"At choral concerts, we expect to be soothed."
So said composer David Lang at a concert where his music promised nothing of the kind. This Pulitzer Prize winner was discussing his choral work National Anthems, an amalgam of the bloodier words in national anthems from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.
At this first stop in what The Crossing's director Donald Nally calls "The National Anthem Tour" – concluding on Monday at the choir's headquarters, Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill – listeners were left to draw their own conclusions about the dark heart of humanity. The performance Friday at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton included new works by Ted Hearne and Caroline Shaw with words quoting from the 2013 Steubenville rape trial, as well as displaced-persons statistics from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.
How are such social issues dramatized in music? Typical polarities of major and minor keys won't do with these 21st-century composers. The starting points were texts that are long, dense, and earnestly compiled. Simultaneous musical events came and went in counterpoint to one another. The open-ended possibilities suggested these works were updated urban madrigals, maybe not with a traditional narrative but with a definite dramatic trajectory.
Also a Pulitzer winner, Shaw is a working singer as well as a composer, which was evident in how her seven-movement To the Hands fearlessly seized upon the words, continuity be damned, with intimate knowledge of how far voices could be stretched. The piece often bounced between chords exuding certainty and more abstract music that address how America constantly revises refugee policies – seconded by the accompanying International Contemporary Ensemble with breathy violin harmonics and piercing pizzicato plucking. The Statue of Liberty, that icon that has welcomed refugees in the past, is referred to somewhat obliquely, with the words "I will hold you" set with highly splintered choral rhetoric.
Written three years ago, Hearne's Consent addresses rape issues with a relevance that escalates every week. Texts get to the heart of the creepy power dynamics in the rapist mentality, but most effectively, seem to characterize the jumble of conflicting feelings that come with intimate violation. At some points, the music had a barely controlled welter of conflicting shouts, not just conveying what this kind of anguish feels like, but what it can sound like inside your head.
Lang's five-movement National Anthems, one of the more substantial works he has written lately, has the manner of choral declamation that's familiar from his widely heard Little Match Girl Passion. But within that hesitant speech-song approach lay great variety, whether the words were about battling for land or freeing slaves. In a particularly charged moment near the end, voices careened around a single, stationary note from a violin. The ending came with a massive release of tension as the music resolved into the final line, "May the rains come."
Are these great pieces? Even in these typically exemplary performances by The Crossing, it's best not to ask. The pieces speak to current times with a powerful directness that few do. That's what matters at the moment.