A new recording by The Crossing choir explores relationships
What knits us to the soul of another?
It’s one of the central questions of life, and it is the central question of a new recording by the Philadelphia-based The Crossing choir.
Born: The Music of Edie Hill and Michael Gilbertson (Navona Records) features cutting-edge musical works that explore the essence of relationships – the parent-child relationship, a man’s relationship with his best friend and humankind’s relationship with the natural world – in all their beauty and complexity.
The recording’s central question – what knits us to the soul of another? – appears in the text of the recording’s final work, Michael Gilbertson’s Returning, which explores the intense friendship of the biblical David and Jonathan. That question also underpins the recording’s opening work, Gilbertson’s Born, in which the poetic speaker contemplates the mysteries of relationship on meeting his/her partner’s mother. And that question confronts us in the recording’s central work, Edie Hill’s Spectral Spirits, a musical meditation on extinct and critically endangered birds.
Donald Nally, artistic director of The Crossing choir, commissioned Gilbertson’s Born with his partner, Steven Hyder, in memory of Nally’s mother. In the work’s text, Wisława Szymborska’s poem of the same title, the speaker meets his/her partner’s mother and ponders the mysteries of the relationship between parent and child – a relationship at once universal and intimate.
“At the time I commissioned Michael, I didn’t know him that well, so we were professional friends. And that’s really what I thought would be the wisest choice. Because I knew that if I asked one of my close friends (to set the poem to music), they would feel this kind of need to write something that wrote into me, wrote into my life. And I feared that, when you write pieces like that, you run the risk of making them less than universal,” Nally said.
Humankind’s relationship to nature is the universal theme of Hill’s Spectral Spirits. Hill based her work on poems from Holly J. Hughes’ poetry collection Passings, which focuses on extinct and critically endangered birds. Hill also draws upon Christopher Cokinos’ Hope is the Thing with Feathers for quotations from first-hand accounts of these birds. Those quotations come from writings by Henry David Thoreau, the American frontiersman Gert Goebel, the ethnologist and naturalist Lucinen M. Turner and the Scottish poet and ornithologist Alexander Wilson.
Spectral Spirits unfolds in four sections, each focusing on one of four species of bird – the Passenger Pigeon, the Carolina Parakeet, the Eskimo Curlew and the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker. Each section takes the form of what Hill describes as a “ceremony.” A solo-voice setting of an eyewitness account of the bird proceeds to a “Naming,” which intones the Latin and colloquial names for that species, then to a polyphonic choral setting of Hughes’ poem about the species’ journey to near or total extinction.
“For instance, (in Hughes’ poem) ‘Passenger Pigeon,’ you hear about male and female together, and then it blossoms out into the birds darkening the skies, and then you’re just swept away with the passenger pigeons, and then you’re taken down with them when there’s one stuffed in the Smithsonian at the end. And it’s heartbreaking,” Hill said.
Hill closes Spectral Spirits with Hughes’ poem “Ivory-Billed Woodpecker.” There is a glimmer of hope in the final lines of that poem – “perhaps / it’s not too late to save them, to save us all.” But Hill’s musical setting fades away in a haunting unresolved dissonance that ends the piece without concluding it.
“It’s a question,” Hill said of the ending of the piece, “and it’s up to us (to answer it).”
The final work on the recording, Gilbertson’s Returning, is a double-choir setting of a poem by Kai Hoffman-Krull inspired by the friendship between the biblical David and Jonathan. The text explores the nature of that friendship in the voices of Jonathan as he prepares for battle, of David after Jonathan’s death and of an omniscient third speaker, who reflects in limpid imagistic language on the nature of love.
“(Hoffman-Krull) was able to capture aspects of this story in a way that was very universal, in terms of trying to capture love between two people and spoken to each other at a distance,” Gilbertson said.
Born: The Music of Edie Hill and Michael Gilbertson guides listeners to explore how they relate to the creatures around them. It offers history lessons and also warnings for the future. But ultimately, like any good piece of art, the recording doesn’t step on our toes. Instead, it opens doors for us and lets us decide whether or not to walk through them. And it invites us to consider how we walk with the creatures we encounter on our path.
“The question, what knits us to another soul, isn’t answered at the end of the piece. In fact, the piece becomes wordless at the end,” Nally said. “If you listen to the whole album, you get to the end of it and it kind of sends you back out into your life this way, without words.”