I’ve been listening to another new CD release by American choir The Crossing and their conductor Donald Nally. It’s called Words Adorned and contains two cycles by contemporary Arab-American composers setting really beautiful 11th century Andalusian texts.
The first piece is by Kareem Roustom. It’s titled Embroidered Verses; Songs on Andalusian Poetry. The 24 voice choir is accompanied by the Al-Bustan Takht Ensemble (Hanna Khoury violin and music director, Wassim Odeh oud, Hicham Chami qanun, Kinan Abou-afach cello andHafez Kotain percussion). The composition blends western and Arabic influences so there are complex harmonies, long meandering vocal lines and quarter tones combining to make something really very interesting. The texts too are varied ranging from a boisterous drinking song to evocative nature poetry and a slightly sinister challenge to war. I really enjoyed it.
Rachel Krehm and co’s latest project Threepenny Submarine is now live on the Opera 5 Youtube channel. It’s a collaboration between Opera 5 and Gazelle Automations and features two (puppet) singers on a quest in a submarine. It stars Caitlin Wood as a Rossini singing cockatiel with a tidiness fetish, which doesn’t seem terribly like Cait (at least the tidiness thing. Of course she can sing Rossini), and Rachel Krehm as a messy Wagnerian vixen, which sounds about right. It’s designed for kids but it’s quite funny and very cute and should work for kids of all ages.
Also on the tubes, The Crossing have produced an animated watercolour video of one of the tracks from their recent recording of Gavin Bryars’ A Native Hill.
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 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.
I’m never quite sure that unaccompanied choral music is quite my thing but The Crossing’s new recording of music by James Primosch caught my eye. It was the idea of the title track; Carthage, on prose by Marilynne Robinson from her novel Housekeeping, which employs the devastated city of Carthage as a metaphor for desire and imagination that drew me in. The image of once-fertile fields, salted and wasted, has haunted my imagination for decades and I wanted to see how it might play out in musical terms. I wasn’t disappointed.