This summer, grass and flowers seemed to grow faster than ever. Maybe it’s the rains and humidity, or the thunderstorms bringing extra nitrogen. In the performing arts, there have also been surprising infusions, none more fulsome in these unusual expanding and contracting days than Donald Nally and The Crossing.
A busy choir
Beginning in March, the group began posting a series of morning meditations that became “60 chapters from a spring of isolation.” Titled “Rising w/ The Crossing,” these are archived on the Crossing website. In May, the group released its latest album, Carthage (featuring works by James Primosch). And heading into fall equinox, it’s offering the “Equinox Lope,” weekly concert rebroadcasts (originally heard on Temple’s WRTI-FM) that remain online for one week.
This might seem like a full artistic slate, but not for The Crossing. The busy choir bookended last month with two more offerings, video projects by frequent collaborators. August 1 brought the premiere of David Lang’s In Nature, and August 31 was the debut of One Day I Saw, an animated film by Brett Snodgrass inspired by Michael Gordon’s Anonymous Man. Both projects were conceived and conducted by the indefatigable Nally, The Crossing’s artistic director.
A river runs behind it
In Nature is a co-presentation with the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center in Big Sky, Montana, where The Crossing normally has a summer residency. The video features 20 of the ensemble’s singers recorded one at a time at Philadelphia’s Crane Arts Icebox Project Space. The filmed musicians were then combined in real time with onstage performances (2,100 miles away) of four socially distanced sopranos from Roots in the Sky, a Montana chamber group conducted by Andrew Major.
The 30-minute presentation opens with brief remarks about the work’s genesis. When Nally began conversations with Lang about using one of his compositions in a new format, he shared footage of Montana’s Gallatin River, an area of special import to the ensemble. Lang decided to write a new work, music and text, specific to that place. His piece, with the filmed river hypnotically running in the background, is built on a series of interwoven two-phrase sentences that all begin with “when I am in nature” and finish with a feeling. Moving mesmerically through chordal progressions, with words in filigree above the harmonies, Lang has built an emotion-filled lyrical litany.
The longing to be in nature
All singers are dressed simply in outdoor garb: muted green Henley shirts that both contextualize and amplify the longing to be in nature. Jettisoning the now-ubiquitous montage of singing heads, the excellent video editing meshes close-ups of each Crossing member with the four onstage singers, accentuating the evocation of distance and longing.
The most interesting visual juxtaposition in this beautiful work is the shadowy quality of the film itself. The Crossing clearly misses its summer connection with Big Sky, and though the text is filled with paeans to the joys of being in nature, the subdued visual and the incantatory music underscore the lamentation for what these singers—and thus we—are missing during this time. Lang says that “many of us at this moment are very far away from nature. The distance between being there and not being there underlies everything I have tried to do with this piece.” He succeeded.
Haunting and uplifting
Scored for 24 unaccompanied voices, One Day I Saw by Snodgrass (designer and longtime Crossing collaborator) is a short but moving animated film—a darkly faceted jewel—visually scoring one section of Michael Gordon’s nine-movement work Anonymous Man (2018).
Musically, this is another incantatory work. But it’s sacred music, really: a requiem for Larry, a New York City man who made his home in a downtown Tribeca doorway. The composer’s neighborhood, it’s now gentrified, but originally it was filled with industrial warehouses where homeless people often found refuge.
Gordon writes for The Crossing’s women and men in two massed choirs, reminiscent of chanting monks, with melodies that sometimes alternate, sometimes fuse. Snodgrass has perfectly illustrated—amplified, really—the movement’s sad and elegiac quality in a film that both haunts and uplifts.
As cars and bikes speed past and people walk by, Larry is there, sitting or sleeping. Some people stop; most don’t. As days pass, the man gradually fades away. But his transparent shade floats, disappearing and reappearing, and as the film alternately darkens and lightens, memorials and tributes appear in the empty doorway.
Recorded with great care (at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York), this video is short enough (just under eight minutes) and worthy enough to watch twice. See it once for the beautiful fusion of the music and its text that scrolls below, and then view it again for the limpid beauty of the filmmaker’s quasi-magical images.
What, When, Where
The Crossing. Two video performances conceived and conducted by Donald Nally: In Nature, music by David Lang, premiered August 1, 2020; and One Day I Saw, music by Michael Gordon, film by Brett A. Snodgrass, premiered August 31, 2020. crossingchoir.org