British composer Gavin Bryars has been through so many incarnations you’re surprised to learn that there aren’t five of him. Recent pieces he has written for The Crossing are worlds away from the going-everyplace-slowly works such as The Sinking of the Titanic (1969), on which he made his name.
The compact, relentlessly beautiful manner of Bryars’ The Fifth Century, which won a Grammy Award last year for Philadelphia’s choir, The Crossing, is explored with greater, more entrancing intensity in the new A Native Hill. It was premiered by the same team Sunday at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill.
Written for The Crossing as a gift (no commission), the 12-movement, 80-minute piece sets to music a series of excerpts from Wendell Berry’s Thoreau-like essays about Kentucky farm life. The music exists within the contained musical envelope of The Fifth Century, but breaks out in ways that couldn’t be more arresting.
The final movement Sunday was punctuated by a chord built on 24 gently dissonant pitches, creating a sonority unlike anything I’ve heard — something that can only be vaguely compared to what might happen if someone lay down on an organ keyboard.
The expression of that sound simultaneously conveyed exaltation and unresolvable grief, suggesting what the composer experienced this past year with the death of a loved one and birth of a granddaughter while he was writing A Native Hill. The chord is also borderline impossible to sing, but The Crossing under conductor Donald Nally seemed not to break a sweat.
Elsewhere in the piece, the closer you listened, the more it was anything but what it seemed to be. The prose words didn't always fit the musical phrases, sometimes feeling like square pegs in round holes. Majestic music was sometimes given to words that seemed not to have earned that treatment.
At times, Bryars had to climax a movement no matter what the words were or were not saying. Such techniques didn’t amount to any typical musical friction, but constantly made you listen beyond the surface mellifluousness of Bryars’ musical language.
Words that had author Berry talking about himself in the first person had the most straightforward musical settings, almost like a monologue. At other times, the music seemed to grow into multiple narrations with the same words set to different music sung simultaneously, and trading off between foreground and background.
Moments of spiritual revelation fanned out into otherworldly harmonies, often resolving with a compositional sleight-of-hand — always for expression, never for show — that you don’t often hear outside of Sibelius.
Intriguing whistling sounds accompanied the “Animals and Birds” movement. Most enveloping was the 11th movement, titled “Shadow,” that had the voices traveling marvelously far afield from each other and back again.