world, and the entire course of history.

It begs the question: Why?

Why are the nations of the world so divided? Why do we keep terrorizing one another? Why do we keep fighting these wars? Are we really all that different?

These are some of the questions composer David Lang asks with his composition “the national anthems” (note the lowercase, implying equality), a choral work released earlier this summer on Cantaloupe Music. Performed by the Los Angeles Master Chorale (under the baton of Grant Gershon) with the Calder String Quartet, the album takes a critical look at the way we as individual nations define ourselves.

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Los Angeles Master Chorale under the baton of Grant Gershon. Photo credit: David Johnston

“I had the idea that if I looked carefully at every national anthem I might be able to identify something that everyone in the world could agree on,” Lang said. “If I could take just one hopeful sentence from the national anthem of every nation in the world I might be able to make a kind of meta-anthem of the things that we all share. “

He combed through the anthems of all 193 countries in the United Nation, pulling one line from each to use in his libretto.

“What I found, to my shock and surprise,” Lang said, “Was that within almost every anthem is a bloody, war-like, tragic core, in which we cover up our deep fears of losing our freedoms with waves of aggression and bravado.”

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David Lang. Photo Credit: Peter Serling

That underlying sense of fear haunts the entire work, with the choir’s prayerful voices rising above a stained glass string accompaniment. The piece is organized into five movements exploring themes of peace, courage, glory, freedom, and community, ever so slowly sprawling outward from the first movement’s unified, tight-knit harmonies toward contrapuntal chaos.

The piece builds in quiet urgency through the war-stained patriotic glory of the middle movements, the once-unified voices separating as the wounded strings weep softly in the distance. And yet, the final movement returns to a churchlike hymn, the voices once again finding unity in their hopes, their prayers, and their music.

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Calder Quartet. Photo Credit: Autumn de Wilde

The anthem is paired with another largescale choral work: Lang’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “the little match girl passion,” based on the children’s story of The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen. It’s a classic parable given new depth through Lang’s masterful part-writing: a poor young girl, beaten by her father, fails to sell matches on the street and freezes from the bitter cold of the cruel world around her. Yet in wake of “the national anthems,” her story serves a dual purpose, reminding us of the personal wars and private tragedies we all face—and how truly delicate and cherished is our freedom.

“Hiding in every national anthem is the recognition that we are insecure about our freedoms, that freedom is fragile, and delicate, and easy to lose,” Lang said. “Maybe an anthem is a memory informing a kind of prayer, a heartfelt plea: There was a time when we were forced to live in chains. Please don’t make us live in chains again.

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