Gavin Bryars’ A Native Hill is a setting of sections from Wendell Berry’s 1968 essay of that title. It was written for, and recorded by, Philadelphia based choir The Crossing and their conductor Donald Nally. The essay was written by Berry shortly after moving back to Kentucky to farm. It deals mainly with how landscapes and the humans in them are shaped by each other in profound ways. It’s very local and specific and reminded me in a curious sort of way of WG Hoskins’ The Making of the English Landscape that came out a few years before the Berry essay.
The text is set in a fairly linear way. The music takes full advantage of The Crossing’s ability o split into different numbers of groups of voices as required going to an extreme in the final movement “At Peace” where all twenty four singers are given different notes to create a dense chromatic cluster and there’s more use of keyboards here than elsewhere. Mostly the music is fairly meditative and largely tonal. Chromaticism and the keyboards are used sparingly and only in a couple of movements is a solo voice singled out to carry the main burden of the text. In the tenth movement, “Animals and Birds”, some members of the choir whistle or hum which creates an interesting effect. It’s really a very accomplished piece of music performed with precision.
The recording was made in October 2019 at St. Peter’s Church on the Hill, Malvern PA. It’s very clear and spacious with just enough “churchiness” to avoid sounding dry. I listened to 96kHz 24bit .wav files which were predictably good. I’m not sure what formats will be available on the digital release on April 9th as Navona seem to release through streaming services. The physical release date is June 11th. All in all, another interesting release of contemporary vocal music from Navona.