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Classical 101

Cutting-edge choir explores data collection and nature in new recording

photograph of the members of The Crossing standing outdoors by a lake in front of a mountain
The Crossing
The Crossing

Digital data collection and humankind’s relationship with our most vital natural resource – water – are the subjects of the most recent recording by the cutting-edge choral ensemble The Crossing.

In Motion Studies (Navona Records), conductor Donald Nally and the Philadelphia-based choir continue their tradition of catalyzing and performing new choral works that confront significant issues facing the world today. Justine F. Chen’s Shallow Breath and Stealth probes the practice and implications of electronic data collection, and Nicholas Cline’s watersheds delves into American attitudes and myths about water, including who has access to it.

In commissioning Chen for a new work for The Crossing, Nally suggested she consider Philadelphia-based poet Jena Osman’s book Motion Studies, as a possible text. The book is a collection of poems, essays, stories and illustrations on the history of data collection and a commentary on the frightening implications of its rampancy in today’s digital world.

Chen and Nally together condensed Motion Studies into a text of manageable singing length and with a harrowing human story at its heart.

“It’s these two people trying to escape this world of data collection, this oppressive world where there’s a chip in everything and we’re led to believe that it’s because it’s so convenient for us,” Nally said.

the cover of the recording 'Motion Studies' by The Crossing, Donald Nally conducting
Navona Records

The sound world of Chen’s score showcases the voice in all its human lyricism and enlists it to mimic electronic sounds. Throughout Shallow Breath and Stealth, the choir musically depicts skimming, the electronic collection of private credit or debit card data, as the singers vocalize a Morse Code-like text of repeated blips of “dit” and “dah.” Human voices thus transform sonically into machines with the power to steal everything there is to know about us.

Moments in the piece highlight the blurred boundary between human and machine. In the fourth movement, “She feels,” the choir whispers skimming sounds beneath a soaring melody set to a text of brimming human sensuality – “she feels … earth / she feels … swallows / she … swallows.”

The seventh and tenth movements, called “Interrogations,” thrust the listener – the victim of the data theft – into the role of the accused. The skimming sounds continue as a solo voice asks, “Are the lights on in this room? Did you ever make a promise that you had no intention of keeping? Did you participate in placing that bomb near the road? Did you ever bring shame upon yourself or your family?”

“This interrogation is the manipulation that can happen in a society in which every person is being observed all the time,” Nally said. “We begin to get into this world of, there’s no such thing as not being watched, even by a friend you might be talking to.”

Skimming sounds and siren-like wails haunt the work’s final movement, “Before it’s too dark.” With the lines “All they had to do was sign on the dotted line and disappear into the sunset … into complete silence” comes a chilling reminder of the privacy and freedoms we sign away with every transaction.

“By now we’re on the edge of our seats, but the questions aren’t answered,” Nally said, “so the story is left to us to figure out. Maybe the message is to figure out in our society what we’re going to do about that.”

Attitudes and myths about water’s role in American society over more than a century form the subject of the second work on The Crossing’s Motion Studies, Nicholas Cline’s watersheds. The work’s texts are selections from writings by Mary Hunter Austin, Paul Bergschneider, Rachel Carson, Charles Dana Wilber and Henry David Thoreau, and from the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1908 decision on Winters v. United States, which established water rights for Native American reservations.

In watersheds’ first movement, “water-witching,” tenor saxophonist Matthew Levy performs an otherworldly saxophone soliloquy on the practice of dowsing for water with sticks and rods.

The choir enters in the second movement, “water borders,” with a startling misapprehension from Mary Hunter Austin’s The Land of Little Rain – “It is the proper destiny of every considerable stream in the west to become an irrigation ditch.”

“That music starts with one line, and it’s like an irrigation ditch that begins to splinter off into all kinds of others,” Nally said.

Another water myth is the basis of the sixth movement, “rain follows the plow.” The movement’s title and text come from Charles Dana Wilber’s The Great Valleys and Prairies of Nebraska and the Northwest (1881), which asserts that agriculture causes rain to fall.

Amid the false impressions are movements that return to our deeply ingrained human appreciation of water’s beauty and to water’s existential and spiritual truths. Cline’s score taps a contemplative vein in the second movement, “the lace-like fabric of streams.” There the voices of the choir hover in time like water rolling in a streambed.

“We look at water. We go to a lake, and we stand there and stare. We go to the ocean, and we stand there and stare. We find this place in ourselves that we sometimes can’t find in other circumstances. And there’s a thing there that John Muir and Nick are attempting – and I think successfully – to capture,” Nally said.

The text of the fourth movement, “to encourage the habits of industry,” is taken from the Supreme Court’s decision for Winters v. United States, the so-called Winters Doctrine. The idea that access to water, an absolute necessity for human existence, had to be established through legal mechanisms runs like a subterranean river beneath Cline’s pointillistic vocal scoring.

In the final movement of Cline’s watersheds, “the gentle rain which waters,” a passage from Thoreau’s Walden re-establishes humankind’s connection with water at the cellular level – “If (the rain) should cause the seeds to rot in the ground,” Thoreau writes, “it would still be good for the grass / being good for the grass it would be good for me.”

Musical colors shift in Cline’s score as a prism might refract the light of the slowly setting sun, making time seem timeless even as it passes.

The reminder that rains and rivers live inside of us may offer reassurance in a world of ever more invasive technology.

“It really reminds you of the calmness that water can give us,” Nally said. “It really reminds you of the calmness that rain can bring us at times, where just sitting inside and listening to rain fall is so incredible.”

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Classical 101 choral works
Jennifer Hambrick unites her extensive backgrounds in the arts and media and her deep roots in Columbus to bring inspiring music to central Ohio as Classical 101’s midday host. Jennifer performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago before earning a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.