The Tower and the Garden

The Crossing must be one of North America’s most interesting and accomplished choirs.  They specialise in difficult contemporary music that is a million miles away from most of the new music that is being composed for the (lucrative) amateur choir market.  Their latest CD; The Tower and the Garden, is due for release on the Navona label on February 12th.  I really like it.

There are three pieces on the disk.  The first is an a cappella setting of Walt Whitman’s A Child Said, What is the Grass? by Tolvo Tuley.  It’s worth reading the text in advance because this piece builds up in layers like renaissance polyphony or, perhaps more aptly, a piece by John Tavener.  There are certainly echoes of the Greek Orthodox tradition here but only echoes.  What really strikes is that the tension that keeps building and really doesn’t resolve.  It’s as uncomfortable and enigmatic as Whitman’s answer to the child’s question; “the beautiful uncut hair of graves”. Throughout the choir display an astonishing control of textures and dynamics.

The second piece is a meditation on technological hubris and the need for refuge.  It’s The Tower and the Garden by Gregory Spears; scored for choir and string quartet.  It’s in four movements.  The first; 80, sets a text by Trappist monk Thomas Merton.  This is more directly text driven than the earlier piece and meditative in mood.  Merton compares the sleep of the disciples in Gethsemane to society’s indifference to the destruction of the natural world by dangerous new technologies and war.  Following it, In the Land of Shinar by Denise Levertov feels more urgent and relentless.  The Tower of Babel is a metaphor for how technology becomes self serving and destructive.  Then Dungeness Documentary, by Keith Garebian,  riffs off Derek Jarman’s last days in his garden between Dungeness nuclear power station and the sea.  Is there ever a refuge; even at the end of all things?  “Barbed wire around your garden cannot keep melancholy at bay” claims the poet.  Finally we return to the text of the first movement but in a more expansive, darker and more brooding way.  How do we reclaim language and communication for human and humanistic purposes rather than for technology, propaganda, power and profit?  That’s a question I guess many of us have been asking these last few days.  The blending of voice and strings really does seem both to interrogate the questions and hint at answers and it’s all brilliantly executed

The final piece didn’t work so well for me.  It’s I enter the earth by Joel Puckett.  The concept is interesting.  The text is taken from Marguerite Anne Biesele’s PhD dissertation “Folklore and ritual of !Kung hunter gatherers” and sets an English translation of a story relating singing to “entering the earth” to be with he gods. I like the idea but I just couldn’t make the connection between the text and the music here.

The recording is very well done though I couldn’t see details of where or when.  I listened to uncompressed 44.1kHz, 16 bit .WAV files which is probably what you get on physical CD.  Navona make full texts and notes available online and I have no idea what comes with the physical disk.

Definitely worth a listen if you are into contemporary choral music.

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