What unites us to the soul of another?
It’s one of life’s central questions, and it’s the central question of a new recording by Philadelphia-based choir The Crossing.
Born: The Music of Edie Hill and Michael Gilbertson (Navona Records) presents cutting-edge musical works that explore the essence of relationships – the parent-child relationship, a man’s relationship with his best friend, and humanity’s relationship with the natural world – in all their beauty. and their complexity.
Central question of the recording: what binds us to the soul of the other? – appears in the text of the final work of the recording, Michael Gilbertson’s Back, which explores the intense friendship of the biblical David and Jonathan. This question also underlies the opening work of the recording, Gilbertson’s Born, in which the poetic speaker contemplates the mysteries of the relationship while meeting his partner’s mother. And this question confronts us in the central work of the recording, Edie Hill’s Spectral Spiritsa musical meditation on extinct and critically endangered birds.
Donald Nally, artistic director of The Crossing Choir, commissioned Gilbertson Born with his partner, Steven Hyder, in memory of Nally’s mother. In the text of the work, the poem of the same title by Wisława Szymborska, the speaker meets his partner’s mother and ponders the mysteries of the relationship between parent and child – a relationship that is both universal and intimate.
“When I hired Michael, I didn’t know him very well, so we were professional friends. And that’s really what I thought was the smartest choice. Because I knew that if I asked a close friend of mine (to put the poem to music), he would feel this kind of need to write something that would write in me, write in my life. And I was concerned that when you write plays like that, you run the risk of making them less than universal,” Nally said.
The relationship of man to nature is the universal theme of Hill’s Spectral Spirits. Hill based his work on poems from the Holly J. Hughes Poetry Collection Overruns, which focuses on extinct and critically endangered birds. Hill is also inspired by Christopher Cokinos Hope is the thing with feathers for quotes from first-hand accounts of these birds. These quotes come from the writings of Henry David Thoreau, American pioneer Gert Goebel, ethnologist and naturalist Lucinen M. Turner, and Scottish poet and ornithologist Alexander Wilson.
Spectral Spirits unfolds in four sections, each focusing on one of four bird species – the Passenger Pigeon, Carolina Parakeet, Eskimo Curlew and Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Each section takes the form of what Hill describes as a “ceremony.” A solo voice the setting of an eyewitness account of the bird proceeds with a ‘naming’, which intones the Latin and colloquial names of this species, then a polyphonic choral setting of Hughes’s poem on the voyage of the bird species towards near or total extinction.
“For example, (in Hughes’ poem) ‘Passenger Pigeon’, you hear male and female talking together, then it blossoms into the birds darkening the sky, then you just get carried away with the carrier pigeons, and then you get stuck with them when there’s one stuffed into the Smithsonian at the end. And it’s heartbreaking,” Hill said.
farm hill Spectral Spirits with Hughes’ poem “Ivory-Billed Woodpecker”. There is a silver lining in the closing lines of this poem – “perhaps / it’s not too late to save them, to save us all.” But Hill’s musical framework fades into a haunting unresolved dissonance that ends the piece without concluding it.
“That’s a question,” Hill said of the play’s ending, “and it’s up to us (to answer).”
The final work of the recording, Gilbertson’s Back, is a double-chorus setting of a poem by Kai Hoffman-Krull inspired by the friendship between the biblical David and Jonathan. The text explores the nature of this 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 clear pictorial language on the nature of love.
“(Hoffman-Krull) was able to capture aspects of this story in a very universal way, trying to capture the love between two people and talking to each other from a distance,” Gilbertson said.
Born: The Music of Edie Hill and Michael Gilbertson guides listeners to explore their relationships with the creatures around them. It offers history lessons and also warnings for the future. But ultimately, like any good work of art, the recording doesn’t step on our toes. Instead, he opens doors for us and lets us decide whether to go through them or not. And he invites us to think about how we walk with the creatures we meet on our way.
“The question, what binds us to another soul, is not resolved at the end of the play. In fact, the piece becomes wordless at the end,” Nally said. “If you listen to the whole album, you get to the end and it kind of sends you back into your life that way, without words.”