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Kile SMITH (b. 1956)
The Arc in the Sky (2018)
The Crossing / Donald Nally
rec. 2018, The High Point, Saint Peters Church, Great Valley, Malvern, USA
Text included

It was my erstwhile colleague, Bill Kenny who first alerted me to the excellence of Donald Nally’s choir, The Crossing. That was some time ago but it wasn’t until 2017 that I had an opportunity to review one of their discs: their recording of John Luther Adams’ Canticles of the Holy Spirit (review). I wasn’t convinced by Adams’ music but I had no reservations whatsoever about The Crossing, who I described as “amazingly accomplished”. Nally and his colleagues have carved out a significant niche for themselves through the commissioning, performance and recording of a cappella choral works by contemporary composers. Colleagues of mine have reported appreciatively on some of these recordings (review ~ review ).

Here, they record music by the American composer, Kile Smith. It’s not the first time they’ve recorded his music: in particular, they devoted a CD to his 2008 work Vespers which was admired by Robert Hugill (review). The present work, The Arc in the Sky was commissioned by and composed for The Crossing. In it, Smith sets selections from the writings of the American poet, Robert Lax (1915-2000). I wasn’t at all familiar with either the life or work of Lax, but Kile Smith has written a helpful note about him and The Arc in the Sky to accompany this CD. Lax was increasingly drawn to a spiritual and ascetic way of life – he converted to Catholicism in 1943 – and he eventually moved to live in semi-isolation on the Greek islands.

Smith sets nine of Lax’s texts in a work that divides into three sections: ‘Jazz’, ‘Praise’, and ‘Arc’. The poetry is minimalist and I must admit at once that I did not find some of it easy to grasp.

Jazz was an early love of Lax’s, one which he shared with his great friend, Thomas Merton. So, the first three settings in Smith’s work reflect that. In ‘why did they all shout’, with its references (I think) to Louis Armstrong, the composer says he sought to capture “the ecstasy of performers and listeners being carried along together.” I’d say he’s succeeded. The music is a great explosion of energy and I found real zest in both music and performance. The following setting, ‘there are not many songs’ offers a complete contrast. Here, the music is slow, limpid and rather beautiful, featuring close harmonies. The section ends with ‘Cherubim & Palm-Trees’, a poem in which Lax addresses his friend, Jack Kerouac. Much of the music is founded upon lightly dancing rhythms which the singers of The Crossing deliver with great precision. I liked equally the slower-moving calm sections in which a separate quartet of voices is deployed. This piece ends on an extended, exciting crescendo. As the music built I found it hard to discern the words but I strongly suspect this is deliberate on Kile Smith’s part, creating a kind of tumult, for elsewhere in the performance the choir’s diction is excellent.

‘Praise’ opens with ‘I want to write a book of praise’. This is for men’s voices only and the style is deliberately semi-archaic. Passages of chant-like music alternate with harmonised passages, recalling liturgical music of Tudor composers. Smith’s piece is slow and hypnotic. Then the female voices sing ‘The light of the afternoon is on the houses’. Smith describes this as a “swaying waltz”. He should know, but I must say I didn’t spot that. However, there’s no mistaking the delicate, pastel writing for voices. The ladies of The Crossing make a lovely, pure sound. All the voices are united for ‘Psalm’. In Lax’s poem, Smith tells us, “Remembrance and non -remembrance coexist”. He has produced a fine setting, which culminates in an affirmative climax.

The third and final section is entitled ‘Arc’. First comes ‘Jerusalem’, a poem which Kile Smith describes as “almost unbearably moving”. The word ‘Jerusalem’ punctuates the setting repeatedly and everything seems to derive from the natural rhythm inherent in the word. ‘I would stand and watch them’ is, apparently, a poem concerned with observation and innocence. I must admit that, beyond the surface meaning, I didn’t ‘get’ this poem at all. The music is built around canons. The final poem that Kile Smith sets is ‘The Arc’. This is easily the most minimalist of all the chosen texts yet, ironically, it inspires the longest movement and the most expansive music in the whole work. The poem speaks of ‘the arc in the sky’ and ‘the arc of the sea’. In passing, I wonder if Lax had in mind that the French expression for a rainbow is ‘arc-en-ciel’? In this setting Smith uses a double choir. In his own words, he writes in “Broad brush strokes of simple chords”. The result is blocks of ecstatically consonant chords across a wide dynamic range. The music is rich and expansive and, to my ears, is suggestive of the vastness of infinity. This movement is a highly impressive conclusion to The Arc in the Sky.
Kile Smith’s music is accessible and tonal, making it an attractive proposition for listeners. Though it is clearly very demanding of the performers it sounds to me to be extremely well written for voices. The performance by Donald Nally and The Crossing is absolutely superb, reflecting the fact that these 25 singers are professionals and experts in contemporary vocal music. They make a wonderful sound and I enjoyed listening to them very much.

The recording does full justice to the performance. Producer Adrian Peacock and engineer Paul Vazquez have recorded the choir most truthfully. The sound is clear and expertly balanced and the natural resonance of the church where the sessions took place imparts a lovely aura to the sound. The release is well documented, albeit in a tiny font, as seems to be the way nowadays.

This fine recording of an imaginative and accessible contemporary choral work is well worth hearing.

John Quinn

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