Catalogue no: NV6347
Physical release date: June 25 2021
A Native Hill
Music by Gavin Bryars
Words by Wendell Berry
Composed as a gift for The Crossing; dedicated to Cassia Bryars-Rockey; in memoriam Julian Rockey
First performance of movements 1-5: 14 December 2018; The Crossing, Donald Nally, conductor; Church of the Holy Trinity, Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia PA
First complete performance: 13 October 2019; The Crossing, Donald Nally, conductor; The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill,Philadelphia PA
Following the success of our previous collaboration, I composed a substantial new a cappella work for The Crossing as a gift to the choir. It draws on our close working relationship and the personal friendships that have developed between us as well as my intimate knowledge of the singers’ individual characteristics, and there are solo parts written specifically for particular voices.
The piece is in twelve sections, setting extracts from the American writer Wendell Berry’s 1968 essay “A Native Hill.” Although at first appearance pastoral, Berry’s descriptions of the minutiae of his rural existence have a profound metaphysical and even political force. He has been called, a little simplistically perhaps, a modern-day Thoreau, although here his visionary prose has something of the mysticism of the text for my previous work with The Crossing when I set Thomas Traherne.
Quite coincidentally, I finished the piece on August 29th, the day my granddaughter Cassia was born, and I had worked on it, on and off, for nine months – the whole period of my daughter Orlanda’s pregnancy; and Cassia’s father, Orlanda’s partner Julian, had died suddenly half way through.
Completing the work in Canada throughout the summer was an intense experience: I had Orlanda’s situation always in mind ever since I left England in mid-June. In addition, I worked on the piece with a care and scrutiny beyond anything I have done before. Generally I compose very quickly, though usually after a period of reflection and study, often around questions of text while being mindful of the need to deliver. But here I did not set myself a specific deadline, and the result of this was that the energy I would normally have put into the speed of writing was diverted into detail and concentration.
This had already shown itself in the fourth section, The Pool, where the tenor solo voice is accompanied by complex textures involving extreme, though very quiet, harmonic colouring by groups of solo voices. My knowledge of the choir’s ability to rise to these challenges also encouraged me to experiment with background humming and whistling by pairs of solo voices in the tenth section, Animals and Birds. And I decided to open the last part, At Peace, with all 24 voices having completely independent and unconnected notes to make a chromatic cluster out of which cleaner harmonies could come into focus and melodic movement could be revealed. This dense covering reappears to a greater and lesser extent throughout the movement, with its eventual evaporation allowing the sense of being at peace to emerge. But, at the same time, there are also many moments of simple, church-like music. And this combination of the apparently traditional and deceptive complex comes about through a close reading of the text and reflects a deep respect for Wendell Berry’s beautiful prose.
Gavin Bryars, 14 September 2019, Biarritz, France
2 The Path
3 Sea Level
4 The Pool
5 The Road
6 The Music of Streams
8 Top Soil
9 The Hill
10 Animals and Birds
12 At Peace